Do kids learn more from print texts than from digital ones?

The answer may surprise you.

The debate over whether physical or digital reading is better for kids is warming up. We are long past the days when the claims for print books were primarily aesthetic; nowadays, you need data to prove a point. Researchers are now suggesting that certain aspects of physical, print books actually stimulate more memory and learning than their digital equivalents.

The claims are straightforward. First, it is suggested that the visual memory of text is intimately tied up with all kinds of coordinates, like where on the page the information is viewed. And I have to concur; as a student I was as likely to find a passage by looking for the position that I remember it in–the bottom of the right hand page, for example, or the middle left. Somehow the coordinates of the words got imprinted along with their meaning. I suppose that is a little like the phenomenon wherein everyone in my generation can tell you where they were when JFK was shot. (OK, Mr. Tovey’s sixth grade classroom at my elementary school in Ohio, second row, about four seats back.) A passage that makes an impressions seems to carry a little bit more information with it, and useful information indeed. When something makes sense to us, the meaning-making species, we tend to note where that little epiphany happened.

Of course, this is not possible with the ereader and its reflowable text, where the very same words could appear at different places on the screen each time you read, for a variety of reasons. However, ereading has a great advantage over print reading in that the passage you are looking for can be searched for using any of the words you remember. Searching should always trump leafing about, at least when it comes to finding information, if, that is, you can remember those keywords. If not, glancing at page positions may actually get you where you want to go quicker.

Another claim is that  physical books are more readily customized as learning tools than ebooks. Dog-earing a page, scribbling in the margins, underlining a passage–other than reducing the value of the book for resale, these tactile experiences serve to “cement” the reading experience and, in fact, are a big part of “active reading,” a process that correlates highly with comprehension. While their are many tools available to readers in ereading software and ereaders themselves, these are less gestural and immediate than taking pen to page. And again, although digital annotations are more easily located and shared, somehow the original encoding of the information is just not as strong as the learning that occurs “through the hands.” A recent contribution at the Ebook Educators Group supports this idea:

student response has indicated that reading for pleasure on the Kindle Fire is fine, but reading for content is much easier with a print copy.

Presumably, the ability to engage more actively with the text plays a role in this. These data are similar to what researchers observed when the now defunct Kindle DX was given to students at campuses across the country to test their value for academic reading. One student at Princeton told Gizmodo at the time that the Kindle would not work as a tool in college, saying “Much of my learning comes from a physical interaction with the text.”

The “markup” of a digital text is undoubtedly a more abstract process. While the ability to perform textual analysis by searching for the appearance of key terms in a novel by D. H. Lawrence, for example, is vastly easier when using digital text, making and finding notes requires leaving the text briefly to type in a notation, often with the thumbs awkwardly, and then returning to a page of text with the indication that a note had been taken but not the visible contents of the note itself.

So, the premise here is that a print book takes advantage of more perceptual capabilities in the reader in order to grasp and encode meaning than does an ereader, with all its bells and whistles. The question is whether or not these features of the physical trump the improved access to text, the variable font size and text layout, the built-in dictionary for vocabulary support, and the inherent “gadget interest” or technology premium that an ereader device provides.

What is your experience?


  2 comments for “Do kids learn more from print texts than from digital ones?

  1. willdela
    July 27, 2014 at 9:33 am

    Very interesting idea, Heeru! I agree completely that it will require a longer experience with the transition to e-books to really tell the tale. No doubt physical books will give way to digital texts over time, at least for most purposes. Then, you may be right, people will write about how it must have been crippling to have to deal with print text. We shall see!

  2. July 21, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    I think its a matter of habit. Our children learn from adults who are not digital natives. Features like dogearing the pages, writing on margins are learnt from adults and it is often the non digital natives who claim that reading a print book is ideal etc etc. I think students imitate elders and therefore the trend noticed is limited. As an avid reader, nothing has changed for me. In fact, personally, reading a digital copy is far more convenient. I think data collected after another 10 years will indicate otherwise when teachers use digital content ALL the time.

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