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Op-Ed: When reading to learn, what works best for students — printed books or digital texts?

At a bookstore, a girl reads a book while sitting in a chair.
Noelle Park reads at Chevalier’s Books in Larchmont Village in August 2019.
(Los Angeles Times)

As the pandemic drove a sudden, massive and necessary shift to online education last year, students were forced to access much of their school reading assignments digitally. Turning so heavily to screens for school reading was a temporary fix — and should remain that way.

A wealth of research comparing print and digital reading points to the same conclusion — print matters. For most students, print is the most effective way to learn and to retain that knowledge long-term.

When measuring reading comprehension, researchers typically ask people to read passages and then answer questions or write short essays. Regardless of the age of the students, reliably similar patterns occur.

When the text is longer than about 500 words, readers generally perform better on comprehension tests with print passages. The superiority of print especially shines through when experimenters go beyond questions having superficial answers to those whose responses require inferences, details about the text, or remembering when and where in a story an event took place.

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Part of the explanation for discrepancies between print and digital test scores involves the physical properties of paper. We often use the place in the book (at the beginning, halfway through) or location on a page as a memory marker. But equally important is a reader’s mental perspective. People tend to put more effort into reading print than reading digitally.

Magic happens in a physical classroom, not through online platforms popularized during the coronavirus quarantine.

We can learn a lot about the importance of print by asking students themselves. Overwhelmingly, college students report they concentrate, learn or remember best with paper, according to my research and studies conducted by colleagues.

For instance, students say that when reading hard copy, “everything sinks in more” and can be pictured “more vividly.” When reading digitally, they admit they get distracted by things like online social media or YouTube.

However, not all students relish reading in print. Several of the more than 400 I surveyed commented that digital texts seemed shorter than the print versions (when they’re actually the same length) or declared that digital is more entertaining and print can be boring. They said things like digital screens “keep me awake” or “print can tire you out really fast” no matter how interesting the book.

Such attitudes support research that finds when students are allowed to choose how much time to spend reading a passage, many speed more quickly through the digital version — and do worse on the comprehension test.

Reading digitally only started becoming a norm about a decade ago, thanks to advancements in technology and consumer products such as e-readers and tablet computers. Meanwhile, another seismic shift was beginning to happen in education. Academic courses, and then whole degree programs, became available online at universities before such technology-driven offerings percolated down through the lower grades.

As academic e-books made their way onto the market, students and faculty alike saw these more affordable digital versions as a way to combat the high cost of print textbooks. Open educational resources — teaching and learning materials available free (almost always online) — also became another popular option.

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In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission unveiled a plan for all K-12 schools to transition from print to digital textbooks by 2017. The rationale? Improve education, but also cost savings. The big three textbook publishers (Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) were quick to develop digital initiatives for K-12 materials. The pace accelerated in higher education as well, most recently with inclusive-access models, where publishers provide reduced-price digital texts to all course enrollees.

Regrettably, both the textbook industry and school decision-makers rushed to embrace digital reading platforms without assessing potential educational implications. Yet below the radar, teachers and students have often recognized the educational mismatch.

A recent survey by the research group Bay View Analytics found that 43% of college faculty believe students learn better with print materials — the same message students have been sending, when we bother to ask. Yes, cost issues need to be addressed, and yes, digital has a vital place in contemporary education. But so does print.

There’s a pressing need to rethink the balance between print and digital learning tools. When choosing educational materials, educators — and parents — have to consider many factors, including subject matter, cost, and convenience. However, it’s also important to remember that research findings usually tip the scales toward print as a more effective learning tool.

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What can parents and educators do? For starters, explore students’ perceptions about which reading medium helps them concentrate and learn more easily. Conduct a short survey and discuss the results with students in class or at home. Make sure everyone who has a stake in students’ education — teachers, librarians, administrators and parents — thinks about the consequences of their choices.

The pandemic drove society to educational triage, not just by pivoting to digital materials but also by reducing curricular rigor. As schools continue to reopen and rethink their educational goals, research about learning should be used to help find the right balance between screens and print in the digital age.

Naomi S. Baron is professor emerita of linguistics at American University and author of “How We Read Now: Strategic Choices for Print, Screen, and Audio.”


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