Is Comprehension Better with Digital Text?

  • 07 October, 2018

Teacher question:

Do we read digitally as well as we read paper texts? 

Shanahan response:

I’ve been asked this provocative question three times in three weeks. Once I was presenting a workshop on how to teach college-bound high-schoolers to handle complex text on tests like the ACT. This group wanted to know if it mattered whether students were tested digitally or with paper (studies estimate significant differences in performance favoring paper). 

Last week, I was on a panel at Reading is Fundamental’s National Reading Coalition, a meeting of literacy providers, policymakers, and business leaders. This time the question was posed by Kathleen Ryan-Mufson, Director of Global Citizenship for Pitney-Bowes, a major player in digital communications. She wanted to know about the importance of digital literacy in learning, which opens up issues of access, precision of understanding, and student preference.

Then Friday, I was with a particularly thoughtful group of middle-school teachers in Indiana. They asked the question straight-up and were pretty sure that digital was better than paper because of technological affordances, such as easy in-text access to a dictionary, and because these kids are growing up digitally (the so-called “digital natives”).

Must be something in the water.

My answer: We don’t read as well digitally as we do on paper. When texts are short – a page or less — and comprehension demands light (what’s the main idea?), we do pretty well with either kind of text. But as learning demands increase and the texts are more extensive, paper wins hands down.

Like those Indiana teachers, students tend to think they read best digitally; but tests of their comprehension reveal that they are wrong.

Years ago, knowing such questions would come my way, I did some self study. I read a novel silently, usually prior to bedtime; I read one aloud to my youngest daughter; I listened to one on “Books on Tape” when I drove to work; and I read Dracula on my computer (thanks, Gutenberg Project).

My personal sense of the matter was that I was hurrying when I was reading digitally. As with current research findings, I was fine with major plot points, but it seemed like my understanding was fragile and not very deep. For me, at that time, reading online was more like skimming than reading. I was moving too fast.

Since then technology has improved and I’ve grown used to such reading. Engineers have improved digital texts, in lots of ways. We can now download texts so that we’re no longer “online.” Page sizes and formatting are more similar to those of real books; and screen illumination is better, too.

There are even ways in which tech books are demonstrably better. I can increase font sizes (which, at my age, I love) and I can set screen illumination so that I can read with the lights out and Cyndie can sleep. I spend a lot of time on airplanes and portability matters, so being able to bring along tech’s version of a dozen books and as many magazines is a definite win.

These days I often read digitally, or work and pleasure, much more often.

Nevertheless, reading digitally is still a different experience.

One loses the sensory pleasures of the page, and navigation can be disorienting. I can’t always go back and locate what I’m looking for. I still have a sense that I’m going too fast and, perhaps, reading too superficially. Though that just might be me. Kretzshmar, et al. (2013) found older readers do make shorter fixations when reading digitally, but that wasn’t true of younger readers.

Dillon (1992) and Singer & Alexander (2017) have conducted the most complete and thorough meta-analyses of the issues; the former looking at all the pre-1992 studies, and latter all the work since Dillon.

Both meta-analyses concluded that we don’t comprehend digital as well as paper, and that the disparity is as true for so-called “digital natives” as for people like me (“digital geezers?”).

Apparently scrolling a screen is more memory disruptive than simply turning a page. And, digital reading is often interrupted by multi-tasking (Baron, 2015): 67% of readers don’t last ten minutes before they’re messaging or shopping during reading!

Of course, this is all a bit complicated. Reading a PDF file on one’s computer is a different from reading a test passage on an online state exam or from reading Prairie Fires for pleasure on my I-Pad. They differ in their navigability, their user friendliness, and how likely one is to be tempted to do other things instead of reading.

That means comprehension is not always suppressed or limited by digital text, and yet it is often enough that we all should be concerned. Mangen (2013) found students could get the major plot points of a story digitally but that they were deficient when it came to making connections of other text points with the plot.

Maryanne Wolf (2017) has agonized over the potential losses to patience, persistence, and depth of thought that could result from a daily diet of the short, peripatetic text excursions characteristic of digital reading.

Oh, and may I add that lots of people don't actually enjoy reading digitally as much as they do text on paper. (The last couple of Scholastic surveys have found that the overwhelming majority of kids much prefer books.)

Digital reading is superficial, less understandable, and less enjoyable for most people. Sounds like we should get rid of it, and that only fools would invest in digital texts for their instructional programs, right?

I strongly disagree.

Digital text is here to stay. There are all kinds of economic and social reasons why this is likely true, but what matters is that if I’m correct, then kids—all of us really—are going to need to learn to read such texts effectively.

Two things that need to happen:

First, many other writers (e.g., Boone & Higgins, 2007; Jabr, 2013; Kieffer & Reinking, 2006; Talaka, et al., 2015) have argued that tech engineers should continue to beaver away at making digital reading environments more supportive. Instead of trying to make tech readers like books, they need to think about how to produce better digital tools. Tech environments can alter reading behavior, so technological scaffolding could be used to slow us down or to move around a text more productively.   

Second, we as teachers need to make students aware of their tech fallibility. Instead of romanticizing the tech savviness of everyone born since the first Apple sprung from the head of Steve Jobs, we should be teaching humility. They aren’t as good with these tools as they think they are, and the digital tools, while solving some problems, pose others.   

Kids vary in their ability to locate information on Google, to evaluate such information, or to understand it. Basic reading comprehension ability helps with these things, as does amount of world knowledge; but even when those are high, students frequently struggle to take advantage of the affordance of digital text or even to understand what they read digitally.

Interestingly, not everyone’s comprehension is impaired by digital text. Singer and Alexander (2016) found a group of college students who actually did better; they slowed themselves and became more careful when reading digitally (unlike me and the majority of the students they studied).

We should be teaching students strategies for digital reading, fostering ways of reading that allow students to overcome the limits of the ways that they tend to adopt for screen reading. We should also teach them efficient ways of navigating in different screen environments (e.g., arrows, site maps, breadcrumb trails, non-linear navigation), and how to evaluate the trustworthiness of the digital information that they do locate.

Students don’t comprehend digital text as well as they do paper text. But they could.  


See what others have to say about this topic.

Rachel Oct 08, 2018 03:04 AM

Thank you for your thoughts. I agree. I am an avid reader and, although having texts available online might be easier in some aspects, I am of the camp that online texts cannot replace the feeling a person gets when holding a book and getting to turn the pages.
I am a second grade teacher. In my district, we have access to our reading text books online. The purpose of this is to assist students who do not read grade-level texts by reading the text aloud to them. For teachers, who need to support twenty-something students, this is helpful because we can leave these students with the digital text and work with others; however, I have noticed that having this text read to them digitally does not always help their comprehension. Sometimes, I even record myself reading the text emphasizing certain elements that I believe will assist with their comprehension. I find that some of my students hear the text read aloud, but they are not really listening.
I also agree that I find myself rushing when I have digital texts. For myself, I think this is because I associate digital text with course work, which, oftentimes is not what I read for pleasure. I feel like this might be similar for students. They associate these digital texts with school work and want to finish as quickly as possible. Also, technology has greatly increased our need for instant gratification. I think reading digital text might link itself to that need for instant gratification resulting in reading texts quickly.

Arlene Crandall Oct 08, 2018 02:06 PM

Thank you for this posting. I've had an interesting with Master's level students in the past 2 years. They can purchase the primary text digitally or in book form. Most of the 4 classes were in their late 20's, early 30's. The vast majority choose the book. We had an entire discussion about "learning materials" vs "just reading." They all shared the experience that in classes the information was easier to learn and remember when they had a book. Small sample, but I was a bit astounded that the early natives had that observation.
Arlene B. Crandall, Ed.D.

Chandra Shaw Oct 10, 2018 02:06 AM

Thank you. I tell this to so many educators in my sessions. Many of their schools have 1 to 1 devices, so when I mention that students still need to read and annotate paper copies, I get the dirty look and sometimes a comment about killing trees. Until research supports an ALL digital reading curriculum, I’ll continue to preach, “Paper beats digital when it comes to reading for deep understanding, but a sensible balance is important.”

Michelle Rispole Oct 10, 2018 04:25 PM

Thank you for this timely post! As NYS is embarking on Computer-Based Testing, we teachers need to figure out how to best support our students so that they can navigate digital texts. Two concerns I have: there should be some universal tools or standards when formatting digital material (unlike the myriad chip readers at store registers which DO NOT save us time because the clerks have to teach me!!!!) and, schools need more accessibility and funding so that digital text is part of our everyday work with students. I still LOVE books and the feel of paper, but I'm trying to embrace the usefulness of the new tools.

Lucy MacDonald Oct 10, 2018 07:27 PM

I notice that this article is delivered in all SANS SERIF font which automatically decreases the readability and therefore comprehension. There is a reason all textbooks are PRINTED in serif font. I have experimented with this and can artificially change the score by a whole grade level by changing to serif font for my dyslexic students and others.

Lucy MacDonald, Master's in Reading, Univ of Oregon

Lucy MacDonald Oct 10, 2018 07:29 PM

I notice that this article is delivered in all SANS SERIF font which automatically decreases the readability and therefore comprehension. There is a reason all textbooks are PRINTED in serif font. I have experimented with this and can artificially change the score by a whole grade level by changing to serif font for my dyslexic students and others.

Lucy MacDonald, Master's in Reading, Univ of Oregon

LindaR Oct 10, 2018 08:03 PM

An irony, I read it online!

Tim Shanahan Oct 10, 2018 08:26 PM

Lucy— research finds no consistent pattern in legibility between serif and sans serif text.


Sarah Powley Oct 11, 2018 03:12 PM

Thanks for this. My colleague (AP Chemistry) and I (Instructional Coach) are developing and delivering a series of lessons on strategies for reading e-textbooks. It is amazing how little our "digital natives" really know about 1) their own computers and how they can use them to help read e-textbooks more efficiently, 2) what their e-texts offer in the way of tools, 3) minimizing distractions and monitoring their own reading, 4) note taking with e-texts that provide no tools for annotating or highlighting--or even with e-texts that do provide these tools, 5) predicting what a hyperlink will produce and effective decision-making about whether to click on specific hyperlinks. There's more, but we are experiencing gratitude from students when we show them ways they can take control of their own reading with these digital textbooks.

We prefer paper, too, but appreciate your recognition that e-texts aren't going away and that we can and should help our students learn to read them efficiently.

Tim Shanahan Oct 12, 2018 02:13 AM

Thanks for this. We have had a tendency create romantic images in education and to believe in their truth. All teens are experts on computers (e.g., “War Games), and the best teachers are individual heroes without a curriculum or colleagues (e.g., Dead Poets Society, To Sir with Love”). the reality is a small percentage of kids are sophisticated with technology. Perhaps a smaller percentage are afraid of tech, but as you’ve discovered that is something completely different.


Martina Talic Sep 25, 2019 03:36 PM

Thank you for posting this thoughtful article! I am a teacher and I very much agree with you that the textbooks enhance students’ learning. It is interesting because one would think that the new generations would prefer to read online. Nevertheless, all the textbooks in our school are digital, yet a great majority of the students still prefers to have a book they can touch, smell, underline, annotate, etc. I also agree with you when you say that we need to teach young people how to use technology. Many times, I find myself being taught by my students about how to use the technology! Nevertheless, teachers need to be humble as well as capable of asking the right questions about the technology that will help students develop their critical thinking. I do not think that the technology will completely replace the printed books. I believe that we will reach a point when people will push back to use the printed materials.

Matt EDUC352 Sep 26, 2019 04:50 PM

Thank you for your insightful thoughts on e-texts. As a college student, I find e-texts increasingly more popular in use. The reason for this I would argue is two-fold between e-texts being much cheaper options and popularity of technology. Personally, I find your response about longer e-texts and more advanced material much harder to comprehend and test well very relatable. I am a biology major who has to read hordes of scientific journals and primary research, which is very hard to follow while reading online. Therefore, I always print the source out and read/annotate it physically. In addition, I completely agree with the argument that digital text provides many more opportunities to become distracted especially with the compatibility of Imessage interacting with Mac computers. A majority of college students in my experience have some sort of a Mac, which enables texting to become an issue with digital texts.
On the other hand, I do see the importance of digital texts. Digital texts are going to continue to become more popular with environmental impacts, affordability, and technology in society continually becoming more significant. Thus, we do need to learn and teach how to use them. I think many students do not know the modifications one can make using e-texts. This includes things you talked about such as highlighting or text enlargement. Also, I definitely believe that learning about the accountability of digital texts translates to evaluating sources and can be applicable to technology use on a greater scale. Therefore, thank you for this post and I am in agreement with you on many levels with e-texts.

Sabrina 352 Sep 26, 2019 05:17 PM

As a future educator, I find it great that digital texts can still be used with value. In high school, my Latin teacher always reminded us that taking notes by hand increased our comprehension of the content. My own research and experience has shown that this is true. However, I also always stuck to physical textbooks. Although I'll use a digital text for homework (easier to carry around), I prefer paper copies. This is because I can usually remember information better when it has a location on the page. What can we do do online texts to give them the same advantages as paper texts, like remembering where on a page a fact was?


Ryan EDUC352 Sep 26, 2019 08:31 PM

As a student, I refuses to buy ebooks for my classes if I can help it. I find them distracting and hard to read. I agree that reading on devices allows for more interruptions. Just while reading this article I left the web page to do other tasks. I always prefer paper no matter what I am reading. Journal articles are the hardest to read online since you have to analysis it very carefully. I am worried that schools will enforce a school wide ebook program for textbooks. One of my family members is a principal for a elementary school and they have currently supplied students with personal ipads. Is digital reading in schools inevitable with the incentive of lower text book costs for online books?

Cara M. (352) Sep 26, 2019 10:35 PM

As an education student this is very valuable information to understand. Just because digital is the fancy option doesn’t mean that it is the most beneficial when it comes to learning. I wonder if there isn’t a kinesthetic piece that is working for paper copies as well? As you read you are having to turn pages, potentially underline and annotate, etc.
I would love to hear more about how educators can work with students who insist on digital text (as you said, it is the favorite among young people). Is there anything that can be done to maximize understanding with those tools?

Cassie352 Sep 27, 2019 09:55 PM

As a college student, this was a very interesting post to read. I find that a lot more professors are moving from traditional textbooks to e-books, and it has been difficult for me. Although there are some great features, like you said, such as increasing font size, I still find that reading from a traditional textbook is more beneficial. As a Hispanic Studies major, I have to read a lot of text in another language. Being able to highlight, underline, and write notes to myself is crucial for my understanding of the material. Even though some e-books allow this feature, it is not the same as being able to physically write on the page. Also, I find it difficult to reference back to certain pages when reading text online. There is simply no great way to mark a "page" on an e-book like you can with a sticky note in a physical textbook. What advice would you give to a student who struggles with online reading? Thank you for your post!

Collin F 352 Oct 01, 2019 01:06 AM

There are many possible distractions when reading digital texts. When reading on a computer or phone, it is very easy to get distracted by emails, texts, or other notifications that show up on the screen. Also, it is much easier to interact with physical texts. You can use sticky notes, write in the margines, or highlight. With digital copies, it is becoming more common to be able to interact with the text, but still not universal.

Will EDUC 352 Oct 01, 2019 06:46 PM

This was a very interesting article. From my own personal experiences, reading digital texts is much more difficult than reading a paper copy. Reading from a screen seems to lead to more distractions than a paper copy, and it often causes eye pain having reading long texts from a screen. With that being said, and as the author states, eBooks and online texts are here to stay. As future teachers it is our job to guide students in working with online texts by providing strategies, tips, and online accommodations so our students get the most comprehension they can.

Noah EDUC 352 Oct 01, 2019 07:54 PM

I have noticed myself when reading texts, whether it be for classes or for personal enjoyment, that reading from a screen results in hurried reading and less information retention. I have always enjoyed using a physical text, and as a future teacher, I am going to give my students paper copies when possible, as I believe it will help them as well.

Jon 352 Oct 02, 2019 04:11 AM

This was a very enjoyable read for me, and rather relatable. In my experience, I too have a difficult time reading on digital devices. I find myself losing interest much faster and I become quite distracted. It even causes a fair amount of strain on my eyes when reading longer articles on a laptop. Nevertheless, digital text is incredibly valuable for exactly the reasons stated above. The numerous tools that can be used in a digital setting can offer so much help in comprehension if we can learn to stay focused and slow down as readers. Digital texts open up so many doorways for students to interact with a text that simply are not present in a physical copy of a book. It is hard for me to say one is better than the other when I think most of the argument simply hinges on preference. However, I strongly believe that students that enjoy reading digitally have a very good thing in e-books. Like the article said, they are here to stay and I think we ought to learn to work with them.

Brady Labine Oct 02, 2019 04:33 AM

I myself have never enjoyed reading on a digital screen, even after years of playing video games with my brother or staying up late during high school and college reading texts on my computer. Even with advances in digital text and the ways in which we can access it I still struggle with looking at a screen for extended periods of time even with taking minute breaks and an app called flux that reduces the blue light emitted from the screen. I also have to agree that I never feel like I can comprehend the smaller details and connections as well as when I get to feel the pages in front of me. Maybe it is a artificial idea that we as humans have created and evolved into with paper and books, but for me the paperback copy is the way I like to go (hopefully without crushing my wallet along the way versus the e-book);

Jennifer Edu 352 Oct 02, 2019 02:24 PM

I agree a lot with this! I struggle with reading online text, but I do it because it is usually the cheaper option. However, I could never figure out why it felt so different. Now, I completely agree with struggling with the navigation and losing place. The one I found most convincing was the 67% of people are multitasking, which takes away from reading comprehension. One thing I wonder was, I completely understand that the connection to dictionaries and reading out loud features are very beneficial. However, is it hurting our students comprehension by providing those features and making them so accessible? Because, for me, I didn't get into online texts until college, and I feel that I learned best when I was forced to think in-depth, about things like what might this word mean in this context, etc? I am glad that online texts make things more accessible, however, that aspect of multitasking and less comprehension is actually one of my biggest fears.

Emma 352 Oct 02, 2019 08:42 PM

I found this article to be eye-opening. I have known for a long time that my personal preference was for paper copies of texts and books. However, I was unsure of the research findings on comprehension. While I am not surprised by the discovery that comprehension tends to be lower for digital texts, Shanahan does a great job at exploring the possibility of an increase in comprehension with the appropriate skills. Another takeaway that I gleamed from this article is that the level of -accurate-metacognition that an individual has on their reading preferences and abilities is also beneficial in using digital texts. If a student knows that they read too fast or that they get easily distracted, they will better be able to identify solutions and resources to aid their reading.

Lanelle Skaggs Jun 09, 2020 01:33 AM

Of course I prefer hard copy over digital because I think people can delve deeper into the hard copy and "feel" the written word. However, I also know that the digital medium is where we are headed, and we should emphasize the maneuverability and the future of digital texts. With the distance learning mode that we were in the last 8 weeks of school, the students were pushed into much digital reading, and they were very reluctant in this area. Again, I know digital reading is our future, so we must adapt and go with it.

Eileen Corlett Feb 07, 2021 03:52 PM

This reminds me of when you type you use 1 part of your brain, when you write you use 3 parts of your brain (research I read years ago in the NY Times). I struggle with reading on line text and wonder how many parts of my brain do use reading text on line, vs paper (adding I would imagine using my sensory stimuli)

Dianne Connet Feb 07, 2021 08:14 PM

I am old school and like the feel of a real page turning book.

Tammie Ash Feb 08, 2021 08:24 PM

Nice thought-provoking article. If given the choice, I personally prefer paper texts. When I read a book, my only purpose is to read the book. When I am online, I am often distracted by a multitude of other things. For students, I have often felt there is a stronger connection/deeper understanindg to paper text and it was interesting to read research that backed up my opinion. However, we as a society are moving toward a digital only environment at breakneck speed. Educators must equip our students with the needed strategies to develop solid comprehension no matter the text format.

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Is Comprehension Better with Digital Text?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.