Reading in transition?

Published 7 February 2018
The following is extracted from the latest issue of Stora Enso’s Paper Now.

Does it matter whether we grab a book from the library or read it on a Kindle?

Studies indicate yes: we seem to concentrate and remember a storyline better when reading print texts.

However, the digital age is changing our mindset towards reading.

Think of your typical morning – are you perhaps checking your calendar and news from your mobile before leaving for work, then glancing through emails and Facebook posts while commuting? This example illustrates some of the changes digitalisation has brought to the way we read.

“First of all, we now live in a much more textual world: the volume of written words we physically see on a daily basis has increased due to all the screens we look at. Second, we have access to a vast amount of textual material in ways that were not possible before, such as through e-libraries around the world,” says Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics from American University in Washington DC and the author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (2015).

However, as she points out, we usually don’t read digital text in the same way as print: “If we read from an electronic device with an internet connection, we have a constant urge to move forward, as the devices are designed to always lead us to the next thing. It is also easy to multitask with a computer by having many screens open at the same time. When working with a task, you easily stray to check football scores from last night, and then look at the weather forecast for tomorrow before getting back to the task.”


Paradox of digital natives

The distractions and problems with concentration in digital reading have been found in numerous studies. This indicates that reading format matters when it comes to comprehension and short-term memory. For example, according to an international study conducted at Stavanger University in Norway in 2013, college students didn’t perform as well in exams after studying the material in digital format, and they had difficulties making full sense of the text. Similar results were found by an

Israeli research team: participants of a study were given as much time as they wanted to read a text in digital or print format. The people who read the digital text spent less time on it and did worse on the exam afterwards.

“It seems that especially the comprehension of abstract ideas is better conveyed on print. In my own research, when I gave college students a series of open-ended questions regarding what they like or dislike the most in print or digital reading, I received a fair amount of comments that the students focus better and use more time when reading print. What they most commonly disliked in digital reading were the distractions and trouble to concentrate. These answers are echoed in another study of mine in which 92% of 400 students from different countries responded that they concentrate better when reading print,” Baron says.

With all the talk about digital natives, these results seem quite paradoxical. As Baron notes, especially educators need to pay attention to these preferences. It is easy to assume that since the students walk around with their mobiles in hand all the time, the learning materials should also be mobile when, in fact, the students might prefer print for complex academic reading.


Complex reality doesn’t fit in short text

Scanning reading is not always bad – in fact, it is a very necessary capability in today’s information flow.

“In order to get things done, we need to be able to scan the results of our internet searches or spot the relevant emails in our inboxes. However, problems occur when we apply scanning reading in contexts we shouldn’t. If we only look for what we think is important in a text, and maybe read a line above and below but not the whole text, we can’t actually know whether or not we are picking up the relevant information. This is what I call skipping literacy,” Baron explains.

According to her, our mindset towards reading is changing: it is increasingly something we do on the run, not an activity we sit down for and focus on. This poses a question: do younger generations, who are mostly more familiar with digital reading, learn to focus on long texts?

“Of course not all reading needs to be long or complex, but it is like learning foreign languages: you need to practice your skill or you lose it. This matters because we live in a complex world, which is easier to put into print. Unless we train people to read long and complex texts, we don’t know what kind of society and, for example, voters we will have in the future. The glimpses of the impacts have already been seen in the form of fake news,” Baron points out.


Flexibly from digital to print

However, after the fear of printed books becoming extinct during the first decade of the 21st century, reading is now much more mixed than it was 3–5 years ago.

“When e-books came to the market, the sales of hard copies decreased. Now the sales of print books are growing 3-5% annually in US, but demand for e-books has decreased. In general, people move quite flexibly from one channel to the other: for example, they may start reading something online and then print it for further use.”

Baron herself is a good example of this, as she often does this with academic articles. She also has no objection to reading news and emails from a mobile when travelling, for instance. But when it comes to books, her preference is clear: “I definitely go for hard copies. The physical features of a book also play a significant part in the reading experience: the smell and feel, and the ability to easily go back to an important sentence you already read because you remember where it was on the page. But most importantly: I don’t feel like I’m ‘in’ the book when I read e-books.”

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