Reading is something that we regularly do both on paper and on a screen. But the two are not equal in terms of how we process a text. A new study out of Spain claims that text on paper engages the reader much more than digital texts.
The authors of this work, published in the Review of Educational Research, came to this conclusion after analysing more than 25 other research studies conducted between 2000 and 2022, involving almost 470,000 participants in total. They found that reading on paper offers a number of advantages.
One of them is related to knowledge acquisition. Reading a text on paper was seen to significantly improve comprehension. “From what we know from other studies, the relationship between the frequency of reading printed texts and text comprehension is much higher (between 0.30 and 0.40) than what we found for leisure digital reading habits (0.05).
“This means, for example, that if a student spends 10 hours reading books on paper, their comprehension will probably be six to eight times greater than if they read on digital devices for the same amount of time,” outlined Cristina Vargas and Ladislao Salmerón, study co-authors, in a press release.
Different benefits for different ages
Interestingly, this effect varies according to the reader’s level of education. For example, when they read a text on a screen, elementary school students’ comprehension level is less developed than when they read print material.
However, high school and university students have less difficulties than their younger counterparts in processing the content of a document read on a computer, smartphone or e-reader.
This may be because children and younger teenagers are more easily distracted by digital distractions that can come up when they are confronted with a screen.
“We know that our ability to regulate our cognition evolves during adolescence,” Ladislao Salmerón explained to the Guardian. The academic also hypothesises that young children “may not be fully equipped to self-regulate their activity during digital ‘leisure’ reading”.
Despite these differences, the researchers insist that they are not opposed to reading texts in a digital format. “We highlight the different contributions that reading modalities and technological contexts have on our reading comprehension, especially across the lifespan,” they write in their study.
In short, reading digital texts may not necessarily be suited to everyone’s needs, especially young people who will find the content of them harder to understand and assimilate compared to print. But whatever the case, it’s important to encourage reading in all its forms, at a time when this pastime is increasingly competing with television and, in particular, social networks. Reading on a screen, after all, is better than not reading at all.