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The difference between reading in print and reading online

Research shows that the way we read material online differs in key ways from the way we read print material. This applies no matter what we are reading – whether it’s a social media post, a news article, or an e-book that we need for our studies.  

Maryanne Wolf has done a lot of research into how we read. She talks about how skimming is the new normal when we read (CPRE Research, 2018). We look for key words and browse, which means we don’t process most of the text on a page and give the time to be analytic. Studies have shown that we read faster when reading online but comprehend and recall less and engage in less critical reflection (Allcott, 2021). People also report more tiredness when reading online, especially suffering from tired, dry eyes (Walsh, 2020).  

Studies suggest the reason for these differences are a lack of physicality to reading online.

  • Cohn (2021) suggests that not being able to easily move back and forth in the text or scan across headings may mean you don’t get an overall idea of the text to help guide you in your understanding.
  • It has also been suggested that we remember the place in the book where we read something and this may help retention, but we also may put more effort into our reading when reading in print (Baron, 2021). For example, Ackerman and Goldsmith (2011, cited in Baron, 2017) found that people tend to devote less time to digital reading and Schugar et al (2011, cited in Baron, 2017, para. 4) found students use “fewer study strategies.... when reading digitally”.  

What we can do to improve the online reading experience 

There are techniques you can use to improve your deep reading skills when reading online, or to retain more of the information you read. 

  • Schedule a time to talk about what you are reading or learning with someone else (Taylor Memorial Library, 2020). Not only does speaking about a topic with another person help deepen your understanding, knowing you must discuss what you’ve read may help you engage with the text better. 

  • Limit distractions (Taylor Memorial Library, 2020) - put your phone in another room, tell the people you live with not to bother you, and try to get rid of any other distractions. If you know you’ll be tempted to open certain websites, such as Twitter or a news site, use a browser extension such as Blocksite to temporarily block your access to them. 

  • If the item you are reading is a web page or online article read it using your browsers ‘reading mode’ or download ‘Reader view’. Reader view is a browser extension that removes distractions from the page (such as adverts), changes the background colour of the text to beige (which is easier on your eyes than white), and allows you to change fonts and add sticky notes to the page. You can then save the page with your notes attached.  

  • Highlight text as you go (Taylor Memorial Library, 2020). This will slow down your reading speed and force you to focus on each line, rather than skipping words or lines.  You could also use a speed-reading app that presents the words at a speed that helps stop your mind from wandering (Julian, 2018).  

  • If your computer or browser has a dark or night mode, enable this as it may be easier on your eyes over a long period of time (Taylor Memorial Library, 2020). 

Allcott, L. (2021, October 11). Reading on-screen vs reading in print: What’s the difference for learning? 

Baron, N. (2017, October 9). Reading in a digital age. Kappan Online. 

Baron, N. (2021, May 10). What works better for retention—Printed or digital texts? GovTech. 

Cohn, J. (2021). Skim, dive, surface: Teaching digital reading (First edition). West Virginia University Press. 

CPRE Research. (n.d.). Maryanne Wolf - books, tablets and screens: The science of reading in a digital age. Retrieved 28 March 2024, from 

Taylor Memorial Library. (n.d.). Digital deep reading. Retrieved 28 March 2024, from 

Julian, S (2018) Digital texts and reading strategies. Tips and Trends  

Walsh, E. (2020, March 2). Dive, surf, or skim? Reading comprehension in the digital age. Spark & Stitch Institute.