Screen inferiority

When reading on paper is better

Hey 👋

Welcome to July (National Hot Dog Month in the good old USofA), and to the first snack in a new series on ‘digital tech’ (before I clock off for the summer)…

Big idea 🍉

Despite its compelling narrative, the idea of the 'digital native' is more myth than reality. Mere exposure to digital tech does not automagically lead to enhanced digital literacy. What’s more, digital devices may even diminish learning in some instances. Let’s dive in:

A variety of studies have shown that when students read on screen, it typically leads to lower levels of understanding than when they read on paper. Worse still, they’re not aware of this reduction in learning.

This 'screen inferiority' effect tends to be greatest for longer pieces of text (over 500 words or so) and for non-fiction. Reading short pieces or narrative on screen doesn't seem to bear the same cost.

What's going on?

The discrepancy is partly due to the physical differences between screens and paper. We tend to make mental maps of concepts as we read, and the 'visual geography' of paper allows us to place, recall, and connect ideas more readily.

In contrast, the act of scrolling (which accompanies much on-screen reading) consumes more of our limited, precious attention—as we have to routinely locate the text as well as process it.

“The smell of a freshly printed book is the best smell in the world.”

— Karl Lagerfeld

Another factor is what researchers fondly call the 'shallowing hypothesis'. Over time, exposure to digital content—with its quick interactions driven by immediate rewards—seems to push us to ‘skim’ more and faster when reading on screen. It is perhaps no surprise that the potency of on-screen reading has been in gradual decline since the turn of the millennium.

Finally, when we are reading on screen, there are often many compelling distractions within touching distance. Plus, it's simply harder to write notes in the margins of digital devices.

The implications of 'screen inferiority' are fairly obvious. However, it's important to note that the effect is relatively small, and to remember that there are advantages to digital texts—the ability to adjust font size, embed links to key vocab or background knowledge, and of course: save some trees (and potentially money).

And so, as is often the case in schools, it's about managing trade-offs. As long as our decisions as informed and intentional: we’re winning.

Challenge → What proportion of the time do your students spend reading on-screen vs paper? Where might you be more intentional in your approach to this choice?


• We tend to understand less when we read (longer, non-fiction) on-screen vs paper.

• This is partly due to the physical properties of paper, and partly due to do the ‘shallowing hypothesis’

• The effect is small and there are some advantages to on screen—our job is to manage these trade-offs.

Little links 🥕

Go eat a hot dog.

Peps 👊

PS. Heads up → you’re gonna get a well-deserved break from Evidence Snacks during August, as I take a few weeks off for summer hols.