Deep Reading Riddle: Which is Best—Paper Books or eBooks?

Published by Gina Wentling | Topics: Associations, Blended Learning, Content Strategy, eBooks, Online Publishing, Print, Training

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Book, eBook - SmallerIn an article for Wired, Brandon Keim explores the question of deep reading comprehension and which tool, given all the new options now available to readers, is most effective for tackling difficult texts. His conclusion: Though eReaders have made great strides recently, paper books are best.

Some media outlets have been predicted the demise of paper books for years, and yet here we stand, still turning to books to read for business and pleasure. Even those who have converted to tablets for lighter reading, like magazines and news, many prefer paper for reading that requires their full attention.

The article, Why the Smart Reading Device of the Future May Be … Paper, is a good read (even online), but a rather lengthy one. I recommend it, but I’ll also offer some key takeaways here for the time-strapped.

  1. Both eBooks and paper books have their strengths. Reading paper books feels like a rich, tactile experience, but eBooks are convenient and a good choice for reading with online components and text that is lighter in tone.
  2. There is a growing body of research, and the results vary wildly. Studies generally focus on short academic passages, using school-age children as test subjects. In this context, there was no significant difference between reading a screen or a paper book. Other studies do show a disparity, with the advantage to the printed page. For children with dyslexia, screens have the edge. More research is needed, with different groups (including adults, who didn’t necessarily grow up reading screens, which can be an important distinction), before clear conclusions can be drawn.
  3. Anchors are crucial to reading comprehension. When you read a certain turn of phrase or plot twist from a paper book, do you remember that it was, for instance, in the first few lines of the left side of the page, about a third of the way through the book? I certainly do, and this location-based memory has some basis in science. When students have to scroll to see an entire page, concentration is disrupted. If an eReader or other device shows just one page at a time, anchors are further eroded—the same page is more or less being rewritten again and again, so the memory of information is not tied to a spot on the page and is therefore less “sticky.”
  4. Paper and eBooks can both play a part in your reading. Much of the rhetoric about the growing transition to online sources is based on a false choice. Both paper books and eReaders deserve a place on your nightstand, your office, and your life. Not either/or— both. That doesn’t mean you have to buy two of everything, either. See what works best for you online (for me, magazines) and what will only do in print (novels).
  5. The physicality of paper books is important. Much more important than you might think, actually. Though most of us tend to think of ourselves as primarily learning one way (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic), the truth is that including more of the learning styles cements the memory, regardless of which method you’re naturally inclined toward. The tactile sensations of turning pages and taking notes in the margin are more powerful on the page than on the screen.
  6. Personal preference matters. In one of the studies Keim cites, students performed better on the format they liked better. Paper book readers showed deeper understanding of text presented as printed material and those who liked to read on screens did a better job when tested on information shown there.

Keim’s article reinforces the idea that we should all make our own choices as we consider how to consume information. So what does this mean for you?

For trainers and directors of continuing education training programs, the directive is clear—for best results, offer your course materials in print and online and let the learner choose.

For meeting planners, there’s a parallel message. Some attendees prefer print, some wish to view event content online, and some like a mobile app. Reach all members by offering as much as your budget allows, and working with a single partner to make it happen without extra work and hassle for you.

For those in charge of association publications, realize that the policy books, standards, directories, and technical manuals you produce would be more valuable to members if they could be accessed online as well as in print.

What do you think? Do you remember more and understand text better if you read from a paper book or an eBook? Is there room for both? Would your association members benefit from having access to both? Share your comments!

Listen to the podcast: Print Books Build Better Brains


About Gina Wentling

During her time as Marketing Communications Coordinator (2013-16), Gina wrote hundreds of blog posts for Omnipress. Her work has also been published in association publications. Read More.

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May 30th, 2014Catherine Marshall says:

I’m a big fan of print books. I find myself making a real connection with print books more so than e-books. I can understand that it would be useful to have e-books when going on vacation but reading print books is a great conversation starter. It unplugs you from the online world a little. Thanks for sharing, I hope print books never go extinct.

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