Reading from screens hurts comprehension, research finds

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Reading from screens has become increasingly prevalent in education, but there continues to be debate over whether that is desirable. As the latest rebuttal to the promotion of electronic text, a meta-analysis published this year found reading from a screen negatively affects reading performance compared to reading from paper.

However, higher education and K-12 alike continue to invest in e-textbooks and other digital materials.

“I want all students to be able to learn from digital textbooks,” President Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union address.

Now, more than half of K-12 teachers have a one-to-one student-to-device ratio in their classrooms, according to the edtech company Freckle, and nearly 75 percent of college students own tablets or laptops, according to Harris Pole.

Given the increased popularity of personal devices and, subsequently, more frequent reading from screens, numerous studies have been conducted comparing reading from paper and electronic sources. In an effort to consolidate the findings from the last decade, researchers at the University of North Dakota systematically reviewed 33 studies comparing the two reading mediums.

Based on the researchers’ findings, there is a small but statistically significant benefit in reading comprehension when reading from paper compared to screens.

The time it takes to read one text on a screen compared to on paper, however, was found to have no reliable difference, suggesting readers perform better with paper, given the similar amounts of processing and effort that appear to be involved when reading from both mediums.

However, the research highlights some benefits to digital reading. Electronic books are, for example, typically more cost-effective for consumers than paper books, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Additionally, digital text is easier and cheaper to distribute and can be easily accessed from various devices, including e-readers, computers and smartphones, and a single device can hold multiple books or materials, making them easier to transport than their paper counterparts.

Although some students still prefer reading from paper, according to the International Journal of Culture and History, schools continue to invest in e-textbooks as cost-effective, efficient tools.

Ultimately, the analysis points out that, although the last decade of research on reading text from screens shows a benefit of paper, as individuals gain experience with digital mediums, a preference for screens over paper could emerge.

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