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.

 

References

 

Flood, A. (19 August 2014). Readers absorb less on Kindles than on paper, study     finds. The Guardian. Retrieved 19 August 2014 from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/19/readers-absorb-less-kindles-paper-study-plot-ereader-digitisation

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 http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6439349

 

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