Reading in 2016 – digital vs print, the ultimate smackdown!


Ok so maybe I got a little carried away with the title of this blog post.

This morning I read a great article by Naomi Baron entitled Do students lose depth in digital reading?I was alerted to it by a Twitter post by a valued member of my PLN, @Julia_Boulton, and it struck a chord with me. Coming from a librarian and teaching background, and currently studying my Education Doctorate, I have often dealt with both physical and virtual texts – and personally, I like both equally, albeit for different purposes. I also feel that having an affinity and fluency with both is essential for students in 2016- so like I said at the beginning, perhaps a smackdown is getting a bit over-excited – while in some circles it definitely does seem to be ‘a bitter contest or confrontation’,  we don’t want to see ‘a decisive or humiliating defeat or setback’ – we want to see both sides of the story, and appreciate the fantastic time in which we live.

The first ‘portable’ ebook By Stephen Morriss – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

We’ve had access to the printed text since Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440. Although there is a complex history of development, it seems that most agree that one of the earliest ebooks was a copy of the United States Declaration of Independence, which was entered into the Project Gutenberg mainframe in 1971. Project Gutenberg is the first and largest single collection of free ebooks, and was founded by Michael Hart. It was not, however, until 1988 that a device was accessible to the general public for reading e-books. This came in the form of the NeXT Computer, a workstation computer which was developed by the NeXT company, which was founded by Steve Jobs. Over the years, ebooks became increasingly portable, but it wasn’t until the mid 2000’s that e-readers became commonplace, and growth accelerated in 2007, with the launch of the first Kindle, and three years later the iPad, which grew to feature a range of e-reader applications.

tl;dr: we’ve had printed texts for almost 600 years; and digital texts for about 30 years.
Click image to access article
Click image to access article

I think that this simple fact is something we often overlook, particularly when struggling to determine which is ‘best’ and how readers should access text. We have had 600 years to refine the printed book, and to get used to handling it. It’s physicality – the smell of the print and paper, the fanning of the pages, the fact that we can feel the heft and make a judgement of the time it will take to read. Meanwhile, we have had digital texts for 30 years, and really far less, if we take into account the fact that most digital reading is done on devices which were only launched within the past ten years. Is it any wonder we may not necessarily know how to teach the skills of reading digital texts as well as we know how to maximise comprehension from paper?

So rather than fight against digital texts, or throw the baby out with the bathwater and abandon the printed book, perhaps a more balanced approach is wisest? While there will always be those who yearn for the good old days, in reality we are living in a time of duality – straddling physical and virtual in a way that no other generation in history has. I think we are lucky. We have the best of both worlds. In the future, potentially every text will be online, and readers will not have the opportunity to experience the excitement of flipping open a gorgeous picture book, or browsing the shelves of an atmospheric book shop. However in the past, carrying more than ten books around with you was a physical challenge (how many books can you store in your 5oog device?) and new books to read weren’t conveniently at the tip of your fingers while lying in bed at night.

In my experience, even the youngest students in 2016 still learn to read using print texts. Their teachers share physical picture books with them at story time, and each day they take home a graded ‘reader’, to develop their sight words and build their reading confidence. They also perhaps enjoy animated texts on their tablet device – check out Wonky Donkey or The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore for great examples of multimodal texts.  High school students flip between both physical and virtual – some of their text books may be digital, but the class novel they all read is usually a print copy. As a doctoral student, I also use both. When comparing multiple articles, I print them out, to see the text side by side – but when I’m researching at home, I appreciate the fact that so many texts are available digitally through the online library catalogue, and I can read the appropriate chapter or section at the point of need, rather than making a 40 minute trip to the University library.

Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food.

Of course, the world of e-texts is so new that it is currently at the substitution and augmentation stages of Puentedara’s SAMR model – the e version simply replicates the physical version, with a few improvements such as the ability to search, and a built in dictionary. Some examples push the boundaries, and demonstrate the potential for digital texts once they break free of the traditional format – I wrote about this possibility last year, when ‘The Boat’ by Nam Le was launched (please check this out if you haven’t already done so, it is such a great book, regardless of format). An excerpt from that post captures this magic:

Using a combination of illustration and movie-making techniques, the online story draws the reader in, as they scroll down at their own pace, immersed in a soundscape that engages the senses and following text that flows across the screen like the ocean the boat is traversing. Experience it here.

It is possible that neither format will ever come out on top in this smackdown – they both have strengths and weaknesses, both meet different purposes and needs. Until we know, however, the debate seems futile – we should give students experience with both types of text, model and teach comprehension strategies that apply to one, the other and both – and acknowledge that we live in a very unique time in history. This time is not an easy one (for teachers especially, who have so much more now to grapple with). However it is an exciting one – and wasting our limited energies arguing about which is better is pointless. Both print and digital have a place, and student experience and learning should comprise both. Some students will prefer physical texts, some will prefer digital, some won’t mind either, some will hate both. As with any technology used in education, the purpose should drive the choice of tool, with pedagogy and learning objectives determining how best each student should access information. As digital texts continue to evolve, the choices will change, however informed educators will see this not as a threat, but as a valuable addition to the range of teaching resources within their repertoire.

3 thoughts on “Reading in 2016 – digital vs print, the ultimate smackdown!”

  1. Kaye,

    This is an excellent article – I too read Naomi Baron’s article and was concerned that it privileged one point of view. You make some excellent points in this post and I particularly agree that an affinity and fluency for both digital and physical texts is esential. Thanks for sharing, Helen

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