Is digital text a good idea for reading instruction?

  • 05 August, 2023

Teacher question: I’ve heard that having students read digital texts is a bad idea, but our school has purchased tablets for everybody and wants us to use these for much of our instruction. What say you? Good idea or bad idea?

RELATED: Knowledge or Comprehension Strategies -- What Should We Teach?

Shanahan responds:

Generally, research has found that digital books are read with lower comprehension and more mind wandering (Clinton, 2019; Vargas, Ackerman, & Samerón, 2018). Admittedly, most evidence on this comes from studies of college students. However, even when the studies have focused on elementary age students, the results are the same. Kids don’t read as well digitally as they do more traditional text.  

Even more discouraging than studies showing lower comprehension with digital text, there is a small amount of data suggesting that the more time kids spend reading digitally in school, the lower their reading comprehension tends to be (Samerón, Vargas, Delgado, & Baron, 2023).

Why is this?

Adults and older students seem to have difficulty adjusting to demands when reading screens as opposed to book pages. For example, in one recent study (Delgado & Salmerón, 2021), students were asked to read either in a time pressured situation or in one with no time demands. They found that with traditional paper books, the students reduced their mind wandering under timed conditions. That didn’t happen when reading screens. Their mind wandering continued much as it had done when there was no time pressure, and comprehension fell accordingly.

Media often characterize kids as “digital natives,” distinct from we antediluvian grown-ups, as if being young conferred a predisposition to all things computer. Think of all those television shows and movies where the kids fix mom or dad’s phone in a nanosecond!

This research says adults don’t read screens as well as they do old-fashioned paper. And, neither do kids.

But to be fair, that isn’t really what you asked me.

Your question wasn’t whether kids do a good job reading digital text. No, you asked about whether digital text was useful for teaching students to read – quite a different matter in my opinion.

Personally, I used to do little digital text reading – rarely for work, never for pleasure. I still prefer hard copy, but I read a lot on my tablet. For some kinds of reading, I even prefer electronic text.

At one time, when someone would send me a PDF, I’d print it before taking it on. But someplace along the way, I stopped that intermediary step reading the electronic file instead of the paper.

And, for those who believe that reading instruction should be more about joy than the quotidian, it is worth noting the steady increase in the purchase of digital fiction. Whether some readers prefer electronic ink or are just giving in to the conveniences of this kind of text, clearly pleasure reading doesn’t preclude digital.

I bet many people have gone through – or are going through – some version of this transformation. That means kids will need to learn to read electronic text more successfully than they do now. If they don’t, they won’t succeed in academia or the workplace – futures for which we are supposedly preparing them.  

There have been many studies comparing digital and traditional reading, and that enterprise continues unabated. But there have been few studies exploring the advantages of digital reading – and even fewer (none?) aimed at identifying strategies readers could use to adjust their digital reading in ways that will allow it to be successful.

Introspection tells me that I tend to skim more with digital than paper text. I don’t know why, but I sense a kind of hurrying. Perhaps the electronic displays are harsh and less pleasant, so I try to move it along or surrender to mind wandering. That has been improving for me, but I’m not sure why? It could just be experience – I’m more used to the format – or it could be the adjustments that I’ve made to font size.  

Wouldn’t it be cool if the device itself monitored your speed and called it to attention in a 2001: Space Odyssey voice: “Dave, you read that screen faster than the last several. Did you mean to start skimming?”

Some research suggests that digital readers give in to distraction more, sliding into Google instead of maintaining their reading. Many of the digital mechanisms for children’s reading supplement the texts with games and puzzles and the like. Research shows that those mechanisms are more of a distraction, undermining reading comprehension rather than fortifying it (Furenes, Kucirkov, & Bus, 2021).

That tells me that electronic readers need to try to resist distraction, since giving into it has unfortunate consequences.

I suspect that my memory for what I read electronically may be a bit deficient, too. It seems to deteriorate more quickly. Highlighting text as I read and then reviewing those parts before I “close the book” helps. Kids are usually discouraged from highlighting school textbooks, but they can markup electronic copy to their hearts’ content and instruction can provide a helpful guide to that kind of annotation.

Unfortunately, many electronic books are not particularly flexible or supportive of highlighting, marginal notes, or annotation. Electronic publishers interested in the children’s market should be thinking how to facilitate better such reader-text interaction. Likewise, as helpful as the dictionary assistance is (it has been found to improve children’s vocabulary), it isn’t doing much to either improve comprehension or to help young readers to independence – such as guiding them to use context to determine word meanings or providing more precise and helpful definitions.

There is another kind of memory loss I have noticed. When reading traditional text my brain works a bit like a GPS device. It tells me that certain information was presented on the verso or recto page (left or right), near the top or near the bottom, and that sometimes allows me to go back and find something later. I can’t do that on my tablet. My memories don’t seem to have that kind of physical orientation. To regain that I find I need to find a more specific verbal link – memorizing an uncommon word or phrase, so that I can depend upon the marvelous search capacity of the computerized “books.”

I’m happy to encourage electronic publishers to improve their products, and researchers to explore how readers can effectively overcome the limitations of electronic reading. But those are seeds planted for the future – perhaps a far-off future.

What can teachers do now that will help?

1.     Reading instruction should focus on both electronic and paper texts.

2.     Teachers should be frank with students. They should let kids in on the fact that their comprehension is likely to be lower with a tablet or phone. Talking about the problem openly may help them to resist distraction and intensify effort.

3.     I’ve suggested here some adjustments that I have made to try to be more effective in digital reading, but don’t know whether these are helpful to others. I’d suggest encouraging kids to experiment with some of these kinds of ideas – and I’d also encourage some brainstorming on their part to see what works for them.

4.     Obviously, there is no research on much of what I have suggested here – very different from a usual Shanahan on Literacy blog. However, there is plenty of research that shows developing agency among learners can be motivational and can empower greater success with other tasks (e.g., Bandura, 2001; Winne, 2018). Maybe it isn’t too big a leap to see the consistency of these suggestions with that body of research.

I guess I’m saying that your school has done a good thing (I think), but it will only be a good idea if you and your colleagues figure out how best to make it work for learning. Otherwise, they’ve likely set your kids back a bit.

READ MORE: Shanahan On Literacy Blog


Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 1-26.

Clinton, V. (2019). Reading from paper compared to screens: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Research in Reading, 42, 288-325.

Delgado, P., & Salmerón, L. (2021). The inattentive on-screen reading: Reading medium affects attention and reading comprehension under time pressure. Learning and Instruction, 71, 13.

Delgado, P., Vargas, C., Ackerman, R., & Salmerón, L. (2018). Don’t throw away your printed books: A meta-analysis on the effects of reading media on reading comprehension. Educational Research Review, 25, 23-28.

Furenes, M. I., Kucirkova, N., & Bus, A. G. (2021). A comparison of children’s reading on paper versus screen: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 91(4), 483-517.

Salmerón, L., Vargas, C., Delgado, P., & Baron, N. (2023). Relation between digital tool practices in the language arts classroom and reading comprehension scores. Reading and Writing, 36, 175-194.

Winne, P. (2018). Cognition and metacognition within self-regulated learning. In D. Schunk & J. Greene (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation of learning and performance (2nd ed., pp. 36-48). New York: Routledge.


See what others have to say about this topic.

mark pennington Aug 05, 2023 02:00 PM

Aw, Tim. You’re sounding old! You’re comparing a modern elephant to a mammoth and asking which is better. It’s not a real research question because the print media mammoth is already in the museums.

Rebecca Aug 05, 2023 02:09 PM

What do you think of electronic “books” for early readers? Maybe I’m old, but I like the left to right orientation and turning of pages for emergent readers, as well as the ability to touch and track printed words.

Paula Helberg Aug 05, 2023 02:50 PM

Your summary of the research (or lack of research) in this area is helpful and needed. It also matches my experiences as a teacher and as a reader. If people want to explore this topic further, I recommend Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf.

Timothy Shanahan Aug 05, 2023 03:46 PM


Like you, I favor paper books for young children. The tactile pleasures of turning and touching pages are hard to beat. Some research on reading to very young children (9 mos.+) points to the importance of shared sustained attention -- mother and child looking at exactly the same thing at the same time for considerable time. That, in my opinion, is easier with a traditional book (I hate when a grandchild touches the screen and we end up someplace completely different). However, let's face it -- there are going to be times when you are at the doctor's office and you don't have a children's book with you, but you have several on your phone... nothing wrong with reading them to your child. Surveys show that children prefer paper to screens when it comes to books, so I lean that way, but there are going to be electronic moments.


Timothy Shanahan Aug 05, 2023 03:52 PM

"Sounding old"?? I can go one better than that-- I am old! There may be an elephant in the room (I don't doubt it), but it isn't house trained yet.


Amy Aug 06, 2023 02:53 AM

I found digital texts very helpful for teaching my child to read. At the time decodable books from Flyleaf, Half-pint Books and CKLA were all available for free online, but the only decodables our public library had were Bob Books. (Decodables from Flyleaf and CKLA are still available for free.) Using the digital texts meant we had enough decodables that we could read one every day instead of the levelled books that his school sent home. Now that he's reading picture books and chapter books we usually read the print version unless there is a particular title that our public library only has as an ebook.

Heather Aug 06, 2023 03:59 PM

I recently took my son to the eye doctor and his doctor prescribed him blue light filter glasses due to the fact that nearly all of my son's school work in 5th grade will be completed digitally. Are you aware of any studies that compare comprehension between "a la natural" digital reading versus filtered blue light reading?

Timothy Shanahan Aug 06, 2023 04:27 PM


There is a whole program based on the idea of fitting kids with different colors of lenses with the idea of improving reading. There is no credible research showing that it makes any real difference.


Lauren Aug 06, 2023 07:20 PM

There are clearly benefits to having students use online reading platforms. I would only comment that there are health risks to be aware of with too much screen time. I don't know if it is a good idea to have students staring at screens all day. I'm thinking we should all read about how blue light can impact vision and set some limits for usage in an educational setting.

Tina Perez Byers Aug 07, 2023 02:22 AM

I hope someone takes up the research. Most standardized tests are now digital, which means that we will see a decline in scores because of the disadvantage of digital reading. I am not a fan of electronic books I am the mammoth.

Heidi Long Aug 07, 2023 02:30 PM

Another vote for the work of Maryanne Wolf. My take-away from her books is that kids who are learning to read (she suggests this is typically up to age 10 or so) should spend the vast majority of their time reading print, not digital, texts.

As noted above, comprehension suffers and readers tend to skim and scan digital text. Even adults who learned to read exclusively in print struggle to maintain strong reading skills when reading digital texts. This is supported by research.

Kids will of course eventually need to become strong readers of both print and digital texts. And I agree that teachers should tell students how our brains behave differently when dealing with digital text.

In order to equip kids with the best foundation for becoming biliterate in print and digital media, we need to focus on mostly print text in our elementary schools, gradually adding more digital texts as kids age.

KenS Aug 06, 2023 03:04 AM

I wish someone would do a study comparing print books to dedicated E-readers. I do almost all my reading on an E-reader that cannot surf the web, and I don't think I am any more prone to mind wandering than I am when I read a print book. I get how tempting it might be if one knows one can always browse the web, so does it make a difference if the device doesn't offer that option?

Like you, professor, I highlight passages I find important or just want to be able to find again easily, and that process of highlighting results in my reading those important passages at least a second time as I do the highlighting. I think that might help my comprehension.

Finally, nothing beats being able to just touch a word to get its definition. So, yeah, I'm a fan of my E-reader.

Elaine Chandler, M.S.Ed Aug 06, 2023 03:04 AM

Tim, I am a reading specialist, as well as a sales executive who previously worked for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and before that, Harcourt, in upstate NY. I accompanied you across the state, to Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo while you trained teachers on fluency, back in the mid-2000's. Since then, I have retired from textbook publishing, and enjoy mostly digital reading, but the way I do it is not well known, so I tell everyone I meet to try this option:

I buy the Kindle version of the book, and then I add the audio version to the Kindle version. This creates a situation where both the Kindle app and the Audible app run at the same time. What results is that, while the Kindle digital version of each page is up, showing the print, the Audible app will narrate it, and highlight the text as it is read it aloud. I love this. It keeps me focused if I am reading in a public space with outside voices and other noises. It also keeps me engaged when I'm just sitting at home reading. If schools had this option, I believe it would keep students engaged with digital text for longer periods, too.

Melanie L Meyers Aug 06, 2023 09:57 AM

Another question: How do we best prepare students for their annual state Computer Based Testing? Two weeks training on how to highlight, annotate, use a split screen, etc. seems ineffective. I prefer using a combination of digital and hard copy throughout the year, though the younger the student, the more challenging that becomes. The same goes for writing the responses. Since we are testing on the computer, should we lean heavily on instructing in the same format? Please note, I am no fan of these tests, paper or digital.

Maureen Ruby Aug 06, 2023 11:50 AM

Maryanne Wolf has written about this subject extensively. I suggest reading Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain ,
and Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World .
This is a good start for solid background information on this subject- all in alignment with Dr. Shanahan’s comments.

Beth Dobler Aug 07, 2023 03:04 PM

It's important to make a distinction between reading a digital book, pdf or other digital document and reading on the Web - all of which our students (and we) need to be skilled at doing - along with reading paper. Comprehending on the Web requires a unique set of skills that can add complexity to the reading process, including the use of browsers, search engines, the flexible thinking necessary to comprehend information across media (text, images, videos, audio files), and the know-how to determine usefulness and truthfulness of the information we find online. Tim, you mentioned the lack of studies exploring the advantages of digital reading - thank you for shedding a light on this gap in our understanding! My research (along with colleagues), writing, and teaching has focused identifying strategies readers can use to adjust their reading on the Web to be more successful, and readers of this blog may find this book useful:

Dobler, E. (2022) Reading the web: Strategies for internet inquiry. Kendall Hunt.

Mary Baker-Hendy Aug 07, 2023 03:52 PM

Aw Mark, what does “old” mean? If it means taking a hard researched look at what actually supports reading comprehension for children, if it means making sure that the “mammoth” which is money driven, is not going to hinder the brain’s centuries long progress on using sounds and symbols to communicate meaningfully, well then I’m all for “old”.

JoAnn Rasmussen Aug 07, 2023 04:11 PM

I have "wonderings" after reading your article about how our students take reading assessments on the computer and the results of their comprehension using a screen versus a hard copy. Also some tests have a split screen with reading material on one side and questions on the other. Navigating that format is a challenge unto itself. Thank your for your comments.

Timothy Shanahan Aug 10, 2023 08:16 PM


Your approach makes sense to me.


Jo Anne Gross Aug 10, 2023 11:46 AM

I feel the same way JoAnn Rasmussen-Dr. Linda Siegel and I share the same view that Spelling is the window into the brain and old me is suspicious of computerized testing.

I am trying to find the research that supports it.

Theresa Sep 15, 2023 11:34 AM

Another important point to consider in this discussion is the purpose for reading. Some research suggests that reading for enjoyment is less impacted by digital text than reading for information. This warrants consideration when creating strategies for reading digital text.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Is digital text a good idea for reading instruction?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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