The digital reading movement – through the use of e-readers, tablets, laptops and other devices – has blossomed over the course of the past decade or so, but now that the initial surge in popularity has died down, commonly experienced issues surrounding the field are starting to surface. Studies have proven that on-screen reading is less constructive, as the distractive nature of the format can often disrupt comprehension of the text. As schools start to operate with an emphasis on digital learning in the classroom, a growing concern regarding the effectiveness of the technology persists.

Students learn more completely with print materials
Education Week expressed apprehension toward the digital phenomenon in schools. The source said that as the influx of electronic learning has expanded in recent years, research has shown that when consuming digital materials, students often neglect the strategies they use to comprehend information distributed via print. This alarming trend has seemingly been ignored by schools that are increasingly investing in primarily electronic classrooms. Education Week noted that the interactive nature of some of these resources can be distractive rather than constructive. 

Wired contributor Brandon Keim remarked that his own experiences have reinforced this concept – he described words on a screen as "slippery;" as if his mind could not quite grasp and retain them as fully as it would when reading a print text. He also cited Anne Mangen, a literacy professor at the University of Stavenger in Norway, who conducts research on this particular subject. She elaborated that reading is, for humans, a very visceral and interactive experience. The physical permanence of paper creates an entirely different cognitive and emotional experience that cannot be duplicated in a digital setting. 

Keim added that readers' subconscious ability to recognize the chronological procedure of a book is aided greatly by touching and feeling the pages. E-readers do not always have page numbers, and even when they do, it's still harder to gauge the exact sequence of events. 

Ironically, the Common Core standards employed by schools encourage deep, rich and engaging reading and thinking, Education Week explained. The notion that teachers aim to switch to a format that is more conducive to distraction, skimming the text, and lower levels of comprehension in an attempt to best prepare students for the curriculum is puzzling, to say the least. 

Can't we all just get along?

Yes, actually, we can. And here's how: 

Keim proposed a shift in the way we think about paper and screens. He suggested that they are different and complementary interfaces, rather than an old technology and its replacement. Each form independently stimulates particular modes of thinking, and there is no inherently better option.

Neither students nor avid readers have noted any desire to read long-form journalism, novels or academic material in a digital form. But almost everyone gets their news online these days. It's a matter of convenience and accuracy, since developing stories can be constantly updated as new details emerge. Once a print story is printed, that's it. It's set in stone. 

So, the obvious compromise that would benefit most people is to reintroduce the two longtime rival forms of media as complementary resources, rather than sparring partners. There's no reason you shouldn't read the news on your tablet while taking a break from reading a hard copy of a breathtaking novel.

As for schools – it might be wise not to force digital upon the students until further research has been conducted regarding the extent to which reading on a screen affects the learning process. It's certainly not a bad thing to incorporate electronic-based lessons given the nature and necessity of technology in modern times, but print texts seem to be much more effective for classroom purposes.

Education Week described software that attempts to bridge the gap between reading via screen and print by encouraging similar habits. Students are required to annotate and answer checkpoint questions to ensure they are gaining a full understanding of the subject matter. This can help alleviate distraction or skimming concerns, while allowing teachers to provide more materials to students due to the expansive nature of the Internet. 

Still, the source said, disruptions when reading while using the software are still possible and likely, even when aided by specific tasks to negate such ill effects. It remains more challenging to establish a flow, especially with embedded videos and hyperlinks that lead to further information all over the page. These aspects, while intended to serve a benevolent purpose, actually render readers susceptible to distraction. 

So what is the best solution for schools? As with everything else, a multimedia approach is probably most applicable. Getting children involved with and knowledgeable about technology is good, but to encourage comprehension standards, print is largely more beneficial. 

Despite what you might hear, the world is not actually all that dependent upon electronic information. There is plenty of room for multiple successful forms of media, and neither print nor digital is going to run the other out of existence any time soon.