Reading on digital devices does little to improve reading, study suggests

Using digital devices to read for fun does little to improve the ability of a student to read a text and understand its meaning, new research suggests.

For years, research has suggested that print reading, whether for leisure or school, improved the ability of people learning to read to comprehend text.

However, the use of digital reading devices – including mobile phones, tablets or a computer – constant access to these devices, and new types of reading materials have introduced new reading habits.

A study now suggests there is virtually a non-existent relationship between digital reading and improvement in reading comprehension among primary and middle school students.

Study co-author Lidia Altamura, a PhD student at the University of Valencia, Spain, said: “In sum, for developing readers, leisure digital reading does not seem to pay off in terms of reading comprehension, at least not as much as traditional print reading does.

“Our findings are particularly surprising when you compare them to what we already know about the well-established positive association between reading frequency in print and text comprehension.”

The researchers put forward two reasons why digital reading may not have the same impact as print reading for developing readers.

First, reading on a screen may distract readers as devices tend to offer many other features.

Second, they say the internet has brought new types of reading, with features such as short and fast-paced stimuli, lower quality content and less sophisticated vocabulary.

The authors emphasise that educators and parents should encourage students, especially younger ones, to read in print more often than on digital devices.

“Based on our results, we cannot just assume that all leisure reading will be beneficial for developing readers,” said Ms Altamura, adding that “the medium used matters”.

Based on what they know from previous studies, the researchers estimate that if a student spends 10 hours reading in print in their free time, their ability to comprehend will likely be six to eight times higher than if they read on digital devices for the same amount of time.

Ms Altamura added: “We expected that digital leisure reading for informational purposes, such as visiting Wikipedia or other educational webpages, or reading the news, would be much more positively linked to comprehension.

“But even that was not the case.”

The study focused on the specific links between leisure reading habits on digital devices and understanding what is being read.

The authors found there were small negative relationships between leisure digital reading and comprehension at primary school and middle school.

According to the findings, at high school and university, the relationship turned slightly positive.

However, the research indicates that regardless of education stage, digital reading habits had a smaller relationship with reading comprehension, compared to print reading results from previous research.

The findings are based on the authors’ review of 25 studies, published between 2000 and 2022, involving around 470,000 participants from at least three dozen countries.

The study is published in the Review of Educational Research journal.