In this post, the second in a series of three that survey literature on online reading, Rachel Bartley (UCL) addresses the issue of print vs. digital reading. You can read the first part of the literature review here.

Digital devices’ place at the centre of academic research and students’ academic engagement is now largely accepted, their use and versatility well-proven by their role in salvaging academic teaching and research during the chaos of lockdowns and university closures. Whilst digital devices were firmly embedded in students’ reading practices before, their almost sole provision of access to reading materials during lockdowns contributed to a further evolution of their relationship to student reading and academic engagement. Librarians now spend much of their budget on e-books and many students prefer the ease of access, lower cost, and portability of their devices for course-related reading (Cull, 2011). The revolutionary impact of online digital text is one we are only beginning to understand but its significance is indicated by cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf (2008) who suggested that we are experiencing a revolutionary shift from the age of the ‘reading brain’ to the ‘digital brain’. With further research into the differences between digital and print reading, there is increasing concern that digital reading runs the risk of encouraging an alternative, even inferior, type of reading. This post surveys the current literature and research on the comparative differences of digital and print reading, their affordances, effects, and potential implications.

In response to the growing dominance of digital reading over paper reading, much research has been dedicated to understanding the potential effects of digital technologies on educational practices and goals. In direct comparisons of digital and print reading, it has become clear that digital reading corresponds to inferior reading performance/outcomes across a number of measures. A meta-analysis of research comparing digital and print reading conducted in 2018 revealed a significant advantage of paper-based reading over digital-based reading, with lower reading comprehension outcomes for digital texts compared to printed texts, corroborating and extending previous research (Delgado et al., 2018). Results showed that not only did readers of digital texts show inferior comprehension to their print-reading peers, but they were also less efficient and less aware of their performance when reading. Additionally, the meta-analysis revealed that the inferiority of screen reading was even more prominent in the case of informational texts and when readers were given a limited timeframe in which to read. These findings suggest that digital environments may not always be best suited to fostering deep comprehension and learning (termed ‘screen inferiority’ in the literature). The implications of these findings cannot be ignored when considering educational and political decisions regarding learning and assessment media.

The authors of the meta-analysis also noted that the publication date of the studies reviewed indicated an increasing ‘paper advantage’ in recent years. This finding undermines the theory that screen inferiority is related to users’ lack of familiarity or experience with technology, and instead reveals that screen inferiority in fact increases with readers’ exposure to technology. This suggests that screen inferiority will not disappear, but rather will continue to represent a major challenge across age groups and may become more severe as the digital presence increases.

Researchers have contended that increases in screen inferiority may be due to our increased association of our digital devices with leisure, speed, and distraction. Delgado et al. (2018) suggest that as technology becomes more integrated into our lives it may provoke inattention. The Shallowing Hypothesis suggests that ‘because the use of most digital media consists of quick interactions driven by immediate rewards (e.g. number of “likes” of a post), readers using digital devices may find it difficult to engage in challenging tasks, such as reading comprehension, requiring sustained attention’ (Delgado et al., 2018). According to this perspective, the more that students use digital devices for shallow interactions, the less they will be able to use them for challenging tasks requiring serious concentration and application. In this way, a digital medium may actually represent a contextual cue to process text in a superficial way that is associated with leisure, speed, and multi-tasking.

As well as a contextual association, Cull has also argued that the process of reading on screen tends to be cognitively different from the process of reading on paper in terms of brain activation, the contextual environment, cognitive focus, comprehension, and reading speed. Research has shown that reading online is a more ‘cognitively complex’ activity than reading in print due to features such as hyperlinking which require the reader to make more mental decisions and thus requires the use of more ‘cerebral real estate’ (Cull, 2011). Furthermore, when working with digital information, people are more inclined to multi-task, switching activities an average of every three to ten minutes. Multi-tasking poses additional dangers to reading comprehension as it not only precludes the potential for deep engagement, it also takes longer overall, and research has found that knowledge gained in such dual-task situations can be applied less flexibility.

Alongside screen reading’s inferiority, research has also pointed to some benefits offered by the materiality of paper and print texts that may further contribute to the print advantage. Linguist Naomi Baron (2021) highlights the importance of external factors such as the physical properties of print, in particular its layout, which aids readers in remembering what they read and where it was located in the text (or on the page). Research found that readers using print were better able to locate where in the text an event took place and to reconstruct the plot sequence, leading to the conclusion that the kinaesthetic information gained from moving through a book contributes to readers’ understanding and memory. In contrast, it is likely that digital navigation tools such as search, scrolling, and hyperlinks all make it more difficult to construct a cognitive map and thus discourage the ‘spatial textual wayfaring’ that contributes to the print advantage.

Despite clear evidence of a print advantage, it is unrealistic to reject digital reading and its many uses in education. Digital texts and the continued digitization of resources promise accessibility of information for students that is essential for their learning and independent research. Educational researchers have therefore been moving towards generating a better understanding of the different affordances and constraints of reading technologies, articulating an approach to reading media that involves selecting and using the chosen medium consciously and in accordance with its design and intended purpose.

Baron contends that digital formats encourage us to use books rather than read them owing to their quick access and search tools (Baron, 2021). Typical screen-based behaviours involve browsing and scanning, directly at odds with deeper, contemplative reading. This phenomenon is termed hyper reading by communications scholar James Sosnoski and encompasses filtering through search engine results as a reading practice and trespassing on digital texts by copying, pasting, and remixing written content to skimming and pecking to locate keywords and concepts actively (Sosnoski, 1999). Whilst these practices are not conducive to immersive, reflective reading, they represent crucial tools for academic study.

Academic reading, even on paper, is typically discontinuous and scholarly books and articles are rarely read from beginning to end, with selective reading anticipated in their writing and design. Sosnoski believes that hyper-reading could productively augment print reading, encouraging a more diverse set of reading practices. Cohn argues that in order to sustain our ability to read, and read well, in a variety of spaces, we must be competent in using both digital and print media, viewing digital reading as another cognitive reading strategy that can coexist with reading on paper.

Whilst the first step in navigating digital reading is recognising when to choose digital or print, it is also crucial that students are armed with effective digital reading strategies to optimise the quality of their on-screen reading. Delgado et al. (2018) highlight that several experiments have shown that students can improve their digital reading performance when primed with study strategies. Lauterman and Ackerman (2014) demonstrated that techniques such as practice tests or asking students to generate keywords can reduce screen inferiority. Kaufman and Flanagan (2016) found that by priming study participants with a task involving abstract thinking, performance when reading digitally improved on abstract questions. Some of the key strategies and models that could specifically help to both reduce the effects of screen inferiority and optimise reading comprehension will be explored in more detail in upcoming posts. However, Baron also recommends that we can also draw on print reading best practice: setting reading goals, eschewing multitasking, reading slowly enough to think about the text, and doing written annotations.

Whilst digital reading strategies and pedagogies can mitigate screen inferiority, the continued print advantage and issues with digital media present some questions about our relationships with digital devices more broadly. Cull (2011) highlights that access to digital devices is redefining our relationship and access to knowledge, generating an illusion of knowledge and blurring the lines between information access and information acquisition, questioning the appropriate balance of ‘knowledge on demand’ and ‘knowledge you hold in your head’. As media that can deincentivise learning and knowledge acquisition, digital devices hold an inherently problematic place in our education systems. As research draws attention to the importance of our relationships to these devices, priming us for distracted and superficial engagement, it is unclear whether we could, or should, rework our own digital practices more generally and consciously to initiate alternative and deeper reading practices and pedagogies.


Works Cited

Baron, N., 2021. Know what? How digital technologies undermine learning and remembering. Journal of Pragmatics, 175, 7-37.

Cohn, J., 2021. Skim, Dive, Surface: Teaching Digital Reading. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

Cull, B., 2011. Reading revolutions: Online digital text and implications for reading in academe. First Monday, 16.6

Delgado, P., Vargas, C., Ackerman, R. and Salmerón, L., 2018. Don’t throw away your printed books: A meta-analysis on the effects of reading media on reading comprehension. Educational Research Review, 25, 23-38.

Kaufman, G. and Flanagan, M. (2016). High-low split: Divergent cognitive construal levels triggered by digital and non-digital platforms. Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2773-2777.

Lauterman, T., & Ackerman, R. (2014) Overcoming screen inferiority in learning and calibration. Computers in Human Behavior, 35, 455–463.

Sosnoski, James S. (1999) Hyper‐Readers and Their Reading Engines in Hawisher, G. E., and Selfe, C. L. eds., Passions, Politics, and 21st Century Technologies, 161‐177. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press.

Wolf, M. (2008) Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York: Harper Perennial.

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