Is Comprehension Better with Digital Text?

  • 07 October, 2018

Teacher question:

Do we read digitally as well as we read paper texts? 

Shanahan response:

I’ve been asked this provocative question three times in three weeks. Once I was presenting a workshop on how to teach college-bound high-schoolers to handle complex text on tests like the ACT. This group wanted to know if it mattered whether students were tested digitally or with paper (studies estimate significant differences in performance favoring paper). 

Last week, I was on a panel at Reading is Fundamental’s National Reading Coalition, a meeting of literacy providers, policymakers, and business leaders. This time the question was posed by Kathleen Ryan-Mufson, Director of Global Citizenship for Pitney-Bowes, a major player in digital communications. She wanted to know about the importance of digital literacy in learning, which opens up issues of access, precision of understanding, and student preference.

Then Friday, I was with a particularly thoughtful group of middle-school teachers in Indiana. They asked the question straight-up and were pretty sure that digital was better than paper because of technological affordances, such as easy in-text access to a dictionary, and because these kids are growing up digitally (the so-called “digital natives”).

Must be something in the water.

My answer: We don’t read as well digitally as we do on paper. When texts are short – a page or less — and comprehension demands light (what’s the main idea?), we do pretty well with either kind of text. But as learning demands increase and the texts are more extensive, paper wins hands down.

Like those Indiana teachers, students tend to think they read best digitally; but tests of their comprehension reveal that they are wrong.

Years ago, knowing such questions would come my way, I did some self study. I read a novel silently, usually prior to bedtime; I read one aloud to my youngest daughter; I listened to one on “Books on Tape” when I drove to work; and I read Dracula on my computer (thanks, Gutenberg Project).

My personal sense of the matter was that I was hurrying when I was reading digitally. As with current research findings, I was fine with major plot points, but it seemed like my understanding was fragile and not very deep. For me, at that time, reading online was more like skimming than reading. I was moving too fast.

Since then technology has improved and I’ve grown used to such reading. Engineers have improved digital texts, in lots of ways. We can now download texts so that we’re no longer “online.” Page sizes and formatting are more similar to those of real books; and screen illumination is better, too.

There are even ways in which tech books are demonstrably better. I can increase font sizes (which, at my age, I love) and I can set screen illumination so that I can read with the lights out and Cyndie can sleep. I spend a lot of time on airplanes and portability matters, so being able to bring along tech’s version of a dozen books and as many magazines is a definite win.

These days I often read digitally, or work and pleasure, much more often.

Nevertheless, reading digitally is still a different experience.

One loses the sensory pleasures of the page, and navigation can be disorienting. I can’t always go back and locate what I’m looking for. I still have a sense that I’m going too fast and, perhaps, reading too superficially. Though that just might be me. Kretzshmar, et al. (2013) found older readers do make shorter fixations when reading digitally, but that wasn’t true of younger readers.

Dillon (1992) and Singer & Alexander (2017) have conducted the most complete and thorough meta-analyses of the issues; the former looking at all the pre-1992 studies, and latter all the work since Dillon.

Both meta-analyses concluded that we don’t comprehend digital as well as paper, and that the disparity is as true for so-called “digital natives” as for people like me (“digital geezers?”).

Apparently scrolling a screen is more memory disruptive than simply turning a page. And, digital reading is often interrupted by multi-tasking (Baron, 2015): 67% of readers don’t last ten minutes before they’re messaging or shopping during reading!

Of course, this is all a bit complicated. Reading a PDF file on one’s computer is a different from reading a test passage on an online state exam or from reading Prairie Fires for pleasure on my I-Pad. They differ in their navigability, their user friendliness, and how likely one is to be tempted to do other things instead of reading.

That means comprehension is not always suppressed or limited by digital text, and yet it is often enough that we all should be concerned. Mangen (2013) found students could get the major plot points of a story digitally but that they were deficient when it came to making connections of other text points with the plot.

Maryanne Wolf (2017) has agonized over the potential losses to patience, persistence, and depth of thought that could result from a daily diet of the short, peripatetic text excursions characteristic of digital reading.

Oh, and may I add that lots of people don't actually enjoy reading digitally as much as they do text on paper. (The last couple of Scholastic surveys have found that the overwhelming majority of kids much prefer books.)

Digital reading is superficial, less understandable, and less enjoyable for most people. Sounds like we should get rid of it, and that only fools would invest in digital texts for their instructional programs, right?

I strongly disagree.

Digital text is here to stay. There are all kinds of economic and social reasons why this is likely true, but what matters is that if I’m correct, then kids—all of us really—are going to need to learn to read such texts effectively.

Two things that need to happen:

First, many other writers (e.g., Boone & Higgins, 2007; Jabr, 2013; Kieffer & Reinking, 2006; Talaka, et al., 2015) have argued that tech engineers should continue to beaver away at making digital reading environments more supportive. Instead of trying to make tech readers like books, they need to think about how to produce better digital tools. Tech environments can alter reading behavior, so technological scaffolding could be used to slow us down or to move around a text more productively.   

Second, we as teachers need to make students aware of their tech fallibility. Instead of romanticizing the tech savviness of everyone born since the first Apple sprung from the head of Steve Jobs, we should be teaching humility. They aren’t as good with these tools as they think they are, and the digital tools, while solving some problems, pose others.   

Kids vary in their ability to locate information on Google, to evaluate such information, or to understand it. Basic reading comprehension ability helps with these things, as does amount of world knowledge; but even when those are high, students frequently struggle to take advantage of the affordance of digital text or even to understand what they read digitally.

Interestingly, not everyone’s comprehension is impaired by digital text. Singer and Alexander (2016) found a group of college students who actually did better; they slowed themselves and became more careful when reading digitally (unlike me and the majority of the students they studied).

We should be teaching students strategies for digital reading, fostering ways of reading that allow students to overcome the limits of the ways that they tend to adopt for screen reading. We should also teach them efficient ways of navigating in different screen environments (e.g., arrows, site maps, breadcrumb trails, non-linear navigation), and how to evaluate the trustworthiness of the digital information that they do locate.

Students don’t comprehend digital text as well as they do paper text. But they could.  


See what others have to say about this topic.

Oct 08, 2018 03:04 AM

Thank you for your thoughts. I agree. I am an avid reader and, although having texts available online might be easier in some aspects, I am of the camp that online texts cannot replace the feeling a person gets when holding a book and getting to turn the pages.
I am a second grade teacher. In my district, we have access to our reading text books online. The purpose of this is to assist students who do not read grade-level texts by reading the text aloud to them. For teachers, who need to support twenty-something students, this is helpful because we can leave these students with the digital text and work with others; however, I have noticed that having this text read to them digitally does not always help their comprehension. Sometimes, I even record myself reading the text emphasizing certain elements that I believe will assist with their comprehension. I find that some of my students hear the text read aloud, but they are not really listening.
I also agree that I find myself rushing when I have digital texts. For myself, I think this is because I associate digital text with course work, which, oftentimes is not what I read for pleasure. I feel like this might be similar for students. They associate these digital texts with school work and want to finish as quickly as possible. Also, technology has greatly increased our need for instant gratification. I think reading digital text might link itself to that need for instant gratification resulting in reading texts quickly.

Arlene Crandall
Oct 08, 2018 02:06 PM

Thank you for this posting. I've had an interesting with Master's level students in the past 2 years. They can purchase the primary text digitally or in book form. Most of the 4 classes were in their late 20's, early 30's. The vast majority choose the book. We had an entire discussion about "learning materials" vs "just reading." They all shared the experience that in classes the information was easier to learn and remember when they had a book. Small sample, but I was a bit astounded that the early natives had that observation.
Arlene B. Crandall, Ed.D.

Chandra Shaw
Oct 10, 2018 02:06 AM

Thank you. I tell this to so many educators in my sessions. Many of their schools have 1 to 1 devices, so when I mention that students still need to read and annotate paper copies, I get the dirty look and sometimes a comment about killing trees. Until research supports an ALL digital reading curriculum, I’ll continue to preach, “Paper beats digital when it comes to reading for deep understanding, but a sensible balance is important.”

Michelle Rispole
Oct 10, 2018 04:25 PM

Thank you for this timely post! As NYS is embarking on Computer-Based Testing, we teachers need to figure out how to best support our students so that they can navigate digital texts. Two concerns I have: there should be some universal tools or standards when formatting digital material (unlike the myriad chip readers at store registers which DO NOT save us time because the clerks have to teach me!!!!) and, schools need more accessibility and funding so that digital text is part of our everyday work with students. I still LOVE books and the feel of paper, but I'm trying to embrace the usefulness of the new tools.

Lucy MacDonald
Oct 10, 2018 07:27 PM

I notice that this article is delivered in all SANS SERIF font which automatically decreases the readability and therefore comprehension. There is a reason all textbooks are PRINTED in serif font. I have experimented with this and can artificially change the score by a whole grade level by changing to serif font for my dyslexic students and others.

Lucy MacDonald, Master's in Reading, Univ of Oregon

Lucy MacDonald
Oct 10, 2018 07:29 PM

I notice that this article is delivered in all SANS SERIF font which automatically decreases the readability and therefore comprehension. There is a reason all textbooks are PRINTED in serif font. I have experimented with this and can artificially change the score by a whole grade level by changing to serif font for my dyslexic students and others.

Lucy MacDonald, Master's in Reading, Univ of Oregon

Oct 10, 2018 08:03 PM

An irony, I read it online!

Tim Shanahan
Oct 10, 2018 08:26 PM

Lucy— research finds no consistent pattern in legibility between serif and sans serif text.


Sarah Powley
Oct 11, 2018 03:12 PM

Thanks for this. My colleague (AP Chemistry) and I (Instructional Coach) are developing and delivering a series of lessons on strategies for reading e-textbooks. It is amazing how little our "digital natives" really know about 1) their own computers and how they can use them to help read e-textbooks more efficiently, 2) what their e-texts offer in the way of tools, 3) minimizing distractions and monitoring their own reading, 4) note taking with e-texts that provide no tools for annotating or highlighting--or even with e-texts that do provide these tools, 5) predicting what a hyperlink will produce and effective decision-making about whether to click on specific hyperlinks. There's more, but we are experiencing gratitude from students when we show them ways they can take control of their own reading with these digital textbooks.

We prefer paper, too, but appreciate your recognition that e-texts aren't going away and that we can and should help our students learn to read them efficiently.

Tim Shanahan
Oct 12, 2018 02:13 AM

Thanks for this. We have had a tendency create romantic images in education and to believe in their truth. All teens are experts on computers (e.g., “War Games), and the best teachers are individual heroes without a curriculum or colleagues (e.g., Dead Poets Society, To Sir with Love”). the reality is a small percentage of kids are sophisticated with technology. Perhaps a smaller percentage are afraid of tech, but as you’ve discovered that is something completely different.


What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Is Comprehension Better with Digital Text?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.