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Going digital (part 1) : Digital versus paper reading – where and how do we understand best?

Digital books and reading experiences are everywhere: we read the news on our laptops, articles on tablets, and Twitter on our phones. But how does this kind of reading compare to reading “the old-fashioned way,” in paper books and newspapers? More specifically for parents, do children get all the same meaning from reading text on a screen that they would if they were to read the same text on paper?

In 2017, Lauren Singer and Patricia Alexander analyzed studies on digital reading comprehension from the past 25 years. The conclusion of their analysis was that there is much still to learn based on, among other things, what kind of reading is being done (i.e., quick texts or long articles), what the reader needs to take from the text (i.e., the gist, or specific evidence for a scholarly paper), and what kind of device is used to read (i.e., phone or Kindle or laptop). But they also highlighted different circumstances where science confirms that the medium for reading seems to make a difference:

  • Print appears to be the more effective way to read when reading longer texts, or when people are reading for depth of understanding rather than just a quick take-away.
  • There appears to be no difference in comprehension for young children (5- or 6-years old) when reading simple text in print or in a digital format.
  • Older students (including high schoolers) read complex text more quickly when it’s in a digital format, but they process the text in a more “shallow” way (than they do when reading in print).

For Singer and Alexander, this topic is particularly important now that more high-stakes tests are moving to digital. When taking these assessments, students are asked to answer questions that demand reading deeply and thinking critically about complex text — and there is much riding on the outcomes. As we move towards an ever-more-digital future, we need additional studies on the effects on comprehension for paper versus digital reading.

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