Books or the Screen? New Research On Reading

Modern technology has a definite place in education.  Research, communication and even writing and editing tools open the world up for young academics.  However, new research into digital media and its use in education suggests that real books are still a better choice for reading and comprehension. 

Anne Mangen, an associate professor at the Center for Reading Research at the University of Stavenger in Norway, has conducted research on the benefits and drawbacks inherent in digital reading modalities.  She notes, "Several experiments in cognitive psychology have shown how a change of physical surroundings has a potentially negative affect on memory. We should include this in our evaluation of digital teaching aids. The technology provides for a number of dynamic, mobile and ephemeral forms of learning, but we know little about how such mobility and transience influence the effect of teaching. Learning requires time and mental exertion and the new media do not provide for that." (Emphasis mine.)

Mangen describes how the clicking and scrolling which are a part of digital media delivery interrupt a child's focus.  I would liken it to asking a child to multi-task while their brain is trying to learn.  As a reader's brain works to decode the text and comprehend the message with all of its nuances, throwing in an interrupting event every couple of paragraphs forces the brain to work redundantly to "catch up" again.  Instead of a smooth, steady and progressive flow of information, it becomes stilted.

To give you a more concrete idea of this process, try to read a book with your children in the room with you.  How many times did you reread the same sentence or paragraph either because you had to find your place, or because you can't remember what you just read? 

Hypertext stories, which are becoming more prevalent as high-speed internet is more accessible in the school and the home, includes not only text, but also videos, sound, hypertext (links to additional material) and pictures.  While supplemental or descriptive material can add to a learning experience, such as with an online encyclopedia, the constant navigating and renavigating in the hypertext story format can also diminish the brain's ability to concentrate for a substantial length of time.  This format also interferes with the use of imagination in reading.

"The digital hypertext technology and its use of multimedia are not open to the experience of a fictional universe where the experience consists of creating your own mental images. The reader gets distracted by the opportunities for doing something else," Mangen says.

What do we, as moms, take away from this research?  How can we apply the right blend of book resources and new media resources to our children's education?

Three recommendations from Professor Mom:

  • Never give up your books.  Even without the scientific back-up, we know that books are a source of brain development, growth, and magic.  I would suggest that every home should have a large collection of books that children can touch and browse and fall in love with.

  • Don't discount the wonders of modern technology.  Technology provides us with many amazing tools for learning that didn't exist even 15 years ago.  From researching penguins on the internet to emailing with a penpal in the Mediterranean, the World Wide Web opens up a world of knowledge to our children.

  • Use balance.  As with almost everything in life, moderation is the key.  Children's brains need to work hard everyday so that nuerons develop appropriate connections.  Minds need to be stretched and girded up with stories of value and integrity.  Imaginations need to be fueled by words (and, yes, sometimes boredom!) 

Provide an environment that takes advantage of the learning tools that technology gives us and taper those tools with the resources that make the brain work hard.  By creating a balanced approach to learning, you can provide your children with a well-rounded learning experience.

The University of Stavanger (2008, December 22). Storybooks On Paper Better For Children Than Reading Fiction On Computer Screen, According to Expert. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 29, 2008, from

  1. December 29, 2008

    There is something odd about saying that clicking or scrolling “disrupts” a person’s ability to learn. The same would have to be applied to turning a page in a book. Clicking my page down button requires less coordination than flipping a books page.
    Granted, some websites have horrible layouts for learning, but reading text in an RSS reader or on a digital display system can’t be worse in this regard than a book.

  2. December 29, 2008

    It does appear that page turning would equate to some extent with scrolling. However, in the study I cited and others, the distraction factor is compounded by the nature of the online environment. Online, our attention is diverted by hypertext links (a major component of this study), ads on the screen, etc. The online environment also affects our brains differently. Recent research in neurology points to excessive dopamine (a chemical neurotransmitter produced by the brain) exposure which stems from significant time engaged with the computer screen. Dopamine suppresses the functions in the brain which measure risk and analyze consequences.
    A child’s brain is developing and is more susceptible to both the distraction factor (neurons make some important connections via sustained, challenging activity) and the influx of dopamine. From my perspective, the evidence leans in favor of print books when it comes to a child’s brain development, until some of this research into modalities and how they affect the developing minds of children is replicated and/or disproven.
    Additionally, many of the hypertext stories being used in educational environments are rich in visual and video in-puts. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is something to be moderated, especially in the early years. Again, research reinforces that the brain just doesn’t have to work as hard when something is fed to it on a screen. This logic applies to all screen activities, including television and video games.
    That all being said, I firmly believe that technology, when correctly laid out for ease of reading (font efficiency, etc.), is a huge plus to the learning environment. It is simply a matter of moderating screen time when children are growing up to allow the proper experiences and development. As always, I suppose, moderation is the key.
    Thanks for the comment! Any other thoughts from the group? :-)


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