Educators sometimes ask me about the virtues of print versus screen reading. Unfortunately, the basic summary of my position is "we don't know enough and the technology changes too fast to learn." Studies take a long time to put together and technology moves faster than the research. There are some great studies comparing print to CRT monitors; these may or may not be so useful anymore. Studies are often conducted in labs rather than in real-life conditions, limiting the usefulness of the findings. There certainly isn't any clear consensus.
This week, a very interesting study caught my eye that highlights one important principle: different reading modalities will work differently for different people.
Some folks at the Science Education Department at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the Graduate School of Education at Harvard, and the University of Massachusetts Boston computer science department put together a very interesting study looking at people with dyslexia and screen readers. The title says it all: E-Readers are More Effective Than Paper for Some with Dyslexia.
A number of recent studies suggest that dyslexia is more a function of vision issues than cognitive issues. For instance, people with dyslexia sometimes have stronger peripheral vision than frontal vision. So the authors built an e-reader for smartphones and other small devices that shows only a few words at a time:
The study examined 101 students with dyslexia, and depending upon the exact evaluation, about a third to one half of students read more effectively with the device rather than on paper. With fewer words to handle at any given instant, the authors hypothesize that the device limited inefficient eye movements and benefitted speed and comprehension for students with some of the most severe visual attention difficulties.
Two things are important here. First, in the print vs. screen debate, the answer will probably always be "it depends." It depends on the person, the text, the task, and the context. A thoughtful approach to reading for the decades ahead probably encourages students to read widely on devices and on paper, and to reflect on their preferences for different tasks. Second, the study is also a useful reminder that even if we find certain patterns hold "on average," average benefits can masks a wide variation in performance among very different people.
Kudos to the authors for a clever study.