Nowadays, we all read a lot of text digitally — whether it's a book on a tablet or the latest news. It's an unavoidable part of our technology-driven society. There are different processes and behaviors that go into reading on screens as opposed to print, and these processes could have some significant implications for reading comprehension.
In a 2005 study by Ziming Liu of San Jose State University, Liu found that when we read digitally, we do more scanning and jumping around — looking for keywords to get as much information as possible in a short amount of time. In certain ways, digital reading is a less immersive experience than reading printed words.
Scanning text is a nonlinear form of reading, Liu explains. When doing linear reading, without any skipping or jumping, we're engaged in deep reading. Deep reading allows for more immersion, as opposed to nonlinear reading. In fact, it's understandable that nonlinear reading may have an effect on comprehension. It's the difference between taking in the landscape from the window of a speeding car instead of taking a slow walk along the same route.
Charting a course through a story
As reported in Scientific American, Anne Mangen of the University of Stavenger in Norway found a digital text can be an inferior "map" compared to a printed book. Mangen thinks the tactility of a book plays a big role in the way we map out the terrain of the text, giving us a chance to really know and feel comfortable in our textual environment (linear reading) as opposed to just wandering about (nonlinear reading).
Mangen asked 72 10th-graders, who all possessed the same reading abilities, to study one narrative text and one expository text. Half the students read the texts in print, while the other half read the texts in PDF format on a 15-inch LCD screen. After studying the texts, the students were asked to take reading comprehension tests that consisted of short answer and multiple-choice questions, while using the text as an aid. The results showed a discrepancy between the test scores: Those who read the digital version of the text didn't perform as well as those who read the print versions.
In a 2014 joint study, Mangen teamed up with Nice-Sophia Antipolis University and Aix-Marseille University and had 50 adults read a 28-page mystery story. Some read the story in print while others read it digitally. Those who read the digital text had a more difficult time putting the plot events in chronological order, the study found.
Further research emphasizes that point. Virginia Clinton of the University of North Dakota, investigated 33 previous studies that looked at print vs. digital reading, and found that paper readers were more efficient and had a better understanding of what they had read. Interestingly, this was only true of explanatory text and didn’t apply to narrative text, which appeared to even the odds of comprehension. Her 2019 meta-analysis was published in the Journal of Research in Reading.
Why we read differently on paper vs. a screen
Mangen told Scientific American she thinks the discrepancies between comprehension could be due to the navigability of electronic texts. A book offers a more compartmentalized way of moving through the text; in the digital atmosphere, it's harder to put things into place. We can pick up a book and flip through it easily, whereas digital texts require lots of scrolling and clicking, and there aren't many indicators as to what sections you might be searching for. The physicality of the book lets your hands act as a bookmark to help you keep track. A physical book allows you to leave a trail of breadcrumbs so to speak — making sure you comprehend your surroundings and can retrace your steps.
This difficulty of mapping digital texts might also make a reader more vexed and stressed. According to Mangen, the stress related to being a little lost in the digital woods might make for weaker comprehension skills due to the demanding mental efforts required to figure out where you are.
None of these studies make claims that digital reading is bad for your brain; it's just a different process. In an age when digital technology is pervasive, sticking purely to print isn't the right answer. Learning how to balance nonlinear reading with deep reading could be a helpful exercise in maintaining our ability to read certain texts more closely.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since its publication in July 2016.