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Read the evidence: books are best!

Should we be using digital or paper-based learning for reading comprehension?

Has reading on paper had its day? After all, we’ve switched from chalk to interactive whiteboards boards and we can set and mark our students homework online. Isn’t it about time we introduced the paperless classroom?

The short answer is: probably not. At least, if we want our students to actually understand what they are reading.

In the last two months, two major studies seem to show, when it comes to reading comprehension, books are still best.

Last December, a research team from the University of Valencia published a metanalysis of 22 papers with a combined sample size of near half a million participants. The research showed that reading digital texts for pleasure improved reading comprehension skills six or seven times more than reading something on a screen.

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, co-author Professor Ladislao Salmerón said: ‘The association between frequency of digital reading for pleasure and text comprehension abilities is close to zero.’

The outcomes are especially grim for younger learners; reading pixels on a screen digitally has a negative impact on the reading comprehensions skills of primary-age children. Secondary and university students see a positive effect, but it is nowhere near as effective at improving comprehensions skills as reading print on paper.

From what we can see, there is no research on whether this applies to reading in a target language rather than L1, though we might surmise that if anything the effect is likely to be stronger; reading comprehension is likely to be more difficult in a language you don’t fully understand.

So that’s a thumbs up for sending learners home with paperback graded readers and a thumbs down for getting them to download it on a tablet. Why graded readers? Nothing improves reading comprehension better than reading for pleasure, but there’s not much pleasure in reading something that you struggle to understand. Think of reading comprehension as a sub-skill, just like scanning and skimming, and like all sub-skills it improves with practice.

Scanning and skimming, the Spanish researchers believe, is how we tend to read on screen. Another, not yet published, paper from the US suggests that our brain actually processes in a different way when we read on paper.

A team from Teachers College, University of Columbia in New York placed electrodes on the heads of 59 eleven to twelve year olds and gave them texts to read – some in digital format and others in print – and measured the N400 responses. N400 is an electrophysiological signal which is involved in language processing and semantic memory.

Semantic encoding – storing a word for meaning and not just sound or spelling – plays a vital role in reading comprehension, and the researchers hypothesised that students who were ‘deep reading’ would show a stronger N400 reaction when presented with an unrelated word during a post-reading test. Following the reading of each text, the individual student was shown a series of words, presented one by one on a screen, and asked to decide if the meaning was related or unrelated to the text. Sure enough, students showed a stronger N400 to the unrelated word when they had read the text on paper.

So, should we ban digital language leaning?

Surprisingly perhaps, when it comes to vocabulary, the answer is: maybe not.

In a 1992 paper from Israel, Vered Halamish and Dorit Elias decided to see if, in a vocabulary test, the score obtained would depend on the medium used for vocabulary learning (print or screen) and whether it was correlated to the medium of the test (paperbased or digital).

Digital vocabulary learning has been shown to be more effective than paperbased, but since successful digital vocabulary learning is based on making the student recall the word, and paper-based vocabulary learning is often word lists which students study time and again, it is not clear whether it’s the medium that is important or the methodology.

The team enrolled 79 young adults from Israel, all native speakers of Hebrew, and set them the task of learning vocabulary in Swahili, a language that none of them spoke. The learners were divided into two groups: one group studied the vocabulary on screen, using the recall method, and the other were given paper flashcards and trained to use them for recall learning.

Then they sat two vocabulary tests: half the tests were done on paper, the other half on screen. When the test was presented on paper, the students who had learned the words on paper outperformed those who had learned them on screen, but their advantage disappeared when they took the tests on screen.

So, should you cancel the books for your exam classes?

The answer is definitely not. When a similar experiment was conducted on a test of reading skills, those who had studied from paper books did better even when the test was on screen.

When it comes to reading, it seems, nothing beats a good book.

Image courtesy of Library
Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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