Reading online vs reading books: Is there a difference?

Tracy (Psychologist asks):

If your child is reading online more than books, are they comprehending less?

Dr. Marion Blank answers:

That is a wonderful question that raises issues that are going to be increasingly important over the next several years. It is clear, that much like the developments that followed the introduction of the printing press, we are in an era of vast change. And we are only just beginning to recognize some of the transformations that are taking place.  Last year, the Scientific American had an excellent article on The Reading Brain: The Science of Paper versus Screens. It began with a reference to a YouTube video of a one year old who, when faced with an iPad, sweeps her fingers across the touchscreen. Then quite logically for her, but a bit startling for us, when confronted with a magazine, she again tries the same thing—pinching and swiping the pages as though they too were screens. ( It’s hard to imagine a better image for the quantum change that is taking place in our reading lives.

In contrast to the clear illustration, our understanding of what is happening in terms of the differences between paper and screen is much less clear. Of the studies that have been done, most of those before 1992 concluded that people read slower, less accurately and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. But remember, that was an early transition generation. Since that time, the research has produced more inconsistent results. Some confirm the earlier findings while many report few significant differences in reading speed or comprehension.

From the studies that have been done, it does seem to be the case that screens limit the way people navigate texts—and hence, it ultimately limits comprehension. In dealing with a book, a reader can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing sight of the whole text. He or she can see where the book begins and ends and where one page is in relation to those borders.  That does not occur with digital reading and that change apparently can impair comprehension. In a study carried out in Norway, 10th-grade students had to read one narrative and one expository (information based) text, with half doing so on paper and the other half on screens. It was found that students who read the texts on computers performed a little worse than students who read on paper.

It is believed that one of the sources for the difference is the greater difficulty readers experience finding particular information when referencing the texts. Computer users could only scroll or click through only one section at a time, whereas those reading on paper can hold the whole text in their hands and quickly switch between different pages. The easier navigability of paper books and documents may facilitate absorption of a text. However, it is likely that as the issues are identified, technology can develop material and devices to overcome whatever obstacles are identified. So stay tuned. Digital reading is here to stay and it will be interesting to see the ultimate balance that is struck between paper and computer reading.

RELATED: 7 Unconventional Reasons Why You Absolutely Should Be Reading Books

Whether on paper or on a screen, the important part is that children are reading. Sign your child up for a free 30 day trial of Reading Kingdom and watch them learn to read on their own in only a few months.  Lingo and company will see you soon!