In a world accustomed to skimming and scanning, what promotes deep reading? Paper or screen? Does the medium matter? As schools integrate digital resources and tools broadly into curricula and teaching, such questions need good answers. Fortunately, evidence is accumulating, with big impacts for learning. 

New research, published in the Journal of Research in Reading, affirms the medium does matter  but what to do about it isn’t always clear. Findingsfrom a meta-analysis conducted by education researcher Virginia Clinton of 33 rigorous studies, show performance is better with paper. Differences between paper and screen are small but consistent. “There is legitimate concern that reading on paper may be better in terms of performance and efficiency,” Clinton writes.     

Genre matters, too. Clinton found no difference for lighter, narrative texts. But comprehension of dense, expository texts suffered on screens. Screen readers were also overconfident, thinking they understood more than they did.     

Should we dump devices? Push paper? No, but it’s smart to be strategic about screens and reading.  A guiding directive: Know yourself and how you like to read.   

I interviewed Clinton for additional perspective. The primacy of paper, she says, is a “pretty resounding finding” throughout research. What’s behind it? Personal preference is a “huge factor; most people prefer paper. In one study with participants who preferred screens, “any detriment of screens went away,” Clinton says. “So, if you like a screen, you read just as well from a screen as from paper.”   

Contextual cues play a part. “A screen is a cue that what you’re doing is more casual and light,” Clinton says. “There’s some research that indicates [readers] see the paper as a cue that means you’re supposed to focus,” she adds. “That could explain both the over-confidence piece as well as the … comprehension benefit.” 

This research is highly relevant for schools, especially as use of open educational resources —which are mostly digital  grows. In 2015 the U.S. Department of Education launched the #GoOpen initiative, encouraging states to transition to free, openly-licensed educational materials; 20 states, including North Carolina, signed on.   

It’s worth noting that reading preference can often be accommodated with OER. Clinton, who studies OER in higher education, says of textbooks vetted through networks like the Open Textbook Library, “One of the criteria is that [they’re] downloadable and printable.  An open textbook does not mean it has to be electronic. You can print them out or you can order a bound copy.” 

For students, Clinton advises, “Reflect on your preferences. If you really prefer reading from paper, then it may be worth the cost to you to print it out and read it that way. That may be enough of a bump in your comprehension and your awareness of your reading to be worth [it].”  

More research is coming. Screens offer interactive capabilities that studies utilizing static content aren’t assessing. Clinton plans to study interactivity next, looking at what the medium can do. 

More fundamentally, experts say we’re honing pervasive digital-era reading habits  to process a barrage of information  that war with deep reading. We need to do better at winnowing wheat from chaff, identifying when to focus, when to skim.   

Honoring paper preferences when possible and practical makes sense. But there’s more to do. The way forward, writes neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf in The Guardian, is to “identify and redress” whats being lost, cultivating a “’bi-literate’ reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums.”   

Wolf calls it a “new literacy for the digital age.” It’s hard but important work.   

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.