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In her new motherhood period, when juggling diapers and feedings with the demands of an academic life, Virginia Clinton fell in love with digital texts. “I have warm and fuzzy memories of rocking my babies to sleep while reading on my phone,” Clinton said.
Professor Clinton had urged her students at the University of North Dakota to buy cheap digital versions or use free online learning materials. She was a research expert in reading comprehension (as opposed to mastering the mechanics of reading on paper).
Although many of her students told her they preferred paper, Clinton decided to dig into 33 studies that tested reading comprehension after students were given either screen or paper to read on. She discovered that her students may be right.
Studies have shown that when students read the material on paper rather than on their electronic devices, they tend to retain more. This holds particularly true when it comes to nonfiction assignments. “Sometimes you should print it out, particularly when it is long,” said Clinton.
“It’s enough benefit that it’s worth the cost of the book and the paper and ink,” Clinton said.

Based on averaging the studies, the benefit for reading with paper was rather small, Clinton explained. Still, 29 of the 33 laboratory studies showed that readers learn more when reading on paper.

Now, Clinton’s analysis is at some point the third study to synthesize reputable research on reading comprehension in the digital age and conclude that paper reading is superior. Previous studies prior to this one include the University of Maryland research in 2017 and the University of Spain and Israel meta-analyses of 2018. 

Studies from the international testing community came to a similar conclusion, that paper beat screens by more than half a standard deviation. (Scholars disagree over the interpretation of standard deviations. It’s not a significant advantage in controlled laboratory tests.)

In July 2019, Pearson, the largest textbook publisher in North America, announced it was transitioning to a digital-first approach where books will still be rented, but will be available for purchase for much higher prices, fewer updates, and limited availability.

The recommendations for students to save money also run counter to the reading research. According to a July report by the National Association of College Stores, 22 percent of college students are using free online course materials, up from 3 percent in 2015. Thanks to free online texts, overall material expenditures have decreased.

For proponents of digital texts, there are plenty of criticisms in the new research. The studies included in Hillary Clinton’s analysis do not allow students to take advantage of the extra features, bells, and whistles offered by digital texts. 

Digital textbooks offer students options not available to paper books. This allows students to highlight passages and take notes in the digital text.

“I’m not fair to screens because their features weren’t what they could be,” said Clinton. “They weren’t even ‘perfect,'” she said.

Clinton is planning to test reading comprehension with digital add-ons in her lab to see if digital texts produce better results than paper texts. There are still no convincing studies that show these effects for reading comprehension with digital add-ons.

What explains why students read on screens worse than on paper is a fascinating question. Some experts think the flicker and glare of screens causes a higher mental load. Others argue that the spatial memory for the location of a passage or chart on paper will help students remember facts. 

The distraction of digital distractions and the ability to multitask or browse is a valid issue in the real world. However, in the controlled conditions of the experiments, internet browsing or app checking was not allowed.

The Maryland researchers thought that e-readers were making the process of reading a lot quicker than you would do it on a paper book. However, Clinton found no difference in the amount of reading time to be done on e-books and print book.

However, Clinton suspects the problem might be one of rampant self-delusion on the part of screen reader users. In many lab studies, readers rated themselves on the accuracy of their reading comprehension. Screen readers consistently underestimated their comprehension. Paper readers were more accurate.

Clinton stated that excessive confidence in screen readers is important because those who overestimate their abilities are likely to make fewer efforts. The less effort a person makes, the less likely they are to comprehend a reading passage. This is because comprehension, like all learning, is hard, and takes effort.

Aside from genre, age is also important. In Clinton’s study, which separated out the topics of fiction and nonfiction, there were no benefits to paper over screens. So go ahead and read Jane Austen on your Kindle.) But the advantages for text on paper are clear.

In what way can educators and parents take advantage of this? That will depend on the students’ age. For college students, Clinton suggests picking the format they personally prefer. For most, that means paper.

Clinton suggests professors take extra time to teach students how to read a digital text efficiently by, for example, constantly checking their comprehension as they read.

Teachers of elementary and high school don’t have the capability to give their students a tangible and digital version of their text they’re reading. When this is the case, Clinton suggests that teachers require students to “describe what they’re reading.”

I would prefer both types of media to be available in the classroom, so kids can develop screen and technology skills, as well as learning and receiving help from paper for developing reading skills.

As a parent, her advice to parents is to remember that children can benefit from reading in either format. Clinton writes that to motivate kids to read more, e-books can offer games and rewards.

Children need to learn how to use screens responsibly in order to get the full benefit out of them both at home and at school, according to Clinton.

Clinton himself remains a screen reader in the meantime. “I don’t like paper,” he said, “because I seem to lose it.” Also read One Way to Make a Business Message Easier to Read Is to


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