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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 09/29/2009

CHECKING IT OUT, Part I: Reading on Paper or Screen--Which Is Better?

By Valerie Strauss

THE ISSUE: A reader of The Answer Sheet asked whether there is research that shows the superiority of reading text on line or in print.

It is a good question to ask today. More and more school textbooks are being put on line, the Kindle and other electronic reading devices are gaining in popularity and many young people say they prefer reading on a screen.

The good news is that there is research on the subject. The bad news is that it is far from definitive--and, in fact, is seemingly contradictory.

DISCUSSION: Let’s first look at work done by the non-profit St. Petersburg-based Poynter Institute, which has conducted several studies on the subject.

One of them--believed to be the largest study conducted that actually tracks the eye movements of readers--compared how 582 people read newspapers and Web sites in Minneapolis, St. Petersburg, Philadelphia and Denver.

Readers were equipped with eyetracking devices that contained small cameras that could record eye movement and tell where the reader looked. The main conclusion, reported in 2007:

*Online participants read an average of 77 percent of story text that they chose to read, a higher average than readers of stories on paper. Those who read broadsheet newspapers read an average of 72 percent of the stories they selected; tabloid participants read an average of 57 percent.

Story lengths made no difference.

The eyetrack study also concluded that readers retained more with alternative story forms--including graphics, question and answers, timelines, fact boxes--rather than text alone.

Sara Quinn, a visual journalism faculty member at Poynter who was one of the lead researchers on the eyetrack study, said the results were surprising. Conventional wisdom, at least in the newspaper industry, had been that readers of print read and retain more information.

Why did readers prefer the screen?

“We think it has to do with a focused reading environment,” Quinn said. “When you read on a screen you are focused on the 30 or 40 lines that you have directly on your screen.... Whereas if you turn a page in a broadsheet or a tabloid, you have a bigger sense of the volume of text.”


Other research had contradictory conclusions. For example, The Journal of Research in Reading published a paper by researcher Anne Mangen last year in which she looked at the difference between reading books on line and on screen.

She concluded that being able to touch the pages you are reading makes for a different--and deeper-- experience than reading on a screen.

Mangen, of the Center for Reading Research at the University of Stavanger in Norway, said that reading on a screen makes us lose a sense of completeness that reading from a book allows.

“The feeling of literally being in touch with the text is lost when your actions - clicking with the mouse, pointing on touch screens, or scrolling with keys or on touch pads - take place at a distance from the digital text, which is, somehow, somewhere inside the computer, the e-book, or the mobile phone,’’ she wrote.

Her conclusion: “Materiality matters. . . . One main effect of the intangibility of the digital text is that of making us read in a shallower, less focused way.’’

She also said, according to ScienceDaily, that “several experiments in cognitive psychology have shown how a change of physical surroundings has a potentially negative affect on memory."

“Technology provides for a number of dynamic, mobile and ephemeral forms of learning, but little is known about how such mobility and transience influence the effect of teaching. Learning requires time and mental exertion and the new media do not provide for that.”

CONCLUSION: There is no definitive research on whether reading on screen or on paper is a more enriching experience. We need much more research on the subject to know how the brain reacts to different materials.

Readers: Some people swear by print, others by screen.
Here's what one writer, Christine Rosen, in The New Atlantis, a journal of technology and society, said about the subject in an article called “People of the Screen":

“For centuries, print literacy has been one of the building blocks in the formation of the modern sense of self. By contrast, screen reading, a historically recent arrival, encourages a different kind of self-conception, one based on interaction and dependent on the feedback of others. It rewards participation and performance, not contemplation."

Do you agree? Please take a minute and explain your reading preference. Later today, The Answer Sheet will publish how a number of young people answered the question: Print or screen?

By Valerie Strauss  | September 29, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Tags:  reading, screen vs. print  
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Next: CHECKING IT OUT, Part 2--Teens Talk About Screen vs. Print


I prefer paper reading for longer material.

I find that screen reading is good for picking up bits of things. I follow the flow of a longer piece better on paper.

Perhaps this is dependent on my eye situation, but the lighting of a paper book or newspaper is easier for me to focus on for long periods.

For writing, there is no substitute for printing your text out and marking it up. Even if you turn around and type your mark-up back into the electronic text!

Posted by: RedBird27 | September 29, 2009 7:07 AM | Report abuse

The purpose of this column is supposed to be to present facts. What empirical evidence does Mangen present to support her claims? Her article either has none, or you have not conveyed them to us. Either case is a disservice to readers.

You're right that we need more research on the effects of digital reading. But why add to the pile of speculation and emotional argument on this topic? Still, the first section was illuminating.

Posted by: dwbucha1 | September 29, 2009 9:31 AM | Report abuse

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