Friday, June 21, 2013

Does it Matter Whether You Read Print or Digital?

by Derek Spencer

Last Friday I wrote a little commentary about a Mind/Shift post extolling the virtues of "deep reading" and questioning whether this sort of engagement with text can occur when reading on electronic devices. I quoted this paragraph:
A growing body of evidence suggests that online reading may be less engaging and less satisfying, even for the “digital natives” for whom it is so familiar. Last month, for example, Britain’s National Literacy Trust released the results of a study of 34,910 young people aged eight to sixteen. Researchers reported that 39% of children and teens read daily using electronic devices, but only 28% read printed materials every day. [. . .] The study also found that young people who read daily only onscreen were nearly two times less likely to be above-average readers than those who read daily in print or both in print and onscreen.
. . . and then asked the question that came to mind: What, exactly, were the students in this study reading on their electronic devices? Novels? Tweets? News articles? Facebook posts? YouTube comments?

A recent article in The Atlantic details a study that attempts to determine whether there is a correlation between reading comprehension and the medium on which the words are displayed. Check it out (it's a quick read), then come on back.

. . .

Welcome back! How've you been? Great to see you again.

From reading the article, you now know that the experiment cited in The Atlantic asked 90 college students to read five fiction and five nonfiction passages. All of these passages were at a high school reading level. These passages were displayed on either paper, an e-ink Kindle, or a computer monitor. After reading, students were tested on their ability to "extrapolate and draw conclusions from what they had read." Students, on average, correctly answered 75% of these multiple-choice questions.

The Atlantic article posits that this study implies that the medium doesn't affect comprehension or the ability to draw conclusions from a reading. But (and there's always a 'but', isn't there?) . . .

The study examined only 90 college students, which is a rather small sample. With a sample of that size, the 75% accuracy noted in the study comes with a margin of error of ± 10.33 percentage points. This means that if we extend the results of this study to the entire population of college students, we can be 95% confident the range of student performance will be between 64.67% and 85.33%.

A range of 20.66 percentage points is, well, huge. When I was in high school, a passing grade was anything over 70%, and an 'A' was 93% and above. The range here is wide enough to cover the difference between an 'A' and a 'D' in my high school. It's wide enough to cover the difference between receiving a 'C' and failing.

So yes, while this study does seem to imply that there is little difference between reading texts in print versus on electronic devices, it's not nearly accurate enough to say we can claim (with a high level of confidence) that the medium doesn't affect comprehension. It's going to take a study with a much larger sample size to convince me of that — and I hope one follows, because reading on electronic devices is only going to become more prevalent.

Concerning these findings, however, I would encourage you to season them with a healthy dash of skepticism.

Thanks for reading!

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House. He owns a Kindle (e-ink, not full-color) and has used it to read fiction and nonfiction titles alike into the wee hours of the morning. He hasn't noticed a difference in his ability to comprehend texts, but he also doesn't believe that anecdotal evidence should be used to make statements about entire populations.

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