Questionable Reading Comprehension

Sometimes using the wrong search terms takes us on interesting journeys. Today, while looking for research on note-taking and fMRI results, I landed on this post on the BrainFacts website. The TL;DR version of the BrainFacts post: reading comprehension on screens is inferior to reading comprehension on paper because “research.” Of course, as a technology advocate and someone who has read pretty much exclusively on screens for the past decade or so, I had to dig deeper. TL;DR version of my take: Please don’t believe everything you read, even if it is on a .org website.

Reading is very different from skimming, of course, and most of what passes for reading on a screen is actually skimming: headlines, social media, even emails. We scroll and look for what we think are the important bits. If we actually do click on a headline and read, start to end, paying attention, the medium is not that relevant. Even the research linked in the BrainFacts post backs this up.

Let’s look, for example, at one of the research papers linked in the post that supposedly supports the idea that having to scroll rather than having to turn the page is bad for reading. Here’s what the post claims:

“Scrolling through digital text may impair comprehension by creating spatial challenges. A 2017 study found participants’ reading comprehension suffered when they scrolled through a comic book’s individual panels instead of seeing them all at once.”

However, following that link and reading the abstract, this is what the authors actually had to say.

The findings implied that it is not the materiality of the presentation medium that influences reading outcomes, rather it is the extent to which the text presentation facilitates, or impedes, the reader’s ability to construct a cognitive map that influences the reading process. 

The problem is not the screen or the scrolling. The problem is the other stuff on the page: blinking ads, bulky sidebars, headers, and footers. When the content from the paper is presented cleanly on the screen, there is no meaningful difference between one medium and the other.

The post’s author then includes remarks from unrelated research by Lauren Singer Trakhman about the problem with having to scroll on a screen. The quote the author includes in the post actually comes from a paper titled Non-Conscious Effects of Landmark Cues on Overt and Covert Attention Movements1. This article is neither linked in the text nor included in the references.

Another research paper linked in the post also states that there is basically no difference between on-screen reading and paper reading when it comes to comprehension. The only difference was related to placing details positionally in the text — physically locating where in the text they occurred. Test subjects who read on paper did slightly better than on-screen counterparts. While this may be crucial for book reports (and that’s a topic for a whole other post), the fact that digital text is searchable renders this difference moot for learning.

The post also claims that LED screens flicker and cause fatigue, but the only source included in the references regarding screen quality is from 2007. It is a research paper that attributes problems to reading on screen to the low quality of CRT monitors. Remember those? They were big and bulky, and their screens flickered constantly. Their screen resolution was something that could have been confused for lumber measurements2.

There is another passage in the post claiming that reading on paper is advantageous because the smell and feel of the paper has some sort of advantage. The link included to support this research doesn’t seem to deal with reading comprehension, however. It is a study focused on learning and translating individual words in an unknown language, a far cry from reading comprehension.

The most misleading bit in this BrainFacts post, in my opinion, cites fMRI data to support the claim that print leads to better reading than on-screen. The study, dated 2009, focuses on the differences in brain activity in response to physical direct mail marketing materials and on-screen marketing materials. While there is some reading involved in processing junk mail, there is little cognitive demand involved in deciding whether it should go straight to the recycling bin or not. How is this study even relevant?

A couple of linked studies were interesting and helpful, though. One study suggests that learners need guidance and practice reading on-screen to overcome “screen inferiority.” This makes perfect sense for the publication date (2014) when the vast majority of K-12 materials were presented to students on paper. The other helpful source is a meta analysis of research relevant to reading comprehension on and off screens. This source states that older studies may not be reliable due to changing habits, experiences, and technology. Most importantly, this source gives us important insights about the results of previous studies. The devil is in the details. Some studies used fiction while others used non-fiction. Some studies limited the amount of time participants had to read the text and others gave subjects unlimited time. Some studies tested for comprehension immediately following the reading while others waited. In short, there are infinite combinations of factors that can yield infinite variations in results.

I hope educators will think for themselves rather than letting some random online source warn them away from what is inevitable: on-screen reading. And when they read the research, I sincerely hope their reading comprehension is better than that of the fine people at BrainFacts.


1 The quote comes from an article I could only find on a sketchy looking site. If you are brave enough to give them a credit card number, you may read it yourself.

2 Not really, but haha

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