Screen Reading versus Real Books

The beginning of the school year is always a busy time for administrators but it is also a time when many of us look forward to being able to discuss with our colleagues workshops and training we have experienced or given over the long summer break, or reading we have done during the period away from our classrooms and offices. Two reports that have appeared in shortened form in the education Press were hotly debated in the first week back – at least if the e-mail exchanges I was copied in on are anything to go by.

The first of these reports appeared in the national and education press in August and discusses research led by Anna Mangen from Stavanger University that suggests readers of a short story were better able to respond to test items that demanded certain mental reconstruction skills such as sequencing if they had read the story in traditional print form than if they had done so on a Kindle. Mangen observed that her study appeared to support the findings of an earlier study in which 73 tenth grade readers in a Norwegian secondary school were divided into two groups and required to read a short story. The control group read the story in traditional print form and the experimental group read the same story in pdf form on a computer screen. The experimental group performed significantly worse on test items that measured immersion constructs such as empathy, transportation and narrative coherence.

The Kindle study that attracted such attention in August 2014 appears to have been extremely ill-structured. One report claimed only two individuals constituted the entire experimental group, but Mangen, whose recent work has also included a study that explored phenomenological reflections on the digitization of literature in early childhood learning contexts, concludes from the earlier Norwegian study that reading comprehension is significantly impaired when students read on a screen. She postulates that haptic elements such as the compression of the pages and the sense of progress internalized by the reader’s feeling the amount of reading already completed, as measured by the increased number of pages held in his or her left hand (assuming the reader is reading left to right), may contribute to the superiority of the printed form over the on-screen form for fomenting reader immersion. The study has clear implications for policy forming and the development of technology resources to support reading programs in schools. It also, rather neatly, provides a modern-day context for Jane Austen’s observation in Northanger Abbey that the physical presence of the book in the reader’s hand constitutes an interplay between text and textuality and limits the ability of the writer to control the reader’s assumptions.

                 The anxiety which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.

– Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

This is the sort of research that all of us can relate to and extend to ourselves. Following Nicholas Carr’s famous example of self-study described in The Shallows, I began to reflect this summer on my own screen and paper reading habits.  Although I am not a Kindle owner I do read books on my iPad fairly regularly, and I have even read one or two entirely on my iPhone.  More frequently, I begin reading in one form and continue switching between the two depending on where I am when I find myself with time to read. For example, when I read Moby Dick last year it happened to coincide with a month I was travelling quite frequently. Although I did not want to lug my heavy hardback edition of Moby Dick around with me on trains and planes, I did prefer to read the novel in that form when at home. I, therefore, read about half the book on screen and the other half on paper.

However, a year on, I find I cannot remember which sections of Moby Dick I read in which format. This contrasts sharply with my memory of reading from the time when all my reading was done in traditional printed form. For example, I last read Northanger Abbey in 1984. However, thirty years later (i.e. just now) when I needed to quote a passage for this blog post I could remember that the passage lay on the left-hand side of the page towards the end of the book. A few minutes ago before beginning this post I went to the high school library to get the same Penguin paperback edition to quote from and there it is – top half of the left-hand-side on page 234, some two and a half pages from the end. It took me literally three or four seconds to locate the exact quotation I needed.  I doubt I will ever be able to do that with an eReader – although I accept there will be electronic tools to assist me when I lose that faculty.

Northanger Abbey

An equally interesting study was reported in the Times Educational Supplement last month that appeared to show high school students in the UK are showing less enthusiasm for working with iPads in schools than in previous years. The study, conducted by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) surveyed more than 600 British schools in an attempt to explore the extent of investment in iPads. According to Vaughan (2014), the study found that there are currently over 440,000 tablets in British schools with the number set to double by 2016. However, the study also surveyed teacher’s perceptions of interest in iPads among their students. This reflected a decrease from 89% in 2012 to 78% in 2014 of teachers responding that their students did have at least some interest in tablets. This pattern is indicative of the same product adoption life cycle as that observed in tablet use in the commercial world. A further analysis of the BESA data reveals a gap between the high levels of engagement teachers perceive being demonstrated by students at elementary school and the much lower levels of engagement teachers perceive are typically displayed by students in middle and high school. The existence of this gap is supported by more robust research (Marks et al., 2011) and suggests the possibility of social factors affecting the data. It is, for example, possible that tablet devices are now so commonplace in the lives of some middle and high school students that there is no special attraction to their presence in the classroom. Younger students, on the other hand, often appreciate being given opportunities to use devices that are possibly monopolized by older siblings at home. Although unexplored in the BESA report itself, this idea, in my humble opinion, would be worthy of pursuance.




Flood, A. (19 August 2014). Readers absorb less on Kindles than on paper, study     finds. The Guardian. Retrieved 19 August 2014 from

Mangen, A., Walgermo, B. R., & Brønnick, K. (2013). Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension. International Journal Of Educational Research5861-68. doi:10.1016/j.ijer.2012.12.002

Vaughan, R. (8 August 2014). Once it was “wow”, now it’s “whatever”. Times Educational Supplement Connect. Retrieved on 13 August 2014 from



Screen Recording of an ACS Student’s eBook

The movie link below shows an ACS kindergarten student’s eBook as described in the previous post.  It was captured from the screen of an iPad 2 using the method described in that same post.  No jail breaking was required and the iPad to Mac app was downloaded on a free trial basis, although the software used to capture the Mac’s screen was the US$69 full version of Snapz Pro X.


“Me Books” Show the Way Forward

Sooner or later the teacher using an iPad in the classroom reaches the transition point between using apps for single function purposes and using apps or app workflows to create original content.  There is nothing wrong with using iPads to provide extension work or to reward success by allowing the students to enjoy a game of Jungle Coins or Math Bingo, of course.  But teachers who encourage students to use more multi-dimensional apps typically report greater degrees of satisfaction and success with iPads as tools to enhance learning.

In the same way, there appears to be an interactivity transition between traditional eBooks and something Ladybird has come up with that is currently attracting plaudits from UK technology commentators.  The app has the clumsily long title of Ladybird Classic Me Books, but Me Books will do for now.  Ladybird will need no introduction to anyone who grew up in the sixties, seventies or eighties in the UK, and indeed even today’s youngsters will have seen this enduring publisher’s titles on everything from jigsaw puzzles, to coasters to postcards to reissues of the original volumes over the past two years as the nostalgia market has propelled Ladybird’s back catalogue back onto the public consciousness!

The books appear as though on a school desktop

The idea of the Me Book is to take interactivity to new heights of personalisation.  Readers can even replace the bundled narration with their own reading (or that of a parent) or they can combine different voices so that for example, daddy reads the voice of the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk, or mummy the voice of Cinderella.  Moreover, there are hotspots on each picture page any one of which when tapped will provide extra sound effects, comments or other audible aids to understanding or enjoyment.  The reader can also create his or her own hotspots anywhere on the page or replace the ones that come bundled with the book.

These hotspots are the killer feature of the app.  Anyone who reads regularly with young children will recognise that much of the enjoyment of reading comes from observing and commenting on the activities going on at the sides and in the background of the main events (hence the popular “Find the Mouse” game that accompanies readings of Goodnight Moon, or the mischievous activities of the characters in Richard Scarry’s books – to name but two examples more or less contemporary with the rise of Ladybird).  The ability to create hotspots that allow these peripheral characters a voice, therefore, is an excellent way to engage the reader in the story and to allow him or her to extend the story without losing sight of the central plot.  Students with whom I read loved creating conversations between the mice, squirrels and other wildlife in the story of the Three Little Pigs, where these peripheral characters provide much of the amusement alongside the main story (see picture below)

The mice helping the third little pig build his house provide an opportunity for the reader to create his or her own fun dialogue

Students create hotspots (and, therefore, the potential for Readers’ Theatre) by drawing a circle with their finger anywhere on the screen.  The resulting purple patch (see example below from the story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff) becomes the hotspot and replaces any hotspot that was already there – including the ones bundled with the software.  However, teachers (and parents) may prefer the bundled narrations and hotspots (which are generally of high quality) and so there also exists the option of erasing the students’ hotspots and returning to the default bundled ones.

Currently, only fourteen titles are available from the bundled store and not all of them are the classic editions of the Ladybird titles that are promised (the Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Gingerbread Man versions are the easy reading editions from the Read It Yourself series ladybird launched in 1977), and each edition costs a steep £1.99 but more titles are promised in the future and, as a special offer over the current Christmas holidays, the titles were on sale for just 69p each which bodes well for future pricing.  This app appears to be showing the way forward for true interactive eReading.

Thoughts on eBooks

Penguin’s recent decision to withdraw books on its catalogue from eReaders caused consternation and heated debate among school librarians and other facilitators of school reading on electronic devices.  At ACS Cobham the debate turned to the possibility of adopting a patchwork model for our eReading programme, with a combination of Overdrive and Folletshelf being among the prime contenders for consideration.

Related to this discussion is the future of textbook provision for schools.  Having had on more than one occasion to go cap in hand to my board to obtain special funding for social studies textbook replacements in my teaching days, I can sympathise with the need to keep textbook collections up to date.  I recall being told in the mid-nineties at Shanghai American School that there would be no money to replace a Worldbook edition that contained the immortal lines “One day a man may walk on the moon”!  More recently, a huge investment in Houghton Mifflin’s A Message of Ancient Days at the American School of The Hague, where I taught for five years, had to be continually supplemented with teacher-produced materials from various sources to compensate for the fast pace of new discoveries in archaeology that had rendered some of the information in the book obsolete even before it was published.

Electronic textbooks solve this problem by means of continuous or regularly scheduled updates streamed to eReaders over the web.  A new discovery in a field of science, for example, can be included in a textbook as soon as it is ratified by the appropriate body and deemed suitable for inclusion in the relevant body of knowledge.

This extends to fiction also.  One of the most popular books of the year for iPad users has been Moonbot’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.  The animated film that accompanies this book has recently (at last!) been made available on the UK iTunes store and recent updates to the app, therefore, include that film – which helps students make sense of the book, or at least add another dimension to their understanding of the story.  Readers who became familiar with the story in the summer of 2011 and who have not revisited it since then may be surprised to see pages that look unfamiliar when they turn to the book today.  For example, among the books Morris distributes to the people at his door is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  Included among the Cheerio shapes in his breakfast cereal now are punctuation marks and mathematical symbols.  Surely numbers will shortly be following – as should Chinese characters for the alternative language versions that have been added.

A page from Morris Lessmore featuring a seasonal addition not present in the summer edition

To some, this is a disturbing element.  A book even when published is now no longer a fixed point.  The text can continue to develop and respond to reader feedback.  To others it is simply a natural extension of the Web 2.0 world they have grown up in.  Just as Wikipedia replaced the Encyclopaedia Britannica as their go to reference of choice, so a fiction book continually responds to the changing seasons or new information from the world.  In some respects this is little more than an acceleration to the existing process of issuing new editions to texts.  Another view is that such a practice removes a sense of solidity and stasis from the book.  It is no longer sufficient to quote the book’s page number and author.  Now the date – or even the time, of the update must be referenced.

To our lower school readers of Morris Lessmore this is not a worrying trend.  They are eager to reread their favourite iBooks in order to discover what might have changed.  However, we need to be careful that iBooks become more than simply attention grabbers.  If students are merely playing the games or pushing the interactive buttons that accompany a text, then the reading process itself will be ill-served by the presence of these additional features.  To my mind Morris Lessmore has the balance about right.  But it will not always be an easy balance to strike.