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So What if E-Readers Hurt Reading Comprehension?

April 21, 2013
English: Cruz reader from Velocity Micro showi...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to a new study (whose validity I will neither defend nor refute), the use of e-readers inhibits reading comprehension when people read long or difficult text. 

The short version is that in this study students who read the print version of difficult text understood it better than students who read the same difficult text on an e-reader.  The long version with lots of analysis is here , but reading it on an e-reader might slightly decrease your comprehension of it. 

My first (kind of selfish) reaction is, “So what?”  I’m at an age where I no longer need to read longer or difficult text anymore.  If reading on my phone (which I usually do now) inhibits my comprehension, that’s okay because I don’t need to comprehend most of what I read on my e-reader or phone anyway. 

My other reaction is that maybe schools shouldn’t spend so much money on technology if we’re finding out it might hurt students’ reading comprehension.  My kids go to a school district that is behind the curve when it comes to technology, and I’m okay with that.  My kids get enough technology at home, but they don’t get a lot of math, science, and history at home, so I appreciate their schools for providing that.  And if students perform better with actual books than they do with e-readers (I know, the jury is still out), then that’s great too. 

There’s not enough information out there to conclude how technology affects reading comprehension yet, so a lot more of these studies would be a good thing.  Book stores can sponsor studies that show e-readers inhibit comprehension.  Technology companies can sponsor studies that demonstrate how e-readers improve reading comprehension.  And then all of us adults who don’t need to comprehend what we read anymore can ignore the studies and read what we want however we want. 

Kids, however, will still need to read what we want, when we want, and how we want.  And they’d better like it!

14 Comments
  1. My own view about technology in schools is that they should teach students how to “do” it rather than merely how to “use” it. Bill Gates, for example, got a head start in life by attending a school, which at that time, was one of the few to have its own computer server. The young Bill could “lose” himself in his school’s computer room, as he mastered the intricacies of programming and built a strong foundation for his future career. I also agree strongly with you and your comments about the importance of schools providing all students with academic rigour in disciplines such as mathematics, history and science. Thank you for sharing this post.

    • Some of my friends have kids who use tablets at school, and from what I understand (no proof to back this up), the students stare blankly at the text on the screen just as much as they stare blankly at the text on the written page. So you’re probably right; it depends on how the trechnology is being used.

  2. Wow. I know studies can almost say anything you want, but it still makes me stop and think about the direction we are going in standardized testing–on the computer. We are moving to more and more of it for our kids. In Texas, we give a computer based reading test to all of our limited English speakers, and next week I’m giving an online math test to many of the same kids. Maybe not the best mode, not that we were given a choice.

    One should pick up an actual real book every now and then, because “book” is a really good smell.

    • Too much standardized testing probably inhibits reading comprehension more than it measures it. Of course, I can’t prove that. Maybe we need some studies. Good luck with your (students) testing this week and beyond!

  3. Judy permalink

    I guess I can’t comprehend what you’re saying. I’m reading it on the computer which doesn’t have pages I can turn. Durn. I’ve always comprehended you before …………… I think.

  4. I’m not a fan of the “e-reader” myself, but much like you, it doesn’t matter because the days of me memorizing facts about the shit I read are long behind me. All I know is I like the smell of a printed book and even better if it’s old and musty and the sound of the turning page makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

    • Ah, yes, good ol’ book smell! I have an e-reader that’s a few years old and outdated already, but I haven’t detected any “old e-reader smell” yet. I don’t think old e-reader smell will be as good as old book smell.

  5. I saw that study too, and I don’t buy it. I read on a variety of platforms, from dedicated ereaders to good old treebooks. I use an iPod most often as it’s small and light and easily carried. I can read on it while standing up on transit, it’s easier to hold than a book is in that situation. I can also borrow library books on it which is very handy. I find that if I’m paying attention to a text, the medium I read it on disappears. I’m concentrating on the meaning, not on the delivery method. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I don’t think so. The only things I really have to work on learning at this point are song lyrics, and I often email them to myself before I go to work and use my iPod to access the email on transit. The songs get learned, so something’s working here.

    • I’m not sold on that study either, but it will be interesting to see what neurologists and psychologists and educationalologists (okay, I made that one up, I think) discover as they study this more. I’m not sold on it, but I wouldn’t be surprised either, which is weird because I usually form my opinions before I have all the (or any) facts.

  6. I like your blog, but unfortunately I read the electronic version of this post and have no idea what it says.

  7. I’m a fan of the whatever works school, as well as an anti-ideologue. If it works for someone, let ’em do use that format, no judgment from me.

    I found “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains” to be a somewhat accurate read, in that the idea that reading lots of short-form blogs, articles, postings, what-have-you on the internet will re-wire people’s brains to affect their patience/attention span for longer-form novels, but I also think it’s a matter of habit, and if you work at both, you can switch between both forms without too much trouble. I also found the large meta-idea of short-form v. long-form reading and the “get-to-the-point” school of thought that exists among a lot to internet users to be a sometimes valid critique. There’s a lot of excellent short fiction and short nonfiction these days, and a lot of it’s driven by internet writing. Gadget-based writers. Who knew?

  8. I can see how this could be the case, but nothing pleases me more than printed material. It has its own aesthetic appeal to which technology, whether e-ink or lcd, cannot compare. This could just be a result of being a part of the generation of young adults that have mostly used physical texts in school and in University have been slowly influenced to use electronic sources.

  9. I can’t speak to the degree of reading comprehension in schools where reading is taught on devices, other than to note that all four of my young grandchildren have learned to read in the last three years or so — and they now read extremely well and thoughtfully for seven- and eight-year olds; they were all taught, in private schools in New York and Florida, with real books. They all read real books in bed at night for pleasure. They can read, and understand, stories on a Kindle or I-Pad when traveling long distances in a car but where given a choice, all seem to prefer holding real books with pages you can turn.

    I myself have been reading books — many many books — since I was five, in 1936. I still mainly read books, print books, but also have an iPhone, an iPad, a desktop (iMac) and this year’s Paperwhite Kindle. The phone is great for reading the New Yorker and the New York Times on trains, busses and doctors’ waiting rooms because it hardly weighs anything to carry around. I read Wikipedia, email and drafts of my own writing on the desktop, but not much else. Major reading of books on either the Kindle app or the iBook app of the iPad tires the eyes after a while and is subject to the same drawback as reading on the Paperwhite Kindle, which is easier on the eyes: the apps and the Kindle are fine for the kind of book you buy at airports to pass time and throw away when you get off the plane, but very annoying for reading literature or any kind of close non-fictional analysis where you want to go back, compare what went before with what you’re reading now….and like that.

    Bottom line for me: books are books, devices are convenient in certain circumstances and therefore have their uses, but we’re talking apples and oranges here, even where the texts are the same. And nothing will replace apples; they’ve been around since the Garden of Eden, causing all kinds of good and interesting trouble by stimulating the mind ever since.

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