Reading on Paper is Better

by Site Author

These days, we read more on screens than on paper. We read the newspaper on our phones, books on our kindles, and the web on our tablets. But what if we actually would be better off reading on paper?

Anne Mangen, Bente Walgermo, and Kolbjørn Brønnick recently ran a randomized trial to test whether reading on a screen is worse than reading on paper. They randomized 72 tenth graders to either read a text on paper or on a computer screen. Both groups were then quizzed about the text. Students who read the text on paper performed one fifth of a standard deviation better on the quiz.

The authors can only speculate as to why reading on paper improves comprehension. One story: scrolling is bad. As they put it: “Scrolling is known to hamper the process of reading, by imposing a spatial instability which may negatively affect the reader’s mental representation of the text and, by implication, comprehension.”

Another story: the location of text on a page helps us remember it. “We know from empirical and theoretical research that having a good spatial mental representation of the physical layout of the text supports reading comprehension.”

Still another story: paper is just more ergonomic. “LCD computer screens like the ones used in this study are known to cause visual fatigue due to their emitting light… Studies… concluded that certain features of the LCD screen, such as refresh rate, contrast levels and fluctuating light interfere with cognitive processing and hence potentially impair long-term memory.”

The bottom line is that the convenience of our digital devices comes at a cost. We just don’t read as deeply on a screen as we do on paper.