Digital Reading and the Brain

Why the Brain Prefers Paper” in the November 2013 Scientific American prompted me to reflect on my daily observations of students choosing and using print and electronic books. I am no expert on the brain, but Ferris Jabr cogently summarizes our current understanding of the brain and its function and ability to engage in print and digital reading.  What follows are some key findings and trends from the article.

“Together laboratory experiments and polls and consumer reports indicate that digital devices prevent people from efficiently navigating long texts, which may subtly inhibit reading comprehension.” Based on my observations, I agree with this statement.  In my own library class I started a project in which students researched an inventor. Students were required to use digital resources in accomplishing their research. Upon finding an age appropriate web site on her topic, one student stared at the screen and said, “Where do I go?” She was overwhelmed by the page design and had no idea of where to begin navigating that site for information on her topic. I worked one-on-one with her to help focus on the information she needed and scanning, digging, and reading the text. The type of reading we did was very different from print reading. I know that with more experience using web sites this student will gain proficiency navigating pages. The experience she had with that web site, however, halted her steady progress, left her with many questions unrelated to her research, and ultimately had a negative impact on her passion for investigating her topic.

“The implicit feel of where you are in a physical book turns out to be more important than we realized.” Paper has, as the author describes, an inherent landscape. When we pick up a text we create a mental road map of how we get from the beginning to the end. With paper, readers have a sense of location and a clear image of their own expectations for reading. If you work with elementary students, you may notice that many of your patrons choose books based only on their length. With a digital text the reader cannot easily trace what came before or what lies ahead. Cognitive energies are drained both by navigating the text and by comprehending it. Additionally, I have observed that the students in my classes that meet at the end of the academic day, are not fully supportive when I ask them to go online. Many of them have spent the majority of their day using online texts and in the library they want to gather physically around some books and share them with their classmates. Thanks to Jabr’s writing I now better understand the drain to which they have been subject prior to coming to the library!

“The latest research suggests that substituting screens for paper at an early age has disadvantages that we should not easily write off.” Studies by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Julia Parrish-Morris concluded that enhanced e-books distracted young readers from the narrative. Those readers were more able to recall details and follow the story in print. The follow-up survey with parents confirmed this. I use the library’s e-book collection, Tumblebooks and iBooks with my youngest students, but I wholly support their emergent reading by encouraging them to check-out a lot of print material. I am very grateful to our Preschool and Elementary faculty members who are among the most avid users of the collection providing their students with an extension of the library in their classrooms!

This article reminds me to keep monitoring what works for my students and figuring out why certain strategies work. I am dedicated to curating my program’s digital collection and refining the purposeful way I help them access and use those materials. I will continue to amplify digital offerings and keep in mind the best practices. As librarians, however, we are on the frontline of these e-reading trends and their application in our students’ academic lives. We can make valuable contributions to the growing body of knowledge on e-reading through our documented observations.

Do you notice that some or all of the habits seen in digital reading among your students are the same in print?

Are your students gravitating towards print materials for academic work or for pleasure reading?

From what source do they learn and remember best and does that vary from student to student?

Work cited:

Jabr, F. (2013, November). Why the brain prefers paper. Scientific American309(5), 48-53. 

2 thoughts on “Digital Reading and the Brain

  1. What a thought-provoking article, Faith. Thanks for bringing the Scientific American article for some data-based conclusions. We found the same thing with our students and format preferences: “According our school’s June 2013 library survey, more than half of our students at the Upper School prefer to read in print for school projects, while only about 10% prefer to read digitally. When asked about recreational reading, these numbers are more extreme, with 73% preferring print and 2% preferring digital.” (from my AISL blog post dated 11/25/13 ‘“Everyone has every book ever published… in their pocket!” : A response’). It’s interesting to see the science behind these preferences.

  2. Thanks Shannon for your comment and additions! Do you think you could share your June 2013 survey questions? I am really interested in distributing a survey on our campus to help provide us with user dispositions as we develop our collections. I would also like to survey the faculty and their use of digital books in the classroom. The Scientific American article had a link to a survey that I liked, but it lacked some questions that are related to students. Also, if you liked this article you should look at this study done observing college students: Student Reading Practices in Print and Electronic Media –

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