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Medium matters: The effects of print and digital texts on comprehension

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Today’s students are the first generation to grow up surrounded by technology. Laptops, e-readers and other digital tools are almost omnipresent, both in and out of the classroom – and there are important questions about the effect of these devices on learning. My interest in this topic came from what I witnessed during student teaching in a kindergarten class. In that classroom, the children would spend the morning learning basic phonics skills, their eyes glued to the whiteboard as the teacher modelled how to sound out words. However, when it was time for independent practice, the children ran and grabbed iPads. As I walked around the room, I noticed students engaging with the text differently. They would press on one icon and a narrator would read them the story, or another and a character would animate. It was at that moment that the question driving my research on mediums’ effect on reading processing and comprehension emerged.

The series of investigations that my colleagues and I have undertaken have produced quite consistent evidence that the medium matters. Regardless of topic, text length or the inclusion of visuals, and in direct conflict with what the undergraduate students in our studies prefer and predict about their performance, comprehension is better when reading occurs in print. Further, students’ accuracy at predicting the quality of their performance is better when they read in print rather than digitally. This is not what I would have anticipated from the outset, watching those kindergarteners, but it is an undeniable pattern that is as compelling as it is confounding.

Just as important as the outcomes, if not more so, is the question of ‘Why?’ What is it about the digital medium that inflates competent readers’ judgments of their performance, while diminishing their comprehension? With each investigation my colleagues and I have conducted, we have progressed closer to an explanation. The hypotheses that we have formulated and tested across four empirical studies will culminate in an intervention study that hopefully will permit me to forward a causal explanation for what I have been witnessing. For example, our first investigation of 90 undergraduate students revealed that although overall comprehension was better when reading in print, medium had no effect on students’ gist understanding of the text (Singer and Alexander , 2017a). In effect, whether processing in print or digitally, competent readers get the big picture. This finding was also upheld in follow-up studies (Singer Trakhman et al., 2017); (Singer Trakhman et al., 2018). There was also a discernible pattern with regard to speed of reading and depth of processing that emerged across multiple investigations. Reading digitally tends to be significantly faster than reading in print. Concomitantly, there was evidence that these undergraduates were processing more at a surface than deep level when texts were digitally presented. One more piece of evidence that emerged in the latest investigation was that these competent readers learned less from the visuals in text, based on their comprehension performance, when reading digitally than in print. Although our empirical work has focused specifically on undergraduate students, Dr Patricia Alexander and I conducted a literature review on reading in print and digitally, and found that no matter the reader’s age, the trends demonstrated in our empirical work were in agreement with other findings in the field (Singer and Alexander , 2017b) (Delgado et al., 2018). Collectively, these findings have shaped the studies and research questions that I am presently examining in my dissertation research.

To answer the questions that guide my research, my co-authors and I have used a variety of methods and statistical techniques that let me examine the ‘medium’ phenomena from many different perspectives. For example, after the surprising pattern of results from the first study, my colleagues and I set out to determine what readers were doing while reading that might explain such outcomes. We wanted to avoid procedures that might alter or interfere with the processing that we were attempting to investigate. Therefore, we eliminated think-alouds as a viable technique, since it disrupts the flow of text processing, and we rejected retrospective interviews, given what we had already discovered about our participants’ flawed judgments of performance, even at the most global level. Although eye-tracking would afford real-time insights into the students’ movements through text for digital reading, it would be of no use to us when the undergraduates read in print. After consulting experts in neuroscience, cognitive science and computer engineering, I devised a procedure for tracking students’ real-time reading behaviours for print using a tracking pen to monitor movement on the printed page in real time. What we gained from those processing behaviours was an awareness that there were discernible processing profiles that were exhibited during print and digital reading that were differentially effective in terms of comprehension performance. I have refined the real-time data collection procedure for the dissertation, where I will be using a Go-Pro Camera® and Camtasia Screen Recording Software® to capture real-time processing behaviours during reading in print and digital mediums. I again expect to find distinct processing profiles that unearth critical data pertinent to the critical ‘Why?’ question.

For all that I have come to learn about medium effects, there is one more step that needs to be taken – an intervention study. Such an intervention study will allow for causal explanations for what occurs when reading digitally that erodes competent readers’ judgments of their performance and brings about a decrement in their comprehension. Given the pervasiveness of digital reading, from the kindergarten classroom to college courses and even graduate studies, if there is truly a way to enhance how and how deeply students engage in texts conveyed digitally and how accurately they monitor their performance, it must be broadly communicated and integrated into educational practice.

Finally, I would like to pass on some takeaways from our research. Again, while our empirical work examined undergraduates, our literature review (Singer and Alexander, 2017b) analysed studies with readers of all ages. These takeaways are a result of these works and have been written with teachers and classrooms in mind.

Consider the task

One of the most consistent findings from our research is that, for some tasks, medium doesn’t seem to matter. If all students are being asked to do is to understand and remember the big idea or gist of what they’re reading, there is no benefit in selecting one medium over another (Singer and Alexander, 2017b). For example, if your students are reading for pleasure, there is no need to dictate the medium in which they will be reading.

However, when the reading assignment demands more engagement or deeper comprehension, students may be better off reading in print. Teachers could make students aware that their ability to comprehend the assignment may be influenced by the medium they choose. This awareness could lessen the discrepancy we witnessed in students’ judgments of their performance vis-à-vis how they actually performed (Alexander and Singer Trakhman , 2017).

Speed – at a cost

In our third experiment (Singer Trakhman et al., 2018), we were able to create meaningful profiles for the 57 college students who participated in the study, based on the way in which they read and comprehended from printed and digital texts.

Among those profiles, we found a select group of undergraduates who actually comprehended better when they moved from print to digital. What distinguished this atypical group was that they actually read slower when the text was on the computer than when it was in a book. In other words, they didn’t take the ease of engaging with the digital text for granted. Using this select group as a model, students could possibly be taught or directed to fight the tendency to glide through online texts. Within your classroom, try to find time to demonstrate that the strategies used when reading in print (e.g., re-reading an important sentence) can also be used when reading digitally.

Ponder the purpose

We all read for many reasons. Sometimes, we’re looking for an answer to a very specific question. Other times, we want to browse a newspaper for today’s headlines.

As we’re about to pick up an article or text in a printed or digital format, we should keep in mind why we’re reading. There’s likely to be a difference in terms of which medium works best for which purpose. For teachers, this may mean considering the purpose of an activity when lesson planning.

In other words, there’s no ‘one medium fits all’ approach.


Alexander P and Singer Trakhman L (2017) The enduring power of print for learning in a digital world. Available at: (accessed 2018).
Delgado P, Vargas C, Ackerman R, et al. (2018) Don’t throw away your printed books: A meta-analysis on the effects of reading media on reading comprehension. Educational Research Review (25): 23–38.
Singer L and Alexander P (2017a) Reading across mediums: Effects of reading digital and print texts on comprehension and calibration. Journal of Experimental Education 85(1): 155–172.
Singer L and Alexander P (2017b) Reading on paper and digitally: What the past decades of empirical research reveal. Review of Educational Research 87(6): 1007–1041.
Singer Trakhman L, Alexander P and Berkowitz L (2017) Effects of processing time on comprehension and calibration in print and digital mediums. Journal of Experimental Education.
Singer Trakhman L, Alexander P and Silverman A (2018) Profiling reading in print and digital mediums. Learning and Instruction (57): 5–17.
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