Join the Paper Chain

Share Our Love of Paper

Become inspired to enjoy paper and print in all its glory.

Are We Losing Our Ability To Read Deeply
Adobe Stock - Miljan Živković

Are We Losing Our Ability To Read Deeply?

According to new research, the answer is yes. Concern about our loss of this essential skill is greatest for children who are transitioning from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’, usually around the age of nine or ten.[1]

In a recent article in The Guardian newspaper[2], American journalist John R MacArthur references the latest survey by the US Department for Education, which “found that text comprehension skills of 13-year-olds had declined an average of four points since the Covid-affected school year of 2019-2020, and more alarmingly that the average drop was seven points compared with the 2012 figure. The results for the worst-performing students fell below the reading skill level recorded in 1971, when the first national study was conducted.”

He notes that Covid-19 and lockdowns during the pandemic, when learning was forced online, are largely blamed for the decline, but with “curiously little discussion” about the “illuminated screen displaying pixelated type instead of a printed or photocopied text” that most children were using for reading long before 2020.

The Problem With Reading Digital Text

Compared with reading from a printed text, reading digital text poses numerous challenges, not least of which is the nature of the digital devices we use and the easy access they offer to multiple distractions. But it’s also how we read digital texts, which tends to include scrolling and scanning, regardless of whether it’s a text message from a friend, an online article, or an important learning resource supplied by a teacher.

As we have explored in a previous article, there is a growing body of research that is investigating the impact of reading digital texts compared to printed, and finding that paper and print wins out every time.

In his article, MacArthur highlights the latest study to expose the negative consequences of reading digital texts over printed.

The study by a team of neuroscientists, led by Dr Karen Froud, at Columbia University’s Teachers College in the US, involved 59 children, aged from 10 to 12 years, who were asked to read original texts on paper and on screen. They found that the participants read more deeply when reading a text on paper compared with reading on screen where “shallow reading was observed”.

What Is Deep Reading?

Before the advent of digital texts, most reading would have been deep reading to a greater or lesser degree.

Deep reading is not just about learning what the text says, it is about understanding what it means, too. It requires focus, which means no distractions, something which, in our increasingly digitalised world is hard to come by.

Reading deeply is a challenge for most people these days, even those of us who grew up before the advent of all things digital. But for children learning at school, where digital text has become increasingly the norm over recent years, it poses a serious concern.

In their 2009 article “The Importance of Deep Reading”, scholar, teacher and advocate for children and literacy around the world, Maryanne Wolf, and author of “Learning to Read in A Digital World, Mirit Barzillai, highlighted the challenges of deep reading facing children:

“By deep reading, we mean the array of sophisticated processes that propel comprehension and that include inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical analysis, reflection, and insight. The expert reader needs milliseconds to execute these processes; the young brain needs years to develop them. Both of these pivotal dimensions of time are potentially endangered by the digital culture’s pervasive emphases on immediacy, information loading, and a media-driven cognitive set that embraces speed and can discourage deliberation in both our reading and our thinking.”[4]

If the reading assessments of children in the US and Sweden are anything to go by, Wolf and Barzillai’s concerns are now being realised. However, there are steps that can be – and are being – made to counter the detrimental effects of the digital world on reading.

Reintroducing Paper-Based Texts Into Schools

In Sweden, following a “hyper-digitalised approach to education”, the country’s schools are now taking steps to reintroduce a focus on printed books, quiet reading time, and handwriting practice.

The move comes on the back of a decline in children’s comprehension rates similar to that experienced in the U.S. An international assessment revealed a drop in reading levels of Sweden’s fourth grade students (aged around nine) from an average of 555 in 2016 to 544 in 2021.[5]

The Importance Of Printed Books At Home

While parents may not always be able to control or overtly influence a school’s use of digital resources over paper, they can exert influence at home. Wolf stresses the importance of parents’ roles in encouraging the reading of printed books in the home, so it is as much a part of children’s daily lives as digital, helping to develop what Wolf calls ‘bi-literal’ skills.[6]

65% Of Consumers Prefer Print

Given the choice, most of us prefer to read print. A 2023 survey by Two Sides revealed that 65% of us prefer to read printed books while 52% believe children learn more when reading printed materials compared to digital (just 16% disagree). A further 45% agreed they get a better understanding of the story when reading news in print, rather than online.

Conclusion: Print Is Better For Learning

The growing body of research looking into the differences between reading printed text and digital is building an ever-clearer picture that print is best when it comes to learning.

In his article in The Guardian, MacArthur quotes Froud and her team who, “although reluctant to make hard recommendations for classroom protocol and curriculum, state, ‘We do think that these study outcomes warrant adding our voices … in suggesting that we should not yet throw away printed books, since we were able to observe in our participant sample an advantage for depth of processing when reading from print.”

The Paper Fact File

Paper is one of the most sustainable and recycled materials in the world!

Visit the Paper Fact File to discover the facts about paper’s sustainable attributes. Some might surprise you!