Weak readers struggle the most on screen

Student’s who read poorly on paper will read even more poorly on screen. Strong readers are much more capable of transitioning to digital texts, a new study shows.

72 tenth graders participated in the study. Half of the students read texts on paper, while the rest read the same texts on pdf-files, on a computer.

Afterwards, both groups answered the same questions from the texts on a PC. All the students completed reading tests by phonics, vocabulary and reading comprehension before the study. To gain valid results, there was a prerequisite for no difference in the initial tests between the groups.

The weak struggle the most
– We find that students who read text on screen score significantly lower in reading comprehension compared to students who read the same text on paper. It also appears that it is the students with the weakest phonic skills that struggle the most with reading on screen, says assistant professor Anne Mangen at the Reading Centre, University of Stavanger.

She has completed the study together with Bente R. Walgermo and Kolbjørn Brønnick. They have analyzed the interaction between students’ phonic skills and the effects of reading on screen.

– Students with the weakest phonic skills score noticeably lower on the reading comprehension test when they read text on screen, while the strong readers’ performances are not influenced by the medium they used for reading, says university lector Bente R. Walgermo.

While students with the best word-decoding abilities do not seem to be affected negatively by reading on screen, weak readers struggle more with it. Therefore, the difference between weak and strong readers is significant.

Problematic multitasking
The survey suggests that, as the text gets longer, the reading comprehension decreases. The texts in the survey were 1400 and 2000 words long. When a digital text is longer than one page, the reader must scroll down the text to read further. According to the researchers, this could be a problem.

– If the text is longer than a page, you lack markers such as «top left page» and «middle of page», which helps memory and reading comprehension when reading text. This (in addition to having to scroll) can decrease one’s comprehension, according to the study.

Adapting new texts
Anne Mangen feels that, when it comes to forming digital tests in the future, it is important to use new information regarding reading skills on screen.

– The results have important implications, even though it is decided that we use a digital testing platform. It will influence the text development. There will be differences, but we should try to minimize them, she says.

For example, one must consider that long texts can be more problematic when it comes to reading on screen, according to the researchers.

– We will probably try to find shorter texts that can be best customized for the on-screen format, so that the potentially negative effects remain as small as possible.  We must find a type of text with the smallest differences possible, so that the screen does not appears distractive and destructive. Amongst other things, that means we have to strip the texts for a number of things that can appear distractive on screen, says Mangen.

The students reading texts on a PC had to read the text in one window and solve the tasks in another window.

– When the students have to change between two windows, and thereby lose the context as mental support, this can affect memory and text comprehension. This will not necessarily be the case with the tests currently being developed. Different solutions, where the text appears on the same page as the tasks, are currently being developed, so students will not need to change between windows, she says.

Paper reading on screen
The type of texts to be included in digital texts must also be considered. Longer academic texts and fictional texts are still being read primarily on paper, while shorter texts are read on screen. 

– What we now are starting to measure is paper-reading on screen, because we find texts that students and most people still read on paper. Academic texts and literary summaries are not the types of text students and most people read on a PC.  We still relate to these on paper or we use eReaders (such as Kindle or Sony Reader) or a tablet (such as iPad), which are not the same as PCs, says Mangen.

Need more research
In the survey, the students were reading different texts on a PC-screen; the results say nothing about reading on eReaders such as Kindle, tablets such as iPad, smartphones, etc. Mangen emphasizes that there is a great difference between a PC-screen and an eReader with «electronic ink », which is  developed specially for reading text and not multimedia (film, music, games and the Internet). This field needs more empirical studies that measure the effect of technology, says Mangen and points to the fact that few people read long, cohesive texts on the PC screen. The researchers point out that the survey should not be seen as a contribution in the discussion for or against reading on screen.

– Our wish, in regard to facilitating reading education, is to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of reading with the aid of digital technologies. We need to know about strengths and weaknesses in different types of digital reading, for different purposes and in different situations, Walgermo says.

Text: Karoline Reilstad & Alexandra Halsan

Boy using computer