Are Books or Screens Better For Teaching Literacy in the Classroom?
Studies point to dramatic difference in reading comprehension between reading on screens versus reading on paper.

As an educator, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the opinions of those who want to influence the content and administration of curriculum. The latest opinions trend towards incorporating technology into the classroom whenever possible. And while technology at first blush appears a tantalizing solution to get students reading faster, there’s conflicting evidence about the efficacy of tech in education, and it’s easy to be swayed by confirmation bias.

It’s vital to determine an authoritative answer, especially when it comes to increasing literacy. After all, reading level is the number one determiner of academic success (Evans et al., 2014), and there is a connection between low literacy, dropout rates, and crime. In fact, the National Adult Literacy Survey found that 70% of incarcerated adults cannot read at a fourth-grade level. Literacy influences everything from financial success to mental health. The surest way to set students up for success is improving their literacy, and knowing how to best improve that literacy is key.

Engagement and comprehension

App makers devote significant time and research into making reading more engaging. Some apps gamify stories while others help students build their own narrative sequences. And, when apps are built with progression in mind, lessons are sequential. As a teacher, it’s tempting to relinquish control over lesson planning and the endless quest for engagement to an app that was designed to captivate the user.

But gamification and design doesn’t equate to better reading comprehension. In fact, In a Norwegian study on the effect screens and paper had on reading comprehension, students who read traditional text scored significantly higher on reading comprehension tests than students who read the same text in a digital format. The technology itself is a distraction pulling a child’s attention away from the text at hand: in addition to scrolling requiring more attention than turning a page, vertical movement of text disrupts visual attention and requires constantly refocusing to find a new starting point on the scrolled text.

There’s also evidence that children simply learn better from print. In a study about learning retention, it was discovered that, “…while children learned some information about the story from an ebook, those who read a printed book knew more details from the story as well as the order of events.” This is an important distinction in younger learners, who need to be able to retain details of a story to understand fundamental aspects of reading such as plot and character development.

While apps may indeed decrease time spent lesson planning, relinquishing the control over how a student is being exposed to text is detrimental to a child’s learning. Scholastic publishes an immense report on reading every year, and it consistently finds that reading aloud to children is beneficial to learning. In addition to creating a positive experience with books from a young age, reading to young children encourages interactivity: 72% of parents find themselves asking questions when reading aloud. In the classroom, that equates to a more engaged, curious classroom that engenders a love of reading. Teachers are able to pause and answer questions or pose questions to the group about the particular passage being read. Reading aloud is a communal, bonding activity, but digital devices are not designed for sharing: thus, apps tend to isolate readers and decrease engagement with educators. In fact, in a study conducted by the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex, children were found to be extremely reluctant to share digital devices, but books didn’t pose the same problem. In fact, when two students read a book together, “…it seemed natural to open the pages wider to invite the listener to curve inwards and share.”

Apps are useful in some instances, however. A 2013 study of 103 US high school students with dyslexia found that students offered texts on an iPod touch showed significantly improved reading speed and comprehension compared with reading on paper. Plus, certain apps are designed to have additional help for word learning—playing an audio clip of a word being pronounced correctly, for example—and multimedia “Easter eggs” to further physical engagement. That may help keep a student’s attention during the duration of a lesson and could help pique the interest of students who struggle with feeling engaged by words alone.

What students prefer

Children are naturally captivated by technology, so it would stand to reason that tablets should be the likely preference over books. But that’s not the case. An international study of families and literacy found that children overwhelming prefer books over screens: when given the choice between print and electronic books, 70% of children strongly or tend to prefer print.



The National Literacy Trust found that children who read a combination of print and screen reading daily reported over 51% reading enjoyment, while children who read on screen only reported 11.8% reading enjoyment. That’s significant. The same study also concluded that, “…nearly twice as many children who included some print reading daily read at above the expected level for their age compared to those who read on screen only (26.1% vs. 15.5%).” This higher level of reading has a domino effect on students’ experience throughout their academic careers.

Physical books also contribute to greater social interactions. Studies show 60% of primary-aged children want to share books they loved and 50% of children get ideas for new books to read from friends. The same does not hold true for apps, which are not meant to be shared and don’t garner the same amount of enthusiasm among elementary school children.

Pragmatic issues

Before diving into the research, it’s worthwhile to take a pragmatic look at the realities of app-based reading solutions:

Cost

Technology is significantly more expensive than books. Even a basic tablet can run in the hundreds of dollars, and computers can run quickly into the thousands. Though there are tech grants available for schools to help offset the costs, that’s only for the initial investment: hardware must be updated eventually, and resources will need to be allotted for tech support. Kids are prone to break or lose hardware, so replacing and repairs are an inevitability.

Effort

Though desktop computers are more expensive, they don’t require charging. Laptops and tablets, on the other hand, will need to be charged and cleaned, and that takes time away from active teaching. And while it may not seem like much of a chore to plug in a tablet at the end of a school day, multiply those moments by the number of children in a classroom, and suddenly it’s a grueling daily chore. One that, if neglected, means the next day’s lesson will be affected.

Time

There’s also the matter of keeping software updated and functioning properly. Viruses and updates can impact the functionality of apps, and that often results in wasted classroom time. And while students learn technology quickly, there’s still a learning curve to understanding how a particular app works. That may mean that, instead of learning how to read, students could find themselves just trying to get the app to function.

The three above factors are worth consideration. That’s not to say there aren’t downsides to books, though; a book can be damaged and lost just as easily as a laptop or tablet, but it’s much cheaper to replace. Books also require physical space in a classroom or library and they are sometimes heavier for a student to carry in a backpack than a laptop or tablet. And laptops and tablets aren’t limited to just reading apps: students often use them for doing homework, playing games, and watching videos.

Books in the classroom

From tactile experience to reading comprehension to bonding, there is simply no substitute for the printed page. Though there are benefits to ereaders and tablets, they should be used as supplements for printed material, not substitutes.

Having physical books in a classroom is so important that the results of a five-year study conducted by the Society for Research in Child Development determined that, “…children’s exposure to books was related to the development of vocabulary and listening comprehension skills, and that these language skills were directly related to children’s reading in grade 3.” Though it may seem tempting to let apps do the “heavy lifting” when teaching literacy, they simply do not do as good a job as the humble book. Nor do children feel as passionately about their experiences with apps as they do with books. And that passion is what instills a lifelong love of learning.



As an educator, using books to teach reading sets students up for academic and social success and prepares them for a life infused with the wonder of literacy.

  • Books are less expensive than technology.
  • Reading comprehension is far superior when reading on paper compared to reading on a screen.
  • Books encourage sharing and positive social interactions.
  • Children usually prefer books to apps.

Interested in bringing a program to your school that still uses books? Talk to a reading specialist about Learning Dynamics today.