Reading from the same page

Would you read this sentence differently if it was on paper?

At the advent of personal computing in the 1980s, extensive research found that screen reading was more mentally tiring and yielded worse results when compared to paper reading.1

More recent research, however, suggests that the gap has since narrowed, as eBook and tablet devices become more readable and consumer friendly.2

Yet is the writing on the wall for the paper book?

Judging a book by its cover 

Murdoch University Lecturer in Education and UniSuper member, Dr Margaret K. Merga recently conducted research with Dr Saiyidi Mat Roni which seems to discredit the notion that children prefer screen reading compared to paper—refuting the so-called ‘digital natives’ phenomenon.

“[Our research] found that children who had devices with eReading capacity (e.g. iPads, Kindles and mobile phones) underutilised them for reading books, even when they were daily book readers,” she said.

“We also found that the greater number of devices a child had, the less frequently they read books, and that mobile phone ownership was also related to reading books less often.”

Merga’s research on child and teenage reading habits also suggests that screen reading presents unique challenges compared to paper books.

“Some young people also spoke about the distractions reading on devices with internet connectivity; for instance, it’s easy to go off task and open another application if you are reading on a tablet,” she said.

Merga says that eReading debates also has implications for libraries, noting a decision in 2016 by the Western Australian government to cut library funds for paper book resourcing in favour of eBooks, despite comparatively low national eBook borrowing rates.

“So, what will happen if we reduce the number of books available in the preferred form? I think it’s likely that it could lead to people reading fewer books,” she said.

A difficult read?

Research conducted on reading-comprehension levels show mixed results when comparing paper to screen reading.

Swedish librarians Ninna Wiberg and Caroline Myreberg cite a 2013 study by Professor William Kretzschmar et al, which showed that older readers, perhaps counter-intuitively, actually read faster and with less effort on tablets compared to paper.3

A 2012 Israeli study, however, concluded that under most circumstances students consistently produced higher testing results from those who had read on paper compared to screens.4

In 2014, the same Israeli researchers again conducted the testing by separating those readers who had performed well compared to their peers and found that among this group the difference in test results was negligible when comparing screen with paper reading5.

This research appears to match Dr Merga’s findings that subjectivity bias has a meaningful impact on individual reading preferences.

“Just as adults have diverse skills and preferences, even when they are in the same generation, children and young people also have varied skills and preferences,” she said.

Paper or plastic?

Research suggests that paper reading may in certain contexts yield superior reading results; however it is also evident that comprehension and reading performance is very much in the eye of the beholder—your view of the technology itself is likely to itself make the biggest difference.

1. Jabr, F, 2013. The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens, Scientific American,
2. Ibid
3. Myrberg, C., Wiberg, N, 2015. Screen vs. paper: what is the difference for reading and learning? Insights: the UKSG Journal,