Is reading online worse than reading print?

As I explained in an earlier post, my review-essay “Twilight of the Books” appears in the 24 December 2007 issue of The New Yorker, and as an online supplement, I’m summarizing some of the data that I drew from, organizing the summaries by topic, and including links where I can. These are merely evidence in raw form and are probably a bit indigestible taken en masse. For analysis and discussion and hopefully a more pleasant read, please see the New Yorker article itself.

Previously: Does internet use improve or impair academic performance? Does it decrease the amount of time spent reading? Today: Is it more efficient to learn by reading print, by reading online, or by watching video?

  • When surveyed, medical students and business school say that they prefer to print out reading materials rather than read them onscreen. But an experimental test of 114 Scandinavian doctors found no significant difference in comprehension and retention of a short article between those who read it on paper and those who read it online, despite the doctors’ overwhelming preference for reading on paper. [Carrie Spencer, “Research on Learners’ Preferences for Reading from a Printed Text or from a Computer Screen,” Journal of Distance Education, 2006. Linda A. Martin and Mark W. Platt, “Printing and Screen Reading in the Medical School Curriculum: Guttenberg vs. the Cathode Ray Tube,” {link to citation only} Behaviour & Information Technology 2001. Pal Gulbrandsen, Torben V. Schroeder, Josef Milerad, and Magne Nylenna, “Paper or Screen, Mother Tongue or English: Which Is Better? A Randomized Trial,” Journal of the American Medical Association 2002.]
  • In a 2007 study, 132 college students in Alabama were shown a PowerPoint slide presentation on the country of Mali in one of three formats: text only, text with audio commentary, and text with an audiovisual commentary. The commentary was by a presenter who read the material on the slides almost word for word. When quizzed about the presentation, those shown the version with audiovisual commentary scored significantly lower than those shown the text-only version. The scores of those shown the version with audio commentary fell in between. Those shown the text-only version were more likely to agree with the statement “The presentation was interesting,” and those shown the text with audiovisual commentary were more likely to agree with the statement “I did not learn anything from this presentation.” [Steven C. Rockwell and Loy A. Singleton, “The Effect of the Modality of Presentation of Streaming Multimedia on Information Acquisition,” {link to citation only} Media Psychology 2007.]
  • In a number of studies led by Barrie Gunter and Adrian Furnham in the late 1980s, adults and children proved better able to recall information conveyed to them in print than by audio or television, “even where exposure time is equated across viewers, listeners, or readers.” (In fact, equal exposure time gives an advantage to readers; not only can readers set their own pace, slowing down when they reach a difficult passage and speeding through an easy one, but readers are often able to read a transcript silently more than once in the time it takes for the same material to be performed or read aloud.) Gunter and Furnham proved that print was superior whether the subject matter was television news, party political broadcasts, television advertisements, or scientific information. A 2002 study, however, found that when children and adults were quizzed about a children’s news program that they had either watched or read in transcript, children had better recall when they watched, especially if they were not proficient readers; adult recall was the same for both modalities. [Adrian Furnham, Barrie Gunter, and Andrew Green, “Remembering Science: The Recall of Factual Information as a Function of the Presentation Mode,” {link to citation only} Applied Cognitive Psychology 1990. Adrian Furnham, Samantha de Siena, and Barrie Gunter, “Children’s and Adults’ Recall of Children’s News Stories in both Print and Audio-visual Presentation Modalities,” {link to citation only} Applied Cognitive Psychology 2002.]

The end! This is the last installment of an online annotated bibliography for my review-essay “Twilight of the Books”.

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here’s a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books”:

Notebook: “Twilight of the Books” (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER’s Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

6 thoughts on “Is reading online worse than reading print?”

  1. In your recent New York article on reading you cite evidence that thinking is different when information is gained via print versus other media. You correctly cite Luria and others on this point. As an educational consultant I spend three to four days a week in public schools working with teachers and students. Increasingly teacher read text to students because they believe that students can't do so themselves. This only intensifies the problem you discuss. Reading requires thought and thought requires effort. Viewing for the most part is a passive activity often rapturous activity. You might want to read The Whole Equation by Thompson on this issue.

    You also cite some British studies recall was increased by reading script rather than viewing the TV show. Please let me know who did these studies. I need to share them with classroom teachers. I would be most appreciative to receive these sources. Thank You.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Citations for the British studies that you're asking after are in the last item in the bibliography just above, the ones by Barrie Gunter, Adrian Furnham, et al. Gunter and Furnham's "Remembering Science" article contains citations to their earlier work, if you're interested in tracking down all the individual studies they did.

  3. Andrew:

    I did indeed notice it! There are in fact a few more connections than were evident from the articles. Michael Cole, mentioned in Gladwell's article for his experiments among Liberia's Kpelle, in fact wrote the introduction for the English-language publication of Alexander Luria's book, mentioned in my article. And Cole returned to Africa to work with a different tribe, the Vai, in another set of experiments, which I also describe. With the Kpelle and again with the Vai, Cole and his collaborator, Sylvia Scribner, were trying to duplicate Luria's experimental results—thus the similarity you noticed.

    I had no idea that Gladwell was writing about Cole's work; I imagine that to him as to me it seemed fairly obscure! The research and writing of my article involved a rather extensive timeline, and I didn't see Gladwell's article until mine was committed to print. I can't speak about the editors' decision-making process, but I imagine that they didn't see any point in removing the reference from one of our stories just because the other had happened also to write about it. It's very sharp-eyed of you to notice it; the other noticer, to my knowledge, is law professor Michael Dorf.

    As for how to reconcile the two articles' different use of similar data, it might be worth pointing out that I never say in my article that people who don't read are less intelligent than those who do. I only say that there's some evidence—though it's contested evidence—that they think in a different way. I haven't yet read Flynn's book, but I gather from Gladwell's article and other sources that the Flynn effect is still something of a mystery, and that Flynn's own proposal for explaining it—that people have become more accustomed to the sort of abstract thought that IQ measures—is only one among several. Another possible way to reconcile: according to Wikipedia (not a source I use for New Yorker articles! but one that seems okay for replying to a blog comment), there's some evidence that the Flynn effect has tapered off in the last decade. I hasten to say that I haven't looked at the studies underlying this claim, as I have at those I cite in my article. Another thing to keep in mind: if the Flynn effect is still operating in America, then the recent declines in literacy are even more remarkable. But now I'm wandering into the realm of wild speculation, so I'd better stop. Thanks for the question.

  4. Dear Caleb,

    Thanks for the detailed background information on the writing of your article (and Gladwell's), and for the further thoughts (speculation is allowed in the comments section of blogs).


  5. Interesting article, I'd say "dismaying," but for the fact that it describes a situation that seems to be self-evident. Coming from a background where TV dominates leisure time, I've seen minimal interest in reading declining after the high school to college age years. Often I hear "no time for reading," but there's time for all sorts of other time-killing activities. So what that indicates to me is "no time" for the kind of thoughtful communication that Proust rightly celebrates. In other words, no time for real thinking.

    Reading your essay I was reminded of a book I read in high school: Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" where, in a future society, books are outlawed and the outlaws return to primary orality, memorizing texts that it's too dangerous to be seen carrying. That situation didn't seem too far-fetched, but even more plausible were the wall-size interactive television screens that permitted one to — effectively — share the room with one's chosen entertainments. Very different from letting one's chosen author share one's mind.

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