Are screens a barrier to effective reading outcomes? A new study says yes

Are screens a barrier to effective reading outcomes? A new study says yes

A growing body of research has found reading on screens to be a less effective way to absorb and retain information than reading words printed on paper, yet little is known about why this is.

Moreover, the jury is still out on how we can learn to concentrate on books again with our ever-shortening attention spans.

These are questions that four Macquarie University researchers set out to answer in a study that was recently published in Trends in Cognitive Science.

A number of research studies strongly suggest that when we read text on a screen, we understand less than if we read the same text on paper, and this applies across languages and writing systems.

This is known as the “screen inferiority effect”, and one of its problems is that we are likely to come away with only the gist of what we’ve read but struggle to recall details.

Below, The Educator speaks to two of the Macquarie University researchers – Professor Erik Reichle and Dr Lili Yu, about the implications of this research for schools when it comes to their approaches to lifting students’ reading outcomes.

TE: This research certainly has some interesting implications for the way schools approach reading moving forward. How do you think the screen inferiority findings influence the balance between digital texts and traditional textbooks in curriculum design?

The main pedagogical implication of the screen inferiority effect is that more consideration has to be given to the likely pros and cons of digital versus paper-based reading.  For example, e-readers allow access to lots of different types of reading materials and may be useful for motivating students to read.  But traditional books may encourage students to engage more deeply with the content of the reading material.  As a researcher, I can’t emphasise enough the importance of supporting scientific research on the topic because digital reading technologies have only been prevalent for a few decades and we actually know very little about how growing up with such technology influences brain development and the acquisition of complex cognitive skills like reading.  

TE: Drawing from the research you’ve done, what strategies can educators use to help students overcome the challenges of screen reading, especially for less skilled readers.

Given what I said above about knowing so little, I think the best advice would be to encourage students to read a variety of materials using both digital and paper-based media.  And for less skilled readers, this variety is probably even more important because the extensive practice that is required to become skilled has to be motivated by making reading an enjoyable experience.  Even such media as comic books might be beneficial for motivating children who might otherwise have little or no interest in reading.

TE: Considering screen reading's effect on comprehension, how should online assessments be adapted to ensure fairness and accuracy?

This is a difficult question to answer. For example, if the test is to assess reading skill, then a digitally based test might actually be more efficient at differentiating good versus poor readers – just like a 10-km run would be more useful than a 1-km run for differentiating fit from really fit runners.  But if the test is designed to assess knowledge of some content, then a digitally based test might disadvantage a poor reader due to his or her reading ability rather than lack of knowledge.  These types of issues and their complexity underscore the importance of doing more research. 

TE: Given the findings of this study, what immediate research areas do you think should be prioritised, and how can these inform the strategic direction of educational policies?

The evidence for the screen inferiority effect remains tentative and – at the very least – appears to interact with factors like reading ability, motivation, reading material, etc.  For that reason, priority should be given to first demonstrating that the effect exists and is robust (i.e., compromises reading to some non-trivial degree).  The next step would then be to understand why the effect occurs.  For example, if it’s due to the fact that readers often skim digital text, then it would be important to know whether this skimming behaviour corrupts the reading of paper-based materials, reducing the comprehension of those materials.  I could imagine that evidence of the latter would be very worrying for most parents and educators.