Don't throw away your printed books: A meta-analysis on the effects of reading media on reading comprehension

Tim van der Zee

These days it is very common for students to bring their laptops to school and for many, reading and writing is mostly done in a digital manner. What effect does this have? Do you learn more when reading from printed text or from reading on a digital device? In a meta-analysis of the literature, Delgado, Vargas, Ackerman, and Salmerón (2018) attempted to answer this question.

With the increasing dominance of digital reading over paper reading, gaining understanding of the effects of the medium on reading comprehension has become critical. However, results from research comparing learning outcomes across printed and digital media are mixed, making conclusions difficult to reach.

For this meta-analysis, the authors examined research in recent years (2000–2017), comparing the reading of comparable texts on paper and on digital devices. They found that independent of the research design, reading from paper leads to bigger learning gains than reading the same texts from a digital device.

Furthermore, they found three variables that moderator the advantage of printed text over digital mediums. First, they found that paper-based reading is stronger in time-constrained environments. That is, when people only have a fixed and limited amount of time to read a text, it is even more important to read from paper, but it is less important for self-paced reading (although printed text still has an advantage even in this scenario). Second, they found that printed text is superior for informational text as well as when informational and narrative texts are mixed. However, when reading only narrative texts, the advantage of printed text over digital text disappears. Third, the authors found that the advantage of paper-based reading seems to have increased over the years. Specifically, more recent show a larger advantage. The reason for this is not entirely understood, but is further discussed in the paper.

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