We no longer just say “mail.” It’s too vague. So we differentiate between snail mail and email. The word “book” has undergone a similar evolution, from paper to screen or tablet. Some even claim that printed books and magazines will eventually become extinct.
But wait. Somewhere along this transition it occurred to scientists and behaviorists to wonder whether there were differences between reading on paper and reading on a tablet or e-reader. In other words, does the brain respond differently to text onscreen than it does to text on paper?
The answer is yes, and paper wins. According to an article published in the Journal of Cell Communication and Signaling, “Print reading appears to better impact comprehension, learning and communication.” This surprising conclusion contradicts those predictions that paper printing is destined for oblivion.
Among the findings of this and numerous other studies:
• Students who read print texts score significantly better on reading comprehension tests than students who read the same texts digitally.
• Print readers recall more than do online readers.
• Reading printed text lowers your heart rate and blood pressure.
• Reading in print is less tiring for the brain, hence readers read more quickly and/or they read more text.
• Printed text does not have the distractions of digital texts, such as the many hyperlinks that may interfere with cognitive focus.
The list goes on to include more subjective considerations such as the “intimacy of paper” and the “topography of text.” Equally interesting is that parents who read to their preschool-age children are themselves less able to recall details of the story later, when they read from a screen or tablet rather than from a printed book.
While tablets and e-readers are here to stay, or until they too are supplanted by something else, the take-away for parents and educators is that an understanding of the effects of digital reading should help adults to make instructional decisions regarding how their children and students read.