Read on paper, read on screen: how is it different?


The screens of mobile phones, tablets and computers invade our daily lives, and here are dictionaries, class sheets or even literature classics just a click away. Should students be encouraged to take 100% of these unprecedented access to knowledge, and return the paper to the past? Nothing is less certain if we look at the latest research results.

Since the beginning of this century, dozens of studies have been conducted to evaluate the effects of reading support on the comprehension performance of texts that could be either documentary – textbooks, academic works – or narrative – fiction, novels …

The results of these studies were included in two meta-analyzes published in 2018; that of Kong, Seo and Zhai , covering 17 studies, published in the journal Computers & Education , and that of Delgado and his colleagues, covering 54 studies with a total of about 170,000 readers, and published in Educational Research Review . It turns out that the comprehension of texts is significantly better when the reading is done on paper than on screen.

Reading habits

While Kong, Seo and Zhai (2018) did not take into account the nature of the texts (documentary or narrative) as a criterion, Delgado and his colleagues found that the difference between paper and screen was manifested in the texts documentaries, both documentary and narrative texts, but not narrative texts alone. The authors bring two elements of interpretation to this result:

  • the documentary texts call upon more complex cognitive treatments involving, for example, the use of a very specific academic vocabulary
  • they are less connected to the knowledge that readers have about the real world, all of which makes comprehension both more difficult for this type of text and at the same time more sensitive to the nature of the reading medium.

To explain this greater ease of understanding on paper, the first factor that could be invoked would be that of experience. As digital technologies are relatively new, screen reading habits would be less anchored than those on paper. One way to test this factor would be to check whether, in the most recent publications, where the participants thus display a greater familiarity with the screens, the differences of understanding diminish between the supports.

However, as Delgado and his colleagues have found, it is exactly the opposite that occurs: the difference in performance of understanding between screen and paper increases in the most recent studies compared to older ones. The relative lack of experience with technology therefore does not explain the benefits of paper in reading.

Sensory experience

Is the materiality of the printed book then the decisive factor? Indeed, the reading of a book implies not only the analysis and the treatment of what is written there but also the association between a content and a rich object from a sensory point of view. The shape, cover of the book, smell, number and thickness of the pages help our brain to integrate the information that reaches it and better retain it over time.

While stocking thousands of books, tablets and reading lights certainly make it possible to lighten the school bags, but, read on the same medium, textbooks and novels will be associated with a less specific sensory experience and will therefore be less well treated and memorized. The results of a study just published by Mangen, Olivier and Velay (2019) go in this direction.

The authors asked the study participants to read a long narrative text using either a book or a reader. If the general comprehension performances measured were generally the same, whatever the medium, reading on paper made it possible to better remember where the sentences appeared precisely and in what order the events took place.

The authors consider that the manipulation of a real book during reading brings richer sensory and motor information, which makes it possible to better treat and memorize the text and the temporal organization of the events described. Thus, the current scientific data lead us to continue to favor the reading of printed books if we wish to promote the understanding and memorization of what is read.

Author Bio: Frederic Bernard is a Senior Lecturer in Neuropsychology at the University of Strasbourg