Printed Pages vs. Screens: Each Option Affects Reading

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May 2015
by Naomi Baron
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For all the hype in America about digital communication technologies, we continue to see stories about many readers preferring print. Outside the United States, preference for physical books also appears strong. Yet much of the reporting remains anecdotal or impressionistic. Because I thought it was time for some hard data, I began the American University Reading Habits Project.

The study extended over four years, starting in the fall of 2010. I began by surveying groups of undergraduates in the United States (ages 18 to 24), later adding cohorts of both US and Japanese undergraduates (again, ages 18 to 24), along with German students (undergraduates and graduate students, ages 18 to 26).

The most recent data reported in this article are from late 2013 (I now have surveys from Slovakia as well). I continue to hear very much the same responses from university students as I lecture both in the US and abroad. And while I make no claims that these findings reflect the behaviors and judgments of all American, Japanese, or German university students, the data give us much to think about.

The surveys contained two types of questions. One cluster requested that students select an answer from among several choices. For instance, subjects were asked whether they reread books “most of the time,” “sometimes,” “occasionally,” or “never.” The other cluster comprised open-ended questions, including four “like most”/“like least” questions (e.g., “What is the one thing you like most about reading in hardcopy?”).

“Like most”/“like least” responses were coded using a scheme I devised with vital help from my research assistants. I also gave participants the chance to provide additional comments. Fluent bilinguals translated all the open-ended responses from Japanese and German into English.

Here is a summary of some of the most important findings.

Ownership, Annotation, and Rereading

In my initial US survey, I asked about ownership, annotation, and rereading of academic books. It turned out that 61 percent of the respondents sold their textbooks at the end of a course “most of the time,” that 48 percent made annotations only “occasionally” or “never,” and that 59 percent reread academic works “occasionally” or “never.”

Probing further, I found that medium mattered when it came to rereading. Two-thirds of the students were more likely to reread if they had hardcopy.

In the 2013 cross-national surveys, I again asked about rereading and medium, this time contrasting schoolwork with pleasure reading. For academic work, the American contingent did the most rereading (only 28 percent said they reread academic materials just “occasionally” or “never”), followed by Germans (32 percent) and Japanese (41 percent).

The discrepancy between the American figures in 2010 and 2013 may be an artifact of sampling. All the subjects in 2013 were psychology students, while the 2010 group came from a variety of disciplines.

When it came to rereading for pleasure, the Japanese did the most (only 39 percent saying “occasionally” or “never”), and Germans did the least (67 percent), with participants in the United States at 56 percent. However, we don’t know what kind of pleasure reading students did: Manga comics? Leaves of Grass? Gone Girl?

Medium again mattered, both when rereading academic materials and when rereading for pleasure. In each case, students were asked whether they were more likely to reread a book or article if it was in hardcopy or on a digital screen, or whether rereading in these formats was equally likely.

The results:

Article Chart Number One

Hardcopy still ruled among students in the US and German samples for rereading academic materials. In all three countries, print was the primary choice when rereading for pleasure.

Memory and Medium

If medium matters for rereading, what about for memory of what you have read? About half the respondents to my first survey (52 percent) said they remembered more of what they had read if they had read it in hardcopy; 2 percent said they remembered more of what they had read onscreen; and the remaining 46 percent felt medium didn’t matter.

Obviously, we don’t remember everything we read—and we didn’t even before the coming of e-reading. But it could turn out that the ephemeral nature of reading onscreen compromises memory more than print does. In the words of author Alain de Botton, “I found that whatever I read on my Kindle I couldn’t really remember in the long term. It was as if I had never read it.”

Reading Practices: Print or Screen?

Do people prefer to read in print or on digital screens? In 2010, I asked students for their preferences by genre (serious fiction, light nonfiction, and so on). The overwhelming choice was hardcopy for both academic and pleasure reading—except for academic journal articles (which at my university were generally available only online) and newspapers.

In my 2013 studies, I asked about the percentage of academic reading and pleasure reading students were doing in hardcopy versus on digital screens. Of course, other factors besides just preference come into play. If journal articles or PDFs are available only online, that is where you read them. If you own an e-reader or a tablet, you are probably more likely to do digital reading than if you have only a laptop or desktop.

And there is the mobile phone factor. People in Japan started actively using the Internet on mobile phones long before their counterparts in the United States or Germany. Therefore, I was not surprised to find that the Japanese students in my study did a lot of their digital reading (both academic and for pleasure) on mobiles.

Regardless of the kind of digital screen, here are the percentages of reading for school and pleasure that students reported doing in hardcopy versus on screens:

Article Chart number two

For schoolwork, variation across countries probably reflects availability of material in digital or print formats. But when it comes to pleasure reading, students in all three countries clearly favored print over digital.

Two other relevant notes. In 2010, I asked about students’ reading and printing habits. If material assigned for academic use was available online, did students read it onscreen, print it and read it, or did they read it onscreen and then print it out?

While 55 percent said they read the material only onscreen, 39 percent said they printed it out and then read it. And a small but noteworthy 6 percent said they read it onscreen and then printed it out. So 45 percent wanted a print copy, one way or another.

What happens if you dangle a print copy in front of students? When I asked subjects in the first study if they were more likely to read an assigned article if they could get it online or if they were handed a printed copy, 38 percent said it made no difference and 6 percent said they were more likely to do the online reading. But the rest—56 percent—said that being handed a paper copy was the better motivator.

Length

Does length matter when it comes to choice of reading platform? Absolutely. If the text is short, students’ preference for one medium rather than another is not particularly strong. This pattern applied to both academic and pleasure reading.

Reading longer texts is an entirely different story. Looking just at preference for hardcopy, these are the numbers when the text is long:

Article chart number three

Convenience, Cost, and the Environment

Students’ opinions on these three often-cited advantages of reading onscreen bubbled up in response to the open-ended questions that asked what they liked most and least about reading in print or onscreen.

When it came to what students liked most about reading onscreen, convenience won hands down each time I administered the survey. Comments included: “It’s lighter to carry 1 device with many readings than a lot of books/papers,” “Easy access to the document,” and “Saves space.”

Yet “convenience” lives in the eye of the beholder. In her additional comments, one respondent wrote: “For those us of spending most of the time in a job, pulling out a book is unacceptable, while pulling up an article online is more acceptable.” (Employers take note!)

Another student, explaining what he liked most about reading digitally, said, “Accessibility and ease of multitasking.”

Given the high cost of education—including the high cost of textbooks—it was not surprising to see many comments on cost issues, such as:

Liked most about reading onscreen: “Saves money not having to print.

Liked least about reading in hardcopy: “Having to buy expensive books you’re only going to read once.”

Or as one student said, “Cash rules everything around me.” In the 2010 survey, 11 percent of the participants mentioned cost as what they liked least about reading in print.

It is one thing to worry about what is in your wallet (or on your credit card bill). It’s another to ask what happens when you take cost out of the equation in deciding where you prefer to do your reading. And so for the 2013 surveys I asked, “If the cost were identical, in which medium would you prefer to do reading” for schoolwork or for pleasure? The results were unambiguous:

Article chart number four

Yes, hardcopy may be less convenient to carry around, and hardcopy generally costs more. Yet if money is not a factor, students from all three countries voiced an overwhelming preference for print.

A strong concern for the environment also came through in American students’ open-ended responses. For example:

Liked most about reading onscreen: “Not wasting resources.”

Liked least about reading in hardcopy: “Kills trees.”

In 2010, 21 percent of the answers regarding what students liked most about reading onscreen involved something ecological, as did 17 percent of responses to the question of what they liked least about reading in hardcopy.

Yet, as with the cost issue, signs of internal conflict were evident. In this context, they involved balancing environmental concerns with personal preference, as evidenced by comments such as these:

“I like that digital screens save paper but it is hard to concentrate when reading on them.”

“While I prefer reading things in hard copy, I can’t bring myself to print out online material simply for the environmental considerations. However, I highly, highly prefer things in hard copy—just to clarify.”

The Physical Side of Reading

Books are tangible objects. So are e-readers and tablets, although digital content is virtual. In their open-ended responses, American participants often commented on the physical side of reading. Generally, they had words of praise for hardcopy. For example:

Liked least about reading onscreen: “Lack of physical interaction with reading material.”

Liked most about reading in hardcopy: “Having a tangible copy of the text” and “Physically turning the pages.”

There is another physical side to reading, one that involves legibility of the text and eyestrain. Visual concerns surfaced over and again. Almost a third (30%) of American respondents’ complaints about reading onscreen involved eyestrain (e.g., “The screen hurts my eyes” or “Headaches”).

Multitasking, Concentration, and Learning

At its core, reading is a mental activity. If our minds are to be engaged, it stands to reason that the greater the distractions, the lower the engagement.

A surefire way to disrupt careful reading is to multitask. In 2010, I asked students whether they were more likely to be multitasking if they were reading in hardcopy or onscreen, or if the likelihood was about the same. The results were jaw-dropping:

  • More likely to be multitasking while reading in hardcopy: 1%
  • More likely to be multitasking while reading onscreen: 90%
  • Same amount of multitasking with each medium: 9%

The 2013 studies framed the question somewhat differently, asking if students multitasked “very often,” “sometimes,” “occasionally,” or “never” when reading onscreen vs. when reading hardcopy.

For rough comparability with the 2010 version of the survey, I have clumped together “very often” and “sometimes” responses in the chart below:

article chart number five

In each case, students did more multitasking when reading onscreen—in the United States and Germany, a lot more. I think the relatively low amount of multitasking in Japan results from the fact that the Japanese students heavily used their mobile phones, not computers, for digital reading, especially when reading for pleasure. (The US and German students predominantly did their digital reading on laptops or desktops.) It is harder to multitask on a mobile phone than on a computer, where you can have multiple screens open simultaneously.

Another way of looking at mental activity when reading is to ask about concentration: Is it easier to concentrate when reading onscreen or in hardcopy? The answer in the surveys was crystal clear: Hardcopy won out everywhere (United States: 92 percent; Japan: 92 percent; Germany: 98 percent). As reading increasingly goes onscreen, if we want students to concentrate, we will need to figure out how to cut down on digital distraction.

Open-ended questions generated mounds of additional information about how students approach reading. Many sang the praises of reading in hardcopy. For instance:

Liked most about reading in hardcopy: “I can write in it” and “Necessary for focus.”

Liked least about reading onscreen: “I hate not being able to dog-ear pages and flip back and forth!!!!!!”; “It’s harder to keep your place online”; “I don’t absorb as much”; and “I get distracted.”

Or, as a student of mine put it more recently, “Reading [on] paper is active—I’m engaged and thinking, reacting, marking up the page. Reading a screen feels passive to me.”

Other responses to my 2013 surveys pointed up educational or navigational advantages of reading onscreen:

Liked most about reading onscreen: “You can easily look up words you don’t know” and “Easy to look up additional information.”

Liked least about reading in hardcopy: “Ctrl+F [FIND] doesn’t work for hardcopies!”

But my all-time favorite response was this:

Liked least about reading in hardcopy: “It takes me longer because I read more carefully.”


About the Author:

Photo of Naomi BaronNaomi S. Baron is professor of linguistics and executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning at American University in Washington, DC. This article is derived from her new book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, from Oxford University Press. To learn more: amazon.com/Words-Onscreen-Reading-Digital-World/dp/0199315760; nbaron@american.edu; https://global.oup.com/

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