In this paper, I further expand upon the discussion regarding how we read across platforms. This paper addresses how our brains respond to reading on screens as opposed to print, and investigates whether differences in reading comprehension and retention may be contingent on or affected by environment, learned behaviours, and social factors around reading. Through a review of the current research on these topics, I explore the various factors that influence how we read and engage with texts, and what we as publishers can do to improve the current landscape of reading.
A New Invasive Species
Maria Konnikova’s New Yorker piece, “Being a Better Online Reader,” summarizes the issues that constantly arise in the discourse surrounding the comparison of reading in print and reading digitally. Konnikova introduces us to Maryanne Wolf’s extensive research into the history of the reading brain. Since the publication of her book on this subject, Proust and the Squid, in 2007, the explosion of digital reading has presented an entirely new layer to Wolf’s area of study. With Konnikova, Wolf explores the concerns surrounding the effects on our brains of reading digitally, but rather than simply bemoaning the sorry state of reading, she explores the potential of print and digital platforms, and paints a hopeful picture of the future of our ability to engage with texts.
It is common knowledge that we skim when we read online, and read more thoroughly in print, and anyone who’s ever been near the internet knows that reading on computers is distracting. As publishers, we are inclined to champion reading in print, due to the understanding that this is the contributing factor to our continued livelihood, and, less formally, because we love books in general. As e-book sales reportedly plateau, and in some cases decline (Milliot), the fear that digital reading will usurp print appears to be unfounded, yet we still feel it necessary to investigate and critique the way we consume digital content as though it were the enemy of the print book. This leveling out of e-book sales seems to suggest not that e-books, or digital reading in general, is on the decline, but that we have reached the natural stage following the rapid growth of any trend. Thus, digital isn’t going anywhere, but neither is print. The mediums can exist — and succeed — simultaneously; they need not be in opposition. And for publishers this is ideal, both from a professional and personal standpoint, because really, we just want people to read.
The State of Reading
Reading, regardless of platform, seems to be holding strong. Pew Research shows that 43% of those ages 18-29 are reading a book, be it print, audio, or electronic, at some point every day (Zickuhr and Rainie “Reading Habits”). When format is considered, paperback and hardcover purchases consistently beat out e-books and audio, with e-book sales hovering consistently at 17% over the last 2 years in Canada (BNC Research). Despite this, e-reading device ownership is on the rise, and as of 2014, exactly 50% of American adults owned either an e-reader or tablet (Zickuhr and Rainie “E-Reading”), 32% of which are dedicated e-reading units. Additionally, the number of device owners who claim to use their devices to read e-books has risen across platforms, including cell phones. Most notably, e-book consumption on tablets has risen from 23% to 55% between 2011 and 2014. The rise in device ownership in relation to the stability of e-book purchasing could indicate that more individuals are borrowing or pirating the content they consume on these devices, but this is hard to determine, as we cannot assume that the Canadian and American market of readers and book buyers reflect each other.
To acknowledge that the act of reading appears healthy is only part of the discussion. Wolf is concerned about the intensity of reading that readers are engaging in, separate from the regularity or frequency. Thus, it is more an issue of quality over quantity, with quality in this case not referring to the type of literature but rather the level of engagement with and retention of the material. According to Konnikova’s article, this level of quality reading is becoming less prevalent. She points to Anne Mangen’s research, which suggests that we are better able to recall even basic elements of a story, like the chronology of the plot, when we read it in print:
When readers were asked to place a series of events from the story in chronological order—a simple plot-reconstruction task, not requiring any deep analysis or critical thinking—those who had read the story in print fared significantly better, making fewer mistakes and recreating an over-all more accurate version of the story. (Konnikova)
Because of findings such as these, it is easy to conclude that it is solely the platform that determines our engagement, but is the answer really that simple, or are there other factors that contribute to our brain’s ability to engage with and cement what we read in order to accurately recall the material we consume?
The Frankenbook: Print + Digital
Since the inception of the e-book, the design has retained a book-like element, arguably with the intention of creating a product that is familiar and comfortable for new users. Kane Hsieh describes the “skeuomorphic visual cues” of e-books as a barrier to innovation, ceasing neither to satisfy the “bibliophile” nor allow for growth of a product that is unique. While the intention is to mirror the experience of reading a print book, it’s not fooling anyone. Users, particularly those of the Web 2.0 generation, seem to engage with e-books in a way that aligns more with reading on the web. In an article titled “Your paper brain and your Kindle brain aren’t the same thing,” T.J. Raphael refers to the “bi-literate brain,” which allows us to engage differently with print and digital material. Raphael writes of our inclination to skim and read in a “non-linear” fashion on screens in opposition to the deep reading we utilize when engaged in a novel. While Rapheal’s examples serve to demonstrate his point, the comparison of a print novel to a digital e-book or online article ignore the motivation behind the chosen medium. Perhaps the way we read is more dependent on why we are reading, whether for pleasure or the purpose of seeking a piece of information, than on what we are reading from.
Motivations aside, there are fundamental differences between reading from a screen and a page. A study published in late 2013 out of the UK measured visual fatigue across different reading platforms, comparing print, e-ink (Kindle Paperwhite), and LCD (Kindle Fire HD). Predictably, participants experienced significantly higher fatigue when reading from the LCD screens. However, while fatigue levels were the same for print and e-ink, participants still reported much higher subjective preference for print (Benedetto et al.). Other studies (as cited in Myrberg and Wiberg) looked at the same devices but measured variables like eye movement, brain activity, and reading speed, finding no significant distinctions across different devices. Yet, people still preferred print, which begs the question of whether the difference be rooted in, or at least associated with, psychological preference.
Social Impressions of Reading Platforms
The preference for print is not limited to publishers and bibliophiles. While adults are beginning to read more digitally, they still believe that reading print to their children holds more value (Zickuhr). This goes for reading in front of their kids as well, as many parents reported a desire to model reading to their kids using print books, thus instilling a belief that reading in print is better. When reading a print book, there is no question as to what one is doing, but this is not the same for seeing mom or dad on their tablet. The ingrained nostalgic value of print is likely to contribute to this negative perception of reading digitally at a young age, as well as an appreciation of the sensory experience of reading a beautifully designed children’s book.
Research comparing reading in print to reading digitally also favours print as the more effective method. Notably, a UK study found that children aged 8 – 18 who were identified as heavy readers (meaning they spent a minimum of 1 hour each day with print media) were more likely to report higher grades than light readers — “72% of heavy readers report high grades, compared to 60% of those in the lightreading group” (Rideout, Foehr, and Roberts). That said, there is research to suggest that reading digitally can improve readings skills more rapidly than reading in print in children who are just learning to read. Such evidence was found in an experiment carried out by Nobou Masataka in Japan, in which children read either the print or digital version of the same picture book. Subjects were 4-year-old boys, and the picture-book was read to them by their mothers and the digital book was read by a recording done by a professional narrator. While the print books was simply a regular 12-page picture-book, the digital version contained an additional feature that highlighted each character as it was read by the narrator. Those who read the digital version showed a significant increase in reading comprehension in both the post-test and the 4-week follow-up test, while those who read the print version did not show any significant improvement during the duration of the experiment (Masataka). These findings directly oppose the socially pervasive understanding that digital is inferior to print in the development of reading comprehension.
The novelty and subsequent lack of longitudinal data surrounding digital reading, and particularly its role as a learning tool, restricts the ability to draw conclusions regarding its effects on deep reading, and reading in general. This fear of digital reading is rooted in this limited understanding; we are “in a place of apprehension rather than comprehension” (Wolf, as cited in Konnikova). Whether our socially constructed ideas of digital reading will shift as it becomes a more natural part of our reading experience is also yet to be seen.
Orientation in the Reading Landscape
Although we have little understanding of the long-term effects of digital reading on our ability to engage deeply with texts, we can look to our current habits of engagement to assess just how “endangered” (Wolf, as cited in Konnikova) quality reading really is. In an article in the Scientific American, Ferris Jabr takes us through the topography of reading. When we read, we engage in the mental construction of a spatial representation that contributes to the consolidation of memory. Jabr states that “when we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure.” While Jabr notes that the research is far from exhaustive, these psychological representations are “similar to the mental maps we create of terrain.” With print books, our brains are able to navigate the text, using what researchers refer to as “spatial landmarks” (Szalavitz). These can be “seemingly irrelevant factors,” such as whether a word or line is found at the end of a paragraph, midway through the left-hand page, or two-thirds of the way through the book, but these cues work to “cement material in [the] mind” (Szalavitz). We also use this information to gauge how far we are into a chapter or text, thus allowing us to make assumptions or draw conclusions as to how much time or energy we have left to exert before we reach an end point, thus earning ourselves the pat on the back that comes from reaching a satisfying conclusion.
This sense of satisfaction is much harder to achieve when reading digitally. Most e-books continue to implement a paginated format, allowing the reader to orient themselves on a page, but this feature only provides one point of reference for recall. Additionally, most e-readers also display some reference of progress, measured using page numbers or a calculated percentage of completion. However, newer e-book readers and tablet apps, including those for smartphones, are making this mode of reading an optional feature and offering users the ability to opt for a continuous scroll. This feature is appealing, as it eliminates breaking the flow of text; the reader no longer has to click back and forth to re-read the beginning of a passage or sentence. However, continuous scroll reduces the ability for readers to spatially orient themselves in a text, something that has shown to reduce engagement and completion, especially online. In many cases where content is updated in real-time, like Twitter and Facebook, this format works, but Yogev Ahuvia argues that this is dependent on the kind of content being consumed, and is not necessarily the most effective way to present information online. Content that is “equally relevant” to the reader may be displayed and refreshed continuously, whereas content that is ranked hierarchically in its relevance or usefulness to the user, such as Google search results, is best displayed in a limited format, thus giving the reader a “sense of control” (Ahuvia) that is lacking in the endless scroll design.
In fact, many sites that currently or previously implemented the endless scroll have reverted or intend to revert back to a paginated or article-by-article format. Etsy famously failed to find success in the endless scroll, and Forbes intends to redesign their site without the endless scroll capability after noting “no significant uptake in pageviews or time spent” (Moses), which is the purported appeal of the endless scroll. The endless scroll removes the sensation of location within an article, something that CNN executive creative director Dewey Reid believes is an important factor to the reader’s experience when navigating their content online. He argues that “the Internet is already an endless scroll of content,” and that it is important to their readers that CNN makes it “very clear that there’s a beginning, middle, and end” to each article (as cited in Moses). Even online, this ability to orient oneself in any body of text is valuable, especially, as Dmitry Fadayev states, when the user is “mapping the information in their mind [and] trying to remember the items they like or think are worth researching further.” Without the ability to create a mental map of the content, readers are becoming disoriented and subsequently less engaged with what they are consuming, resulting in a failure to cement content in memory of the reader.
Engaging with the Text
In addition to the passive engagement with a text that this mental navigation provides, annotation serves to further enhance memory consolidation. Annotation also takes the orientation process one step further, as to annotate a text, either in print or digitally — and many apps and e-readers make this possible — creates a physical connection between the reader and the text. This level of engagement may be a way for digital compensate for, especially for students who are, more often than not, unable to physically annotate their texts, either because the books are school property, or because they intend to sell texts after use and must retain their condition. E-books and online content have the potential to reinstate annotation as a mode of engagement, especially as newer generations continue to be more digitally fluent than their predecessors.
Since technology is playing its part in the development of online annotation tools, many of which are free, as well as those built in to e-book reading devices, this responsibility to create these generations of deep readers relies on educators and parents. Teachers like Mark Pennington note that while “there are real advantages to print” with regard to students’ ability to engage with a text, “giving students the ‘ability to talk to the text, to create an internal dialogue with the text’” (as cited in Korbey) is at the heart of developing deep readers, regardless of platform. Looking forward, Korbey suggests that “annotation features will become more intuitive in the next generation of devices,” and, arguably, the next generation of readers, if they are taught how to use them effectively.
Are We There Yet?
Despite any perceived threat to deep reading, Wolf sees the potential in our brains’ ability to navigate the realm of digital reading. As our brains adapt, so too does the technology as we continue to explore and understand the way our brain consumes content. The answer isn’t simply to recreate the print page digitally, or vice versa, but to utilize the plastic nature of our brains and recognize and exercise the context-dependency of our memory. With this, we must also improve technology in tandem with the way we create, perceive, and consume digital content, in order to deliver information to readers in a way that complements both the content and the way we engage with it. Through engagement with text, be it print or digital, we can become better readers, in any environment.
Ahuvia, Yogev. “Infinite Scrolling: Let’s Get To The Bottom Of This.” Smashing Magazine. 3 May 2013.
Benedetto, Simone, Veronique Drai-Zerbib, Marco Pedrotti, Geoffrey Tissier, and Theirry Baccino. “E-Readers and Visual Fatigue.” PLoS ONE 8(12). 27 December 2014.
BNC Research. “The Canadian Book Buyer 2015.” Booknet Canada. October 2015.
Fadayev, Dmitry. “When Infinite Scroll Doesn’t Work.” Usability Post. 7 January 2013.
Hsieh, Kane. “Why Do We Keep Making Ebooks Like Paper Books?” Gizmodo. 5 April 2013.
Jabr, Ferris. “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens.” Scientific American. 11 April 2013.
Konnikova, Maria. “Being a Better Online Reader.” New Yorker. 16 July 2014.
Korbey, Holly. “Can Students Go Deep With Digital Reading?” MindShift. 9 September 2014.
Masataka, Nobou. “Development of reading ability is facilitated by intensive exposure to a digital children’s picture book.” Frontiers in Psychology 5. 2 May 2014.
Milliot, Jim. “Declining E-book Sales Hit Home.” Publisher’s Weekly. 6 November 2015.
Moses, Lucia. “Publishers see finite rewards from infinite scroll.” Digiday. 4 March 2015.
Myrberg, Caroline and Ninna Wiberg. “Screen vs. paper: what is the difference for reading and learning?” Insights 28(2): 49–54. 7 July 2015.
Raphael, T.J. “Your paper brain and your Kindle brain aren’t the same thing.” PRI.org. 18 September 2014.
Rideout, Victoria J., Ulla G. Foehr, and Donald F. Roberts. “Generation M²: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds.” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. January 2010.
Szalavitz, Maia. “Do E-Books Make It Harder to Remember What You Just Read?” Time. 14 March 2012.
Zickuhr, Kathryn. “In a digital age, parents value printed books for their kids.” PewResearchCenter. 28 May 2013.
Zickuhr, Kathryn and Lee Rainie. “E-Reading Rises as Device Ownership Jumps.” PewResearchCenter. 16 January 2014.
— “Younger Americans’ Reading Habits and Technology Use.” PewResearchCenter. 10 September 2014.