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Digital or paper? Is one better than the other for comprehending text?

Hello colleagues, For the kind of close reading we want students to engage in to achieve the standards, is reading digitally or reading paper the same or different? Is one type of text better than the other when reading comprehension is the goal? Check out some ideas about these questions from experts in Larry Ferlazzo's Education Week Teacher blog, Reading Digitally vs. Reading Paper.

I was surprised by some of the comments made by the contributors to this discussion. Were you?

Looking forward to hearing members' thoughts on this.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, College and Career Standards CoP

 

Comments

rwessel51's picture
One hundred

Kristin Ziemke is correct with her observation that “it's not a debate of print versus digital, but instead an investigation into how we can guide students to become better readers across all types of text.  We give them both and then teach them to navigate each effectively.”

Here is an example of why I agree: Over the weekend, I purchased and installed two software packages that needed to interoperate. The user guides for both packages are in PDF-only format. Combined, they total about 700 pages. To print a hard copy would cost a small fortune in printer ink. All the various forms of support are also online and digital. In other words, to function in our digital reality, everyone -- not just learners -- needs to know how to navigate both digital and print text. In this context, the argument of print vs. digital is irrelevant.

The other observations that grabbed my attention were by Daniel Willingham.

The first was: “The comparison has most often been made in college students reading academic materials. In these studies students are asked to read a passage from an electronic textbook and then answer questions about the passage, either with or without access to the text. The consistent finding is that reading on paper is more efficient: that is, comprehension is the same, but students are able to read the paper version more quickly (Ackerman & Lauterman, 2012; Connell et al, 2012; Daniel & Woody, 2013). When experimenters limit reading time, comprehension is better with the paper version (Chen et al, 2014).”

If one is not familiar with reading digital text, it takes a while to become accustomed to it. (I base this on my own experience.) The longer and more complex the text, the longer it takes to learn how to read it digitally. How experienced with reading digital texts were the students who participated in the studies? Everyone who makes it into college has spent thousands of hours reading print text. How many have spent as many hours reading digital text? This lack of practice could skew the results against digital.

Even more important: “todays ereaders are designed to recreate the layout and look of text on paper.”  The layout of textbooks is optimized for books of certain size.  Just as a textbook layout optimized for a 12” page will be less comprehensible when printed in a 6” paperback, the same 12” layout will be less comprehensible when directly rendered in a digital format. But if the textbook were optimized to take advantage of the capabilities of a digital format, and comprehension of the print vs. digital formats were then compared, would there still be a difference, and, if so, would it be in favor of the print or digital formats?

Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Hello Robert, Thank you for describing your personal experiences and your thoughts about the differences between reading paper versus digital. As you noted, the research on comprehension tends to support reading paper textbooks over digital textbooks; however, as Daniel Willingham notes, the differences are quite small. I think both you and Kristin Ziemke make a lot of sense when you say that everyone -- including the adult learners we work with-- need to be able to successfully navigate both. Our instruction should attempt to model the real world as much as possible and the real world includes both digital and paper. Kristin discusses the value of explicitly teaching students how to read digital texts, for instance, how to annotate an online text and how to go back and forth between a paper "think sheet" (e.g., note taking tool or graphic organizer) and an online text as well as how to closely read a video or infographic. She suggests that we teach learners to seamlessly move between the two.

Have members noticed a difference when learners are reading online compared to when they are reading paper? Would love to hear from others on this topic.

A discussion of recent research related to the types of critical thinking required when doing research online may be of interest to some members. You can find the discussion here.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, College and Career Standards CoP

rwessel51's picture
One hundred

From my experience in working with ESOL learners who have 3 to 5 years of schooling in their native countries, I’ve found print is more effective than digital when first teaching them to read in English. It’s more personal and they can focus on the text without worrying about the added complexities of learning how to use a computer.

A recurring problem with using computers to accomplish things is that people have a habit of confusing the what and the how. In addition to the basics, the whats of reading also include looking up words in a dictionary, looking up concepts and facts in an encyclopedia, highlighting test, and taking notes. These things are done one way with print, other ways with eBook readers, and yet more ways on tablets and desktops/laptops. When you know the whats, the various hows are not that difficult to learn. The important thing is to read, read, read, read, and read. That is how you learn, no matter what the medium.

And back to the personal: after years of reading materials almost entirely in digital format, I find my overall comprehension is lower on those rare occasions I read something in print. (I’ve also caught myself tapping on a word on a printed page to look up the definition). Practice and experience play a big role.

Edward Latham's picture
One hundred

I love the comments that have been shared and the link to the blog was a nice read. As I sat reading all of these thoughts, I found myself asking over and over again, "Why does this comparison matter?" I struggled with reading comprehension as a kid in 5th grade. They tried 4 different types of "Learn to read" type series that guaranteed improved comprehension and none of those worked. Some were big glossy books while others were tiny "travel sized", but all of them declared that their formatting was what promoted learning comprehension gains. We then tried SRA cards which I loved, but they were just a game for me and I quickly learned how to answer questions without even reading the stories. I was in after school and summer school reading groups and those efforts were not getting me any further along. Finally, my father, someone that did not even have a high school diploma at the time asked if anyone had tried comics with me. He was laughed at and dismissed at that time, but he went out and bought a huge stack of comics for me to try. I devoured them and wanted more! It turns out I was highly visual and I needed the story told to me through images before my brain was starting to create it's own images from words I read. From comics I was hooked into the world of Edgar Rice Burroughs and soon after, hundreds of authors started flowing through my hands. 

I would venture that every single one of us has had different experiences learning to read or in helping others to read. Different methods, different materials and even different locations may be more effective with any one learner. Funny example of this is that, to this day, I have better reading comprehension lying down than I do when reading sitting up.  I have asked a few of my adult learners to try to read while not in a sitting position and it has been surprising to find that body position may at least help the reader feel more comfortable trying to read. I view the discussion of which format, print vs digital, analogous to, "Is ice cream better in a cone or in a cup as a sundae?" On some days, with some flavors and in some situations one may feel the cone is superior to the sundae or the other way around. Both are just a means of getting the yummy ice cream into our bodies. Of course one might argue that you can eat the cone and eatable dishes are always a big plus for some of us! smiley

I do agree with Robert that What is often more important than How. I would also caution all the time and energy spent in education on the comparisons of Better or Best. I find it ironic that so many educators can agree that our learners are all so unique in many ways and yet so many educators spend much energy looking for that one size fits most formula. I prefer to accept that digital and paper print both have opportunities to capture my learner's inner desire to enjoy learning at some point. I may have to mix up a little digital with a little paper and within each, the medium or content will probably widely vary until the learner finds some success and starts to get excited about reading. From that point on, reading comprehension seems  to come so much easier with most learners. 

Can others share perspectives about the need for comparison of Paper vs Print? What if one was somehow declared superior, would you throw out the other completely? Is there a problem with having both available in different ways? I welcome perspectives because the relevance does not hit me immediately. 

rwessel51's picture
One hundred

My comments on formatting were in reaction to Daniel Willingham’s statement that “[p]eople seem to feel that reading from an ebook lacks that feeling of spatial localization.” I’ve read textbooks where the file sent to the printer was simply saved in an eBook file format, without any effort put into modifying the layout to compensate for the differences between the ways one can locate information in a physical textbook and the more abstract eBook reader or eBook software. Even with Kindle’s ability to create searchable bookmarks, highlights, and notes, “spatial localization” is still lost in this kind of direct translation from print to digital. However, this disadvantage disappears when the digital version provides page thumbnails (as do many long documents formatted for Adobe Reader), and a comprehensive table of contents and index with internal links.

I also question the relevance of this debate. Everything important -- workplace manuals, government information, medical information, etc. -- is moving toward digital and online formats. To use this information, you have to be able to read texts in digital format. There will frequently be no other option, so there’s no point in discussing the relative merits of one format vs. the other. What is important is that everyone (not just learners) needs to know how to obtain and comprehend the information they need to navigate the world around them in whatever format it’s available.