A recent study from Columbia University’s Teachers College reveals something that many traditional-minded people already felt in their bones—reading from a page is more profitable than from a computer screen.
The Joy of the Printed Page
I am one such person. Two rooms in my home are primarily devoted to storing books. I could probably be described as a “book hoarder.”
So, I can easily understand the tactile delights of holding a book. I enjoy re-reading a book and seeing the notes and highlights I made years ago. The sheer joy of leather bindings and high-quality creamy paper is one of life’s great pleasures.
Nonetheless, I also read from electronic media. I use an “e-reader” on sleepless nights because I don’t need to turn on a lamp. It is also useful when traveling since many books can be on an easily carried device. Its dictionary function is handy, as well as the marker that instantly refers me to the last page I read. I listen to recorded books that I lack the time to read. These enliven both the daily commute and long trips. I am amazed at the number of long, out-of-print books available for free through the Internet Archive.
Nonetheless, like many other readers, my first choice is always to purchase hardcover books and read them in the usual way.
However, this begs the question. Is this preference based on reality or nostalgia? Do we prefer reading “real” books because that is how we did it in the past, or is there some inherent superiority to pages over screens?
Surprise! The Old Way Works Better
The Columbia researchers tried to answer this question. They connected a “high density electroencephalogram” (EEG) to measure brain activity in 59 middle school (grades 5-8) student volunteers. They then had the students read from pages and screens. Then, each student completed a variety of tasks measuring reading comprehension.
As good scientists, the researchers decline to make absolute statements based on such small numbers. As they note, this is the first study that attempted to relate brain activity to reading from printed pages and screens. Observations of fifty-nine students should not dictate the future of teaching.
However, the study did note that “we were able to observe in our participant sample an advantage for depth of processing when reading from print.” In other words, the students learned more from pages than from screens.
Balancing the Advantages
That being said, “the observation of a potential print advantage does not negate the value of rapid access to information that could be supported by digital reading. It may be that classroom practices should strategically match reading strategies and mediums to task, such that printed media are employed when deeper processing is required while digital access to text is utilized for other needs.”
Their advice to the schools is simple. “[W]e should not yet throw away printed books.”
Yet, disquieting evidence indicates some schools are doing exactly that.
Much of the school systems’ reasoning is economic. Once purchased, a computer can hold many textbooks and other materials. Electronic books are considerably cheaper to buy than printed copies. They can be easily replaced when new editions are available. The time-consuming processes of issuing and collecting books are eliminated. “Wear and tear” and storage issues also evaporate.
From the students’ perspectives, electronic books offer some advantages. Taking home a device “loaded” with multiple textbooks is considerably easier than carrying many books. Often, students can complete the homework related to the reading material and send it to the teacher using the same device, eliminating time-worn excuses like “the dog ate my homework.” The device can also record the time individual students spent reading and the last page they read. Such information is beneficial to teachers when evaluating student work and trying to determine which students are having trouble keeping up.
Remembering the Most Important Goal
However, these advantages count for little if the students learn less from screens than from pages. Acquiring knowledge is, after all, one reason schools exist. Educators should encourage practices that expand the mind and eliminate anything that hinders learning.
Yet, many schools place economic and other motivations above the evidence that books are important in and of themselves.
I recently received a telling insight about the shortage of reading materials in many schools.
An acquaintance worked as a substitute teacher in a reasonably large (enrollment 1,797) high school. One class period, she found herself in the school library. She was shocked at what she saw in the library’s U.S. and World History sections. Both sections occupied only four small shelves. The U.S. History section contained only 103 books. The World History section was slightly larger—116 books. The two sections together had ONE history book for every EIGHT students. The literature section, she added, was not much larger.
This facility is not an impoverished inner-city high school. Nor is it located on the edge of nowhere. Its student-teacher ratio is sixteen to one, and its graduation rate is a respectable 94%. Its students score in the top twenty percent nationwide in both reading and math. Yet, like too many high schools, its library functions more as a computer lab than as a citadel of learning.
The Jury is Still Out
Public and school libraries serve as portals for intelligent students and adults. Scanning their shelves excites a desire to know the information inside those covers. Who can say how many millions of people discovered new interests—and added new facets to already existing fascinations—within the welcoming walls of a library?
Playing “devil’s advocate” for a moment, it is easy to understand some motivations of the school officials who see little reason to spend money on libraries. While accurate data is not immediately available, student use of libraries is likely down considerably from the time before the Internet. There are never enough dollars—why pour them into facilities that few people use?
The answer is that ‘the jury is still out.” More study needs to be done about the relative advantages of pages and screens. In the meantime, the Columbia study is correct in advising schools not to be too hasty in disposing of the printed page.