Does the brain process language differently when text is on paper than when it’s read on an e-reader? Is it a myth that when we read on computer screens we cannot be as focused on what we are reading, or does science prove otherwise?
Digital reading has become very popular for many reasons. Some people prefer digital books for practical reasons of portability and cost-effectiveness, others for ecological ones.
Millions of people have already integrated the two reading modes, or completely switched to digital reading. All of the trends reveal that the popularity of e-reading will keep growing – but the debate over which is best may never be resolved. Here’s a look at the three main factors that make digital and paper-based reading so different:
Digital reading requires different cognitive resources than paper-based reading.
When people read on paper their cognitive processes related to reading are complemented and reinforced by the tactile stimuli of the experience.
This physical component that the hard-copy book provides doesn’t exist when we read on computer screens and e-readers, a fact that explains why reading comprehension in digital-based reading is often significantly lower when compared to comprehension when reading print media.
This study published in the International Journal of Educational Research looked into how reading modality affects reading comprehension, and found that students reading on digital screens did worse than their counterparts reading on paper.
What seems to compromise reading comprehension during digital reading is an issue that is a part of the medium itself. It seems that the cognitively heavy task of navigation using an e-reader or computer (buttons, keys to push, even tactile screen scrolling) is something that has a high potential to distract the reader, and that distraction has a toll on reading comprehension.
A difference in portability and cost-effectiveness.
The paper book is still widely used and read around the world, and despite the markedly important growth of digital reading, printed books have their unrelenting fans. However, even die-hard fans of print books admit the perks of the digital book: it’s green, it’s portable, and it’s significantly cheaper.
Reading on screen means less tree pulp wasted, and more and cheaper books easily carried around. These three attributes of the digital book obviously promote increased reading. If people can carry several books with them, they’re more likely to read while commuting to work rather than playing Angry Birds.
Book reading and the sense of control.
Digital reading is fluid and open-ended, but this means at times it’s hard to manage, both cognitively and physically. On the other hand, a paper book gives the reader increased control over the reading process.
A pdf file or an e-book gives you no tactile power whatsoever. You need to repeatedly click on the keys or scroll, scroll, and scroll again to find a paragraph you’ve missed or to re-read a passage you loved. All of that takes time, and leads to a loss in concentration and interest.
When reading paper-based content , though, you the reader are in charge. You flick through pages easily and re-reading a favorite passage is tied to the physicality of the activity of turning those pages, giving a sense of great control over what’s being read and ultimately understood.
Superficial reading and its aftereffects.
What’s more, this lack of physicality with digital reading – and of course the sheer volume of digital content available – makes digital readers more inclined to be “skim and scan” readers. People don’t pay attention to digital copy the way they do with paper-based text. Digital reading prompts careless, hurried reading, because the modality is much more difficult to keep focused on – ads pop up, social networks notifications distract you, and so on.
Researchers are keen to understand how reading modality affects reading efficiency. Preliminary findings suggest that the two are very different cognitive processes, with a different set of requirements in place.
Whether one is better than the other is of little importance. What’s important to understand in this debate is that the two are distinctively different, and for their enthusiasts, each one is the best.
Cross-posted on the 7 Speed Reading blog.
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