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Do we read differently when we read online?

A very important new study on students’ differential reading of screens versus books is out in the Journal of Literary and Linguistic Computing. A summary of some of the article’s findings:

  • Connection with characters on screen does not seem as deep because concentration is not achieved in the same way.
  • The more expert the reader, the easier time s/he has reading a more experimental hypertext; conversely, the more novice the reader the harder this format made reading.
  • Overall responses were divided in half: 50% favored more experimental hypertexts and 50% reacted negatively.

In other words, some students do quite well in the new medium, but one of the pronounced effects of electronic reading is an important aspect of divisiveness. It can increase engagement for some readers and decrease it in others.

This is a very important fact to keep in mind when we think about technology in the classroom and the timing of that technology — when to introduce students to books and when to introduce screen-based texts.

As we know, books have historically been extremely successful at developing individuals’ reading capabilities. Electronic texts do not yet seem to have this same high degree of efficacy. But they can be important in furthering readers’ development and critical engagement with reading.

One more reason to ensure we preserve a rich ecosystem of reading.