Does eBook Reading Lower Comprehension?

Much ink has been used to decry how reading eBooks rather than traditional print lowers comprehension of material. Ironically, the news of the eBook's inferiority as platform is often shared in online posts. It might be thought that ReadersFirst would have a vested interest in promoting the opposite view:  that eBook reading is in no way lessens comprehension. Since we are a group of librarians before all else, however,  we have no such bias. We are interested, as all librarians and educators are, in knowing the truth about reading:  what works, what doesn't, how we might influence the discussion for the best with evidence.

The Huffington Post recently published a blog by Suren Ramasubbu, "Paper Books Vs. eBooks: The State of the Art of Reading," that explores the issue. Ramasubbu does point to a study that suggests eBook readers fare less well than print readers. He also points to a study that suggests both perform equally.  The real threat to reading comprehension is not the medium used for reading, he suggests, but a lack of deep reading caused by other activities, with much electronic communication:

"Reading, especially entertainment reading, such as reading a novel, according to Sven Birkerts, involves an inward plunge into an imaginary world described in the novel. This inward plunge requires a considerable amount of leisure and attention span, which are essential to provide wings to the imagination. Researchers at Michigan State observed a global increase in blood flow to the brain when “paying attention to literary texts” (Mansfield Park, in this experiment), which “requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions.” Such focus activated various parts of the brain associated with touch, movement, and spatial orientation, in effect immersing the reader in the story. The Internet culture that is filled with competing stimuli causes the attention to flit between stimuli, thus limiting imagination and effectively killing it. Reading literary work has many levels and resonates with the reader through the use of language. The linguistic density associated with serious reading requires directed and uninterrupted concentration. Skimming-based reading fostered by the internet is addictive in that it makes directed reading a chore, thus effectively killing deep reading, and consequently, deep thought."

"The verdict? While e-books and e-readers could be beneficial to reading in the long run, no other digital tool bodes well."

Ramasubbu is not so naive as to think we will plunge backwards and give up the digital age. He does suggest that we pay attention to and work to keep skills we are in danger of seeing eroded. And with that, surely every librarian and teacher can find common ground.

What do you think? Is digital reading inherently less effective? Or is deep reading in any format still worthwhile and necessary?

Michael Blackwell, St. Mary's County Library.