Literacy and Reading Comprehension in an Online World

Reading is reading, right? Online, traditional print, and digital eReaders are all options for reading these days. Is one really superior to another in terms of comprehension?

A meta-analysis conducted by Kenton O'Hara and Abigail Sellen in 1997 found that comprehension was easier for those subjects using print resources as they were able to easily highlight and annotate while reading. Note-taking was more effective when using paper as well. Navigation of the documents was also more intuitive and less distracting on paper. The ability to spread out documents for quick reference was found to be easier than navigating multiple open documents on a computer screen. Many advances in technology have been made since that study was released, but do those changes make online reading any better?

In 2008, the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University examined the issue as well. Again, it seems that print promotes increased comprehension. When students take notes on a computer, they generally cut and paste content. By physically writing or typing notes, comprehension and fact retention are enhanced.

Those studies are based on observing subjects reading informative text. Obviously, some online content is of questionable quality. Fanfiction and other websites that include user-generated content often have poor spelling, grammar, or use abbreviations such as "R" for the word are or "U" for you. If reading is supposed to improve comprehension and make people better readers, will reading this kind of content actually be helpful?

The New York Times reports that literacy specialists are finding that the only type of reading that equals improved academic performance is frequent print novel reading. Online reading is more fragmented and doesn't allow for making inferences. It is less intellectually engaging.

A recent study at Arizona State University provided students with either scrolling electronic text or print text. The students were asked to write essays after reading the material. Those students who read print versions had a better comprehension of the material than those with the electronic versions.

But why is online reading less likely to be understood and retained than its print counterpart? When we read online, we must scroll, enlarge, click links, and otherwise manipulate the computer while reading. Graphics, videos, animations, and audio all distract us as well as limiting our need to form mental images - something we naturally do when reading print. The medium as a whole is more distracting than sitting down with a book.

But don't discount online reading completely. There can be advantages to reading online. As technology advances, annotating content is easier than it was in the initial study cited from 1997. Online content may be customized for easier reading. Copying content, quotations, or graphics is simple. Content is flexible - it may be printed out if necessary. Frequently, online text will contain links that offer more information and further insight. If a term is unknown, it is easy to look up a definition online. Online text may be searched for terms or phrases quicker than in a book or print document.

Overall, with the current technology, print materials lend themselves better to comprehension. Online reading has some advantages, but in general, when reading for understanding, choose the book over the computer screen.

More on Literacy in the Information Age

  1. International Visual Literacy Association Homepage