Reading print improves comprehension far more than looking at digital text, say researchers | Books

Reading print improves comprehension far more than looking at digital text, say researchers | Books

Reading print texts improves comprehension more than reading digital materials does, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Valencia analysed more than two dozen studies on reading comprehension published between 2000 and 2022, which assessed nearly 470,000 participants. Their findings suggest that print reading over a long period of time could boost comprehension skills by six to eight times more than digital reading does.

“The association between frequency of digital reading for leisure and text comprehension abilities is close to 0,” said Ladislao Salmerón, a professor at the University of Valencia who co-authored the paper. This may be because the “linguistic quality of digital texts tends to be lower than that traditionally found in printed texts”, he added. Text on social media, for example, may be conversational and lack complex syntax and reasoning.

Salmerón said that the “reading mindset” for digital texts also tends to be more shallow than that for printed materials, with scanning being more common. This can mean the reader “doesn’t fully get immersed in the narration, or doesn’t fully capture the complex relations in an informative text”.

The study, published in the Review of Educational Research, also found that while there is a negative relationship between digital reading and comprehension for primary school students, the relationship turns positive for secondary school and undergraduate students.

Salmerón suggests that this may be because young children are less able to navigate the distractions, such as incoming messages, that might come with reading on a digital device. “We know that our ability to regulate our cognition evolves during adolescence,” he said. Young children “may not be fully equipped to self-regulate their activity during digital leisure reading”.

The authors also said that young children engaging in frequent digital reading may learn less academic vocabulary “in a critical period when they are shifting from learning to read to reading to learn”.

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The researchers are not “against digital reading”, said Lidia Altamura, a PhD student who co-authored the paper. “It’s just that, based on what we have found, digital reading habits do not pay off as much as print reading. That is why, when recommending reading activities, schools and school leaders should emphasise print reading more than digital reading, especially for younger readers.”

Salmerón added that one surprising finding was that the relatively small association between digital reading for leisure and comprehension stands regardless of the type of reading people engage in, across both social media and educational websites such as Wikipedia. “We expected that the latter would be much more positively associated with text comprehension, but our data says that is not the case.”

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