Should I let my students read on a device? Given recent concerns over the cognitive load of screen time, lower cognitive performance of excessive screen time, the addictive nature of technology, and continuous partial attention because screens offer so much distraction, we, teachers and parents, might be seduced into saying no. However, the research on print literacy versus digital literacy does not neatly offer that one is clearly better than the other. Rather, the difference between reading a paper book and a digital book comes down more to the quality of attention and our expectations of a specific tactile experience. Therefore, like all things in the 21st-century, the findings offer a more complex and nuanced way forward.
But before we get to the research, it is important to consider brain plasticity. Basically, neuroplasticity means that your brain adapts to your environment and activities: Anything you interact with (environment, activity, memory) will change the structure of your brain. It’s why a brain scan can reveal whether your child plays the piano or violin. Given neuroplasticity, David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, explains that technology is changing our children’s brains. Basically, our children’s brains are physically different from ours because they have always consumed information in a fast-paced digital environment, and he asserts that this transformation shouldn’t necessarily be a cause for concern. Their digital environment is radically different from the analog environment in which we grew up: we primarily gathered and interacted with information through books, which is a slower, more time-intensive, and attention-demanding medium.
It is also significant to note that reading was the result of new writing technologies, and reading changed our brains as well. Reading, according to Maryanne Wolf, reading and language researcher at UCLA, is neither natural nor innate to us as a species. While we are storytellers, reading is an unnatural cultural invention that is scarcely six thousand years old and has transformed both our brains and development as a species. As a result of this neuro-metamorphosis, Wolf argues that good reading exhibits three characteristics: the gathering and acquiring of knowledge, experiencing pleasure in being immersed in a book, and contemplating human existence as well as the wonders of a mysterious universe.
As a teacher, I want all of my students to develop these three habits of reading not only from assigned material but also more importantly from engaging in pleasure reading — reading that is freely chosen — because “data from major longitudinal studies show that pleasure reading in youth is the most explanatory factor of both cognitive progress and social mobility over time.”
Given these stakes, what does the research reveal about print literacy versus digital literacy? For children between the ages of 1 and 8, a quantitative review of 39 studies reveals that children who read digital books independently scored lower on comprehension whereas children who read the paper book with an adult who can extend and mediate the text scored higher on comprehension; however, if the digital device included story-appropriate enhancements (that aren’t a dictionary, which only improves children’s vocabulary, a notable goal in itself), students who read digitally outperformed those who read a paper book. For those who are older, reading comprehension is better when a paper book is read; however, the studies this is based on only compared reading paper books to e-books that even the lead researcher, Virginia Clinton, describes as “really just a shiny piece of paper.” Clinton concedes that the benefit of paper on reading performance is small even though reading a paper book is more efficient. Essentially, the researchers concluded that we need to better understand the benefits of reading a paper book.
Along with a better understanding of why there is greater comprehension as a result of print literacy, both Wolf and Clinton argue that we should not so much continue to privilege reading paper books but seek to develop better reading habits in digital literacy — that is, foster, what Wolf terms a bi-literate brain in our students and children: a brain that possesses “deep reading processes that are shared with and expanded through digital skills such as coding, designing, and programming.” You see, when we read deeply, we experience five pleasures: immersive, intellectual, social, functional, and contemplative. The most important pleasure is immersive: we have to be able to develop the capacity “to engage and immerse [ourselves], visualize meanings, relate to characters, and participate in making meaning” for the other pleasures to be unlocked. When students skim read, as they tend to do on a digital device, they lose the immersive pleasure and “the deep reading processes, which requires a quality of attention that is at risk in a culture and on a medium in which constant distraction” continuously splits our attention.
Instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, we should instead show students how to read a digital book with the same slowness and depth of comprehension that they practice when reading a paper book. All of the good reading habits, such as re-reading, underlining, highlighting, posing questions, making connections, etc. should still be used regardless of whether the text (book, short story, poem, essay) is digital or print, especially given the plethora of apps now available. In this way, we, teachers and parents, should be cultivating a brain that is both adapted to digital and traditional print literacy to help students navigate the unknown problems of the 21st-century because technology isn’t going away. It is only becoming more and more embedded into our lives and therefore has greater and greater potential to continue to change our children’s brains.
The other curious feature about why people tend to read a print book more deeply as opposed to a digital book has to do with the sensory experience of the medium itself. Evidence from laboratory experiments, polls, and consumer reports indicate that people are seeking a specific tactile experience, which is typical of print literacy when reading. We experience knowing where we physically are in a book, the ability to focus on one page and still retain the whole text in sight, serendipity, control, and turning the paper pages. All of these lead to readers being able to intuitively navigate the paper book. And digital devices disrupt this intuitive navigation. By limiting the way readers navigate a text, they may be impairing comprehension. Surveys and consumer reports suggest that the sensory experience matters more than one might initially think.
Despite the more limited tactile experience of digital literacy, what matters most is a student’s frame of mind when reading. In a 2011 experiment at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, “college students using paper approached the exam with a more studious frame of mind than their screen-reading peers, and more effectively directed their attention and working memory.” This shallowing effect that eighty percent of college educators saw in reading comprehension not only limits students’ ability to deal with more abstract material but also just as importantly accrues other losses like “decreasing empathy, susceptibility to fake news, demagoguery, and their impact on a democratic society.”
So instead of asking the simple binary either-or question of print versus digital, we should instead focus on helping our students and children continue to develop the deep reading skills that print literacy is known for not only when reading a paper book but especially when reading a digital book. Our classrooms, therefore, should expose students to texts delivered in both mediums, so our students not only understand the limits and possibilities of both but also are prepared to be full citizens in an increasingly interconnected digital world that highlights the fourth industrial revolution.