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Reading Screens vs. Reading Paper: New Literacies? (December 2014): Home

By James K Bracken

Abstract and Introduction

Which is better for reading, books or computers?  This essay reviews nearly 100 English-language books published since 2000 that comment on the equivalence of reading on paper versus reading on screens.  The first section  identifies reference works on reading and literacy that refer to computers and new information technologies, and works on computers and new information technologies that refer to reading.  The second section covers textbooks on reading and how-to books, mostly by reading teachers.  The third section describes book-length histories and historical essay collections about reading, globally and in the United States.  The fourth section discusses critical studies of reading from disciplinary perspectives like science, literature, and mass communication.  The final section  includes studies of the roles of attention and engagement in reading.  Works cited in the essay are compiled in a bibliography at the end.

To the question, “Which is better for reading, books or computers?,” Frank Smith in Reading: FAQ responded: “I like both, and use them both.”  As Smith’s diplomacy suggests, the question of the equivalence of reading paper versus screens is as often ignored as debated.  Beneath the question’s surface are more difficult ones, such as “What is reading?” and “What is readable?”

One dictionary definition of reading is “to observe, and apprehend the meaning” (www.dictionary.reference.com/browse/read/).  Biology dictates that humans can visually read only what the eyes observe.  (And we can misobserve, too.)  Reading visually is a linear, word-for-word process, not because texts always come in lines (they don’t), but rather because information, textual or otherwise, enters the eyes sequentially before going to the brain.

Meanwhile, what is readable can be differently defined.  Reading online, for example, has not always been considered reading.  While neither of the National Endowment for the Arts studies, Reading at Risk (2004; http://arts.gov/sites/default/files/ReadingAtRisk.pdf) and To Read or Not to Read (2007; http://arts.gov/sites/default/files/ToRead.pdf) includes online reading, their follow-up survey Reading on the Rise (2009; http://arts.gov/sites/default/files/ReadingonRise.pdf) does.  The NEA’s redefinition of reading did not go unnoticed.[1]  Many critics now accept that reading on paper and reading on screen are equivalent when a digital text is read as if it were simply a printed text displayed on a screen.  But this distinction then leads to the more challenging assertion that, to be understood, some multimedia texts may in fact require literacy practices different from reading.  In these instances, the often synonymously used terms of reading and literacy are not seen as equivalent, literacy becoming a more inclusive construct with reading as one of its components.

This essay strictly defines and distinguishes reading from other literacy practices, including mindless reading (observing without apprehending); scanning, skimming, and searching, usually associated with reading for information; and re-reading, usually associated with proofreading and memorizing.  Practices like skimming and scanning are often referred to as expansive, extensive, or shallow reading.  Reading for understanding, on the other hand, is often described as immersive, intensive, engaged, purposeful, mindful, close, or deep reading.[2]

The essay reviews mostly English language books published since 2000 that comment on the equivalence of reading paper versus screens.  The first section, “Reference Literature,” identifies reference works on reading and literacy that refer to computers and new information technologies, and works on computers and new information technologies that refer to reading.  The second section covers textbooks on reading and how-to-do-it books, mostly by reading teachers.  The third section, “Histories,” describes book-length histories and historical essay collections about reading, globally and in the United States.  The fourth section discusses critical studies of reading from disciplinary perspectives like science, literature, and mass communication.  The final section includes studies of the roles of attention and engagement in reading.

This essay does not pretend to include every book mentioning the Internet, e-books, blogging, texting, e-mail, tweeting, or other electronic communication formats whose reading begs comparison with analog’s formats.  Many books on these new digital technologies simply take for granted the topic of reading, while other books on reading do not distinguish differences in reading paper versus screens.  For example, although Robert A. Stebbins in The Committed Reader carefully defines three kinds of reading (utilitarian, self-fulfilling, and committed), he does not say how print versus screen formats might further distinguish them.


[1] For example, see David L. Ulin’s “The NEA’s Take on Reading,” in Los Angeles Times, January 13, 2009, http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jan/13/opinion/oe-ulin13.

[2] This essay is also indebted to Keith Rayner, Alexander Pollatsek, Jane Ashby, and Charles Clifton, Jr. for their edited textbook Psychology of Reading, 2d ed. (Psychology Press, 2012),  which defines reading as “the ability to extract visual information from the page and comprehend the meaning of the text” (p. 19), understanding this process to be “largely a word-by-word affair” (p.215).  Their textbook makes no distinctions about reading paper versus screens.  

James K. Bracken (jbracke1@kent.edu) is Dean and Professor, University Libraries, Kent State University.