Surprise, Surprise, Our Kids Learn More From Books Than Screens

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No matter how we feel about the proliferation of technology in our kids’ lives, it’s here to stay. Whether we like it or not, we need to get on board and accept that. And it’s not just those annoying YouTube videos or mind-numbing video games our kids are hooked on either — technology is taking over in the educational sphere as well. Chalkboards have been replaced by “smart boards”; kids are often issued laptops and iPads to use in class; homework is assigned and completed online. Even tests are administered on computers at times.

Most of these innovations are pretty awesome, even if they take some getting used to, and you can’t deny that the use of technology saves time and resources and protects good old mother earth. However, there is one arena that some of us take issue with: reading a book online or via a tablet. Call us old-fashioned, but there is something to be said for the feel of a book in your hands — the smell of the pages, the coziness, the solace, and deep focus that reading a real, live book requires.

It’s hard for me to imagine that a work of literature could be absorbed the same way on the cold, impersonal screen of a iPad. And if you feel the same way, too, you aren’t alone. Science backs us up on this. A new study, published last March in the the Journal of Experimental Education, came to the conclusion that while reading books on screens has benefits in some instances, children learn more when they read actual books.

The study researchers, Patricia A. Alexander and Lauren M. Singe, discussed their findings in an article they wrote for Business Insider. What they found is that, while the vast majority of students said they preferred to read texts online, they actually were able to comprehend the texts more fully when they read them in print.

“Our work has revealed a significant discrepancy,” wrote Alexander and Singe. “Students said they preferred and performed better when reading on screens. But their actual performance tended to suffer.”

Here’s how the researchers found this out. They had students read two passages, one online and another in print. After that, the students had three tasks to complete: to describe the main idea of the passage; list any key points; and point out any other relevant information or content from what they had read. Finally, the students were asked to rate their own comprehension of the text.

Overall, the students said their experience of reading the text on the screen was superior. They even surmised that their comprehension of the text on the screen was better than in print. The problem? It actually wasn’t — their comprehension proved to be much better when they read the text in print. Not only that, but when they read the text on the screen, they tended to speed through, whereas when they read it in print, they read more slowly and methodically.

Interestingly, comprehension of more global points, like the main idea of the text, was the same across mediums. But when it came to more detailed understanding of the text, print reading was the clear winner. Basically, when kids read the text on a screen, they tended to skim, but when they had a book in their hands, they actually read carefully and with a stronger focus.

Ummm, duh, right? Results like these are entirely unsurprising to those of us who have always been “Team Book,” but it’s cool nonetheless to see that we aren’t just a couple of old folks who grew up in the Stone Age when you actually had to carry around your 12-pound copy of Moby Dick in your backpack all day (and break your back in the process).

All that said, the authors of this study don’t discredit all e-reading. When students need to read a news story or informational article that doesn’t require a close or detailed reading, reading online is fast, convenient, and will not make them worse off from an educational standpoint. But reading literature and anything where students are required to read carefully should still take place the old-timey way.

The authors urge educators to keep this in mind as they plan their students’ courses of study — and even share this research with their students so they can make educated decisions on their own about whether to read a text online vs. in print.

Of course, Alexander and Singe understand that no matter what they say or do, the push toward digitizing every last aspect of our lives is going full throttle. Still, they urge both educators and parents to keep in mind that having real books on hand is actually pretty important. As the authors describe it: “[T]here are significant costs and consequences to discounting the printed word’s value for learning and academic development.”

So take that, e-books. You’re awesome. You’ve saved some precious shelf space in our homes and more than one emergency run to the library. But there’s a time and place for you, and our beloved print books aren’t going anywhere. Now excuse me, I’m about to curl up in the corner with a cup of hot cocoa and a dusty old copy of my favorite book.