I was asked recently by a parent whether I would ever move towards digital books in my classroom: after all, they are less expensive, they are kinder to trees and kids like them. I had to laugh. As everyone at Vanguard knows, I am something of a Luddite, having only gotten my first mobile phone (of any kind) last year. Consequently, I am perhaps not the best person to offer an unbiased opinion on the subject. I love printed books - the feel of them, the smell of them, the way over time they automatically open to my favorite passages. There’s just something in my gut that tells me that when it comes to literature, the printed word is best. As a teacher, I feel like my students learn best with a book in front of them; as a mom of five, I feel like my own children learn best with a book in front of them. But a gut feeling is not definitive, and I have come to realize that it might be helpful to have a more scientific reasoning behind my choice. As schools (especially public schools) become increasingly inclined to move towards digital texts, I would do well to have an arsenal of support to back me up.
Not much of a scientist, I started my research by simply asking my husband, an English professor, what he thought. Unlike me, my husband does own a Kindle and has been known to read on it from time to time. I asked my husband whether he felt Kindle or print was best. Without skipping a beat, he responded, “Printed text is always best.” When I asked him why, he responded, “I remember the books that I read in print far better than those that I read on screen. I would never use the Kindle to read a book that I am teaching to a class.” When I asked my husband to give me a specific reason as to why he could remember the printed word better, he claimed that he finds it easier to remember where in a text something happens when using a print book, because he is unconsciously aware of the text’s spacing. For example, he can remember if the evidence he needs to prove a point in class is in the first quarter of the book, or the second quarter or the last. The pages are in different locations. When one reads a digital text, on the other hand, every page feels the same. It is difficult to reference one page against another and therefore it can be difficult to recall chronology.
As it turns out, my husband is not alone in his assessment. Anne Mangen of Norway's Stavanger University is a lead researcher on this exact topic, and throughout her studies she has experimented extensively on whether it is easier to retain information from a digital text or in print. All of her research (although this is still quite a young field) has suggested that people are overwhelmingly better at recall when they have read the text in print. Mangen claims that "the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does. When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right. You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual.” Apparently, this “tactile sense of progress” really does help readers retain information. In his article, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens,” Ferris Jabr writes that “Print text allows readers to mentally map information they read in relation to other information or ‘landmarks’ (e.g., a chapter, the left or right page, near the top or bottom of the page). Spatial maps have been shown to improve learning, retention and comprehension overall.” I have a feeling that Jabre and my husband would get along.
That said, it might not be simply the physicality of the textbook alone that helps one recall information, it might also be the fact that, generally speaking, it takes longer to read the printed word (E-books have often been touted as time savers). Wait a minute, you might say, I’m a really busy person! Isn’t it a good thing to be able to read something more quickly? Wouldn’t it be great to be able to finish one’s homework sooner? Doesn’t this argument actually make digital texts the preferred method of reading? To the askers of such questions, I would say this: yes, students being able to read quickly is desirable, but not at the cost of understanding. Quicker reading is not the best route to go if it comes at the cost of a deeper comprehension. Case in point: a study of Oxford University students found that “reading on screen was conducive to a more superficial reading style… Attention span and reading sessions were shorter. Students reported that with e-texts they generally read short passages only and usually in a non-linear fashion.” The Oxford research would appear to be confirmed by Fabr’s study: “When reading on screens, people seem less inclined to engage in what psychologists call metacognitive learning regulation—strategies such as setting specific goals, rereading difficult sections and checking how much one has understood along the way.” It appears therefore that while Digital reading is fine when one is reading information of passing interest, the printed text is far more beneficial when information needs to be learned and retained. Furthermore, I would encourage researchers to consider that reading too quickly becomes even more problematic in a literature class where skimming for content causes readers to miss out on the richness of the author’s language. Here at Vanguard College Preparatory School, we in the English Department are trying to help students become better writers, and one of the best ways to hone excellent writing skills is to read excellent writing. Each word should be savored.
Lastly, let me point out that even if all of the above studies were proven to be faulty, I would still prefer that my students work from a printed book. Vanguard College Preparatory School English teachers know that print-based books are perfect for easy annotating, and handwritten notes help cement information in students’ minds. Furthermore, and I would argue that this is perhaps the most important point, students focus better when they have the text in front of them. Teachers can see if students are following along when the book lies open in front of them. When I call out, “it might be a good idea to underline this passage because it supports such-and-such a claim,” I know which students are on task and which I need to call to focus. It is impossible for any teacher to know whether all students are on task if the students are behind a screen. Even teachers who allow digital print are aware that screens offer numerous distractions. Education scholar Faria Sana writes, “Research on the effects of in-class laptop use on student learning showed that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to the comprehension of lecture content.” In time, surely more research will be done into the effects of digital study (and these studies will include concerns not considered here, like eye fatigue) and whether print books or digital books are better. Until then, I am so glad to have an administration and colleagues who acknowledge the benefits of the printed word.