To Boost Learning, Be Cautious About Reading and Writing on Screens

Evidence shows we understand less when reading on digital devices--but THINK we understand more.


Digital devices are here to stay, but studies show that if we rely on them heavily for reading and writing, learning may suffer.

The traditional methods of reading and writing—using paper and pencil—have long been on the wane at all grade levels. The Common Core State Standards called for teaching kids to use a keyboard but said nothing about handwriting. School districts touted policies that provided every student with a digital device. Textbook publishers nudged college students toward virtual materials.

At the same time, research was raising red flags. Studies showed that students who took notes by hand understood material better than those who typed them on digital devices. Other research suggested that teaching kids to write by hand builds fine motor skills that are crucial for future academic success. Evidence indicated that reading print leads to better comprehension, especially if the text is nonfiction, lengthy, and not presented in narrative form.

Remote and hybrid learning over the past 18 months has put the shift to digital reading and writing on steroids. And now there’s even more data pointing to the risks of relying heavily on screens—or at least, doing so without certain safeguards.

A recent study from researchers at Johns Hopkins found that people who learned a new alphabet through writing by hand did so faster and better than those who studied it through videos or typing. Another experiment found that those who wrote notes on paper remembered the information better than those who used digital devices.

Both studies were done with adults, but the Hopkins researchers said in a press release they expect their findings apply to children as well. One, Robert Wiley, said he’s been giving his young nieces and nephew pens and pencils as gifts. The other researcher, Brenda Rapp, said the study provides “fairly strong evidence that handwriting supports literacy in ways that go beyond the actual penmanship.”

Many children at lower grade levels have missed out on handwriting instruction over the last year and a half, because it’s hard to teach remotely. When that’s the case, the evidence indicates that teachers shouldn’t forge ahead and assume kids will pick it up—or that they can just learn to type instead. Typing is an important skill, but if it’s used as a substitute for teaching handwriting, students may well suffer academically.

The evidence on the drawbacks of digital reading is more voluminous than that on writing, but some of it is contradictory. Some researchers have found that students express a marked preference for print over digital text, with higher proportions saying reading from a screen is boring or tiring. Others have found students strongly prefer digital reading. The studies agree, however, that those who read on a screen are overly confident that they’ve understood what they’ve read.

A research duo at the University of Maryland, Patricia Alexander and Lauren Trakhman, have done a total of seven studies on the different effects of print and digital reading on comprehension. During a recent appearance on the podcast The Science of Reading, they said they were surprised by the consistent discrepancy between how much their subjects—college students—thought they understood and what they actually took in. Despite their confident assertions to the contrary, students’ comprehension was actually better when they read print.

“They bought the message that they were digital natives,” Alexander said.

One problem, Alexander and Trakhman say, is that people read digital text much more quickly than print. And if you do something quickly, you assume it’s easier. But it may seem easier because you’re not paying as much attention as you need to.

At least one other researcher has seen speed as a problem in digital reading. But another, who analyzed 33 studies on the subject, didn’t see differences in reading times between the two types of media.

Whatever the reasons for the differences between print and digital reading, the combination of poor comprehension and overconfidence is a dangerous one—similar to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the finding that people who perform poorly on a task tend to rate their performance highly. If we’re not careful, we could find ourselves with a generation of readers who skim text on screens, are confident they understand it—and possibly act on what they think it says—but are seriously misinformed.

As with some of the handwriting studies, the reading studies described above have focused on adults or older teenagers. That’s not unusual. The people conducting research tend to be university professors, and the students who happen to be in their vicinity are convenient subjects. But the findings probably apply to younger students as well.

There’s also research in this area on children eight years old and under, though. There, too, the data generally gives an edge to paper, although the benefits seem to be stronger for adults. One difference is that for young children, digital seems to be a better option for nonfiction—the opposite of findings for older readers.

Certain kinds of digital enhancements in text for children—features that repeat key vocabulary words, for example, or provide context—can boost comprehension. But too many bells and whistles that are unrelated to the text’s content can be distracting and overstimulating. And the advantages of one medium over another can vary with the context: One analysis of 39 studies found, for example, that children from low-income families generally did better with paper books, but there was no difference between print and digital for kids from middle- or high-income families.

As Alexander and Trakhman recognize, digital devices aren’t going anywhere. So we need to figure how to help students read text on screens more effectively. And Trakhman’s dissertation research indicates that may not be difficult. After students got a 30-minute interactive presentation alerting them to the differences between print and digital reading—for example, that digital readers are overconfident about their comprehension and are less likely to reread a passage or look at a diagram referred to in the text—their digital reading comprehension improved markedly.

Other advice includes using a mix of print and digital texts, and understanding why you’re using one rather than another; making text on a screen look as much like a hard-copy book as possible; and printing out digital passages that are particularly important.

Alexander and Trakhman also suggest showing kids how to use apps to annotate digital text—with a stylus that mimics the experience of taking notes by hand, if possible, to get the benefits of that method of note-taking.

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.