Don’t throw away your printed books: Why reading performance is better on paper than on screens 

The Scandinavian countries, renowned for their pioneering efforts in digitalizing education, have taken a significant step by reintroducing books. This strategic move, particularly aimed at enhancing reading and learning for younger students, is backed by two robust meta-analyses from 2018 and 2019. Both studies conclude that reading non-fiction texts on paper improves learning outcomes.  

The meta-analysis by Pablo Delgado and colleagues (2018) uses 54 studies and more than 170,000 study participants between 2000 and 2017 to investigate how reading on paper vs. reading on screens affects reading comprehension. The results show that analog reading is superior to reading on a screen (g = -0.21). However, this only applies to expository or explanatory texts often used in schools and universities, not narrative texts. If the reading time is limited, readers also perform better on paper. It also shows that the advantages increase over the time analyzed. This means they are independent of technological developments, and the so-called digital natives do not perform better than older test subjects who grew up with analog media.  

The meta-analysis by Virginia Clinton from 2019 comes to very similar results: here, too, reading on a screen has a negative effect (g = -0.25). In her analysis, this effect also only applies to explanatory texts, not narrative ones such as fictional literature being read on an e-book. This could be because factual texts are more difficult to process and are generally more challenging than narrative texts, which are more closely linked to everyday experience. The meta-analysis also found that literal reproduction or recollection of content and inferential or summarizing reproduction work better when reading on paper. Since there are no differences in reading time, Clinton concludes that reading on paper is also more efficient because complex content is processed better in the same amount of time. 

While there is much evidence that digital learning environments bring many benefits, they are not always the best way to promote deep understanding and learning – especially when looking at reading comprehension. 

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