If you want to learn stuff, it matters that you read real books.

In this month’s Scientific American, there is one of those lovely research articles that summarises what we know about reading things for the purposes of learning, understanding and retention. The article specifically contrasts the effectiveness on reading text on a slate/screen against reading text on paper.

You can read the whole article here, and it’s a good read, but to summarise:

For many years we have known that reading text off screens is a different cognitive experience than reading of paper, described as ‘hot’ v ‘cold’ reading.  By and large, there is a body of evidence that points to ‘cold’ reading being a more effective way of proof reading, checking and highlighting knowledge to be acquired. But as the screens have proliferated, so the newer evidence shows more of a mix. Anecdote tells us that people prefer screens for reading saucier titles (50 shades of grey for example).

To summarise even more – most studies that look at simple effectiveness show there is little to chose, such as reading instructions for example. Different people have differing preferences too.  Over the long term, it does seem that papers wins over screen text.

Because the brain wasn’t designed to read text, it treats those lines/ characters that make up words as physical objects in time or space, the same way we get to see apples as different to oranges, colour stem, look, feel, smell. Moreover, the best way it makes sense of the jumble of a sentence is to locate the text in three dimensions against the edges of the page, left or right of the spine and so forth.  Taking away those reference points as a screen does mean it’s more difficult to recall the image.

It is also the case that people who read text that is difficult, that needs rereading, looking up of references and such like are more likely to undertake these metacognitive activities if they are reading on paper rather than on screen. This has two possible consequences: 1: people who are as effective reading on screen as on paper find using screens to be more tiring to use, because they are having to work harder at it and/or 2: people don’t bother to undertake the extra actions needed to clarify and understand the text because it is harder work, don’t learn it/understand it as well.

Schools are required to ensure that a body of knowledge is conveyed to children.  Some of that knowledge needs working at to comprehend it. Researching around the subject through the reading of different sources is a key component of success in academic subjects.  This means that, within Claires Court’s walls, we won’t be giving up hard copy books and paper extracts any time soon. But let’s not be luddite about this… there are lots of times that using screens, typing etc. allows us to be much more productive.  It’s just that when it comes to reading difficult stuff and making sense of it, papers wins over screen for the majority. So don’t go paper-free for learning just yet. Evolution cannot rework neural pathways within a lifespan!

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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1 Response to If you want to learn stuff, it matters that you read real books.

  1. Chris R says:

    Just been chatting to a parent on Open Day, and talking about this very point. She won’t use a kindle for reasons above – but is also thrilled we’re on the GAFE train.

    Not sure evolution can rework those neural pathways, unless those with the randomly acquired genetic improvement breed more successfully than the rest of us!

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