Daniel Willingham on Paper and E-books

“What about adults? Would the process of reading Billy Bathgate have been different if I had read it on paper rather than my Kindle? Experiments investigating this question have mostly examined the types of texts students would encounter in school—an expository text describing the function of the heart, for example—but have in some cases included narratives as well. Most studies have shown that reading from paper holds a small edge over reading from a screen either in reading comprehension or reading speed. People often report that reading from a screen feels more effortful, although at least one study shows not difference when more objective measures of effort were used.

Why would reading on a screen be different? Small changes in design can prompt small changes in comprehension. For example, comprehension is better if you navigate a book by flipping virtual pages, compared to scrolling. And clickable links (hyperlinks) incur a cost to comprehension, even if you don’t click them. Because you can see that they are clickable, you still need to make a decision about whether or not to click. That draws on your attention, and so carries a cost to comprehension. Although it has not been fully investigated yet, researchers suspect that the three-dimensionality of paper books may be important—it’s easier to remember an event as occurring at the end of a book with the spatial cue that it happened on a page near the back of the book. These small effects often add up to slight knock to comprehension when reading from a screen.”

Excerpted from: Willingham, Daniel T. The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017.

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