There is no mistake that the pandemic has forever changed the landscape of how our young people learn and study, but is the prevalence and accessibility of online publications helping or hindering literacy progress for elementary school students? Several studies have been conducted since mid-2020 to assess the effectiveness of screen versus print reading, and the research results indicate the answer is not as simple as we previously assumed.
Well before COVID-19 hit, there was disagreement among avid readers: are you team e-readers or team paperbacks? But when students had to transition to virtual classrooms, both sides worried about literacy learning loss. Most research determined that this was a justifiable concern because of how differently our brains approach screens and print. “When reading printed pages in a book, you know where you are in the story,” Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, told Science News Explores. “You don’t have that same sense of place when you’re scrolling on one long page like many online publications offer.”
Research indicates that scrolling in and of itself lowers reading comprehension of the content. Immordino-Yang explained that “while scrolling down a page, your brain has to continually account for the placement of words in your view, which makes it harder to simultaneously understand the ideas those words should convey.”
Interestingly, studies also show that understanding of the reading material on screens vs print depends on the genre. People grasp nonfiction material better in print, but fictional accounts are just as easily digestible on devices as they are in books. The length of the content matters, too. Naomi Baron, a scientist at American University who studies language and reading and authored How We Read Now, says her research suggests shorter publications are easier to recall details when read from a screen.
Digital options for reading can also hurdle over barriers to accessibility, inclusion, and sustainability for children and adults alike. While e-books typically cost less than their physical counterpart, they eliminate the risk of running out of copies and reduce readers’ impact on deforestation. Customization of the reading experience is an additional benefit to screens. Readers can adjust the font sizes and typefaces, which is critical for people with sight challenges and reading disabilities like dyslexia.
Whether you’re for e-reading or printed books, there is one consensus among researchers; read-along audio books are ineffective for improving literacy for struggling readers in K-8th grades. “The students who need the most reading practice are also the children who closed their eyes and just listened to the story,” Adriana Bus, a researcher and professor of language and literacy at Leiden University explained to Education Week. “Unsurprisingly, we found that the already-strong readers focused on the text while listening.” Our AYS programs offer literacy curriculum that includes time for learning with both screens and print to assist students in their preferred medium and keep them engaged in their educational experiences outside of the classroom.
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