Keys to Reading: Digital vs. Print

As the Internet, ebooks and digital reading materials have become more accessible, schools and libraries across the country have assumed that younger readers, having grown up in the digital age, simply prefer an online reading experience to traditional books. In turn, this assumption has driven spending and resource allocation in many school districts. But do children really prefer reading ebooks over good old paper ones? The Journal takes a look at the emerging data suggesting that many prefer print.


In September 2001, education writer Marc Prensky coined a new term for what he saw as a new generation of learners that traditional American schooling was woefully unprepared to reach on their level: “digital natives.” Prensky argued in his article “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” for On the Horizon, that students of the new millennium were the first group to grow up steeped in the digital universe. Everywhere around them were “computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age.”

Prensky’s argument, along with other voices in education calling for a shift to digital resources to better engage this tech-savvy generation, made a tangible impact on schools and libraries across the country particularly in the realm of textbooks. Today, the number of school districts nationwide relying on electronic textbooks is growing. A recent Florida law required schools to spend half of their textbook budgets on digital resources by the year 2015.

To read Prensky’s 2001 article, check out:

But with this drive toward all things digital, some interesting data has emerged. First, student comprehension is better when reading is done on paper vs. screens. In 2012, Norwegian researchers conducted a study that took 72 10th grade students, divided them into two groups and gave each a fiction and a non-fiction piece to read. One group was asked to read both texts on a computer screen, while the other group was given hard copies.

The study revealed comprehension was clearly stronger among students who read both texts on paper.

To read more about this study, conducted at the University of Stavanger, check out:

Researchers argue that’s because reading on paper is inherently a tactile (even multi-sensory!) experience that allows the brain to create a ‘mental map’ of the entire text. Unlike material read on an e-reader or computer screen, students can leaf through a book, quickly see its beginning and end. It’s that process, researchers say, that is crucial particularly when deep comprehension is needed for long and complex texts.

Now, another study, this time conducted in Australia, finds that despite assumptions to the contrary, children reading for pleasure prefer traditional text books over digital versions. Of the 997 children who participated in the study, researchers found that children were less likely to read for pleasure on a digital device, even if they were daily readers.

Researchers also found that children read less in general, the more digital devices they had access to. While much more research into comprehension and student reading preferences remains to be done, this recent study offers a strong counter-case to Prensky’s notion of digital natives. And school districts would be wise to keep tabs on these developments in understanding how reading in the digital age really works for students.

The Australian researchers go so far as it say its foreseeable that being forced to read in a non-preferred mode could have a detrimental impact on young people’s willingness to engage in regular reading.

To learn more about the recent Australian study on children’s reading preferences, check out:

Moreover, reading a traditional book provides a respite from the sort of interruptions from texts, games and social media that readers can be bombarded with while attempting to read on a tablet or computer screen. While researchers still have much to learn about children’s preferences and behaviors, it is possible that books deliver a one-of-a-kind, immersive experience that even the most tech-savvy of generations can enjoy, just as readers have for hundreds of years.