Comprehension: Screen vs. Print Reading

ReadtoChildrenAn April 6 Washington Post article by Michael S. Rosenwald , Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say, raises a question many of us have been wondering about, and asking ourselves: Is, and if so, how is online reading changing our reading habits, and, as a result, our comprehension of what we are reading? And what do we, as business writers, need to know now about today’s most common communication practices?

In her remarkable book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf, Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist, and one of the world’s foremost experts on the study of reading, states that the brain was not designed for reading, but has adapted to reading.

Think about how you read online – social media, for one example. We may click on a promising link, look for a juicy tidbit or two, and skim on to the next promising thing. Cognitive neuroscientists project that this process is, in fact, changing the traditional reading process into scanning and skimming for paper reading as well, with eyes skimming until the reader realizes that he or she really did not focus on, and probably does not remember much of what he or she has read, having to go back and read it again to make sense of it. The apparent development of the “digital brain” with new circuits for skimming through torrents of online information is in direct conflict with “traditional deep reading circuitry” developed over several millennia.

Understanding the changes in our reading process not only provides clues as to how to write for this “new reading,” but raises concerns that “scanning and skimming” reading not only results in a lesser understanding of difficult material both at work and in school, but also may well lessen reading pleasure.

At the moment, research indicates that comprehension is improved with deep reading skills on paper. A 2012 Israeli study of engineering students who, in effect, live in a world of screens, had them read the same text on paper, and on the screen, while under a time pressure to complete the task.

While the students felt they had done better reading on screen, the results showed that comprehension and learning was better on paper.

The pre-internet brain read pretty much in linear ways, with few distractions.

With all the internet distractions possible – voluminous content, hyperlinked text, videos, sounds, music, and distractions everywhere – the brain has formed shortcuts to deal with it all. Hence, scanning, key words, and rapid-fire scrolling up and down. Non-linear reading.

Feeling that daily habits of jumping, clicking, and linking may be becoming ingrained, Andrew Dillon, University of Texas professor who studies reading, commented, “We’re in this new era of information behavior, and we’re beginning to see the consequences of that.”

English departments report that many of their students are incapable of reading the classics, with their long and convoluted sentences and winding clauses. Online sentences are generally shorter, and much of the background information is left out, so as to get right to the point.

“My worry is we will lose the ability to express or read this convoluted prose,” Wolf said.

“We can’t turn back, she added. “We should be simultaneously reading to children from books, giving them print, helping them learn this slower mode, and at the same time steadily increasing their immersion into the technological, digital age. It’s both.”

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Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentationsexecutive coaching,consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email