Monday, November 19, 2012

Considering the essential differences of print vs. digital reading

I've been fascinated watching the development of digital reading habits among adults and children. Anecdotally I've noticed that adults have been much more likely to switch their regular pleasure reading of print books to pleasure reading of digital books. Children, on the other hand, seem to be less likely to make this switch. I believe there are many factors at play with this. But one aspect I'd like to consider a little more closely is the essential differences of reading print vs. reading digitally. I was fascinated to read Anne Mangen's theoretical reflections on this very topic.

The essential experience of reading digital texts differs from reading print texts, but it is often hard to describe. For many digital texts, the content is the same and yet the format and device do affect the reading experience. For other digital texts, especially those such as the multimedia book apps, the additional multimedia content itself can change the reading experience. Mangen (2008) developed an intensive theoretical examination of the difference between reading digital texts and print texts, considering the impact of the physical aspect of reading electronic books.

Unlike print texts, digital texts are physically intangible as we read them; the digital text itself is detached from the physical device. As the reader holds the physical device in his or her hands, the electronic text changes but the device remains physically the same. This detachment has implications for the reading experience. Another way to consider the impact of the physicality of our text is the memory cues the physical layout of a print book can support. Readers can often recall the physical position of a favorite passage in a book, whether it was on the top right of the page or bottom left. They can envision its physical location. This is much more difficult to do with a digital book because the text is detached from the physical device. As Mangen (2008) writes,
The digital text has no material substance ... By definition, the digital erases all traces of tangibility, and, hence, invisibility. The constancy, the temporal and spatial permanence, of a tactile object – say, a print text – has distinctively different sensory–motor affordances, then, than something intangible. (p. 408)
These theoretical aspects are important to consider when investigating the impact of digital reading on students’ actual reading comprehension. Do these differences in tangibility affect reading comprehension for the majority of readers, or perhaps especially certain visually or physically attuned individuals?

Mangen (2008) develops her theories further by considering the impact of visual links and hidden hotspots in digital texts on the reading experience, features that are absent in print books. We have psychobiologically hardwired dispositions to seek external visual stimuli, and we need continued input from this stimuli or we will become bored. Print books encourage deeper, more reflective thinking because they focus our input to one controlled text; on the other hand, many digital books offer hyperlinks and hotspots that offer the “thrill of the unknown” (Mangen, 2008, p. 412) while reading. This might heighten interest in reading, but it can also lead to increased distraction as the reader searches impatiently for these hotspots.
As Mangen writes, “The mere possibility of the click bringing about some degree and kind of visual change impacts our phenomenological immersion in a narrative fiction in a way that is simply not possible when reading print narratives.” (p. 412) 
As educators and researchers consider multimedia iPad book apps, it is essential that they consider not only the overall nature of reading digital texts, but the specific impact that interactive features have on the way readers can build meaning from the texts. Do the multimedia features help provide richer context and visual support, or do they distract readers? Are some design features more helpful to children in building their reading comprehension, while other features may delight readers but essentially entertain them without adding to their understanding of the story?

For more, take a look at this interview with Dr. Anne Mangen about reading on paper and reading on screens

Mangen, A. (2008). Hypertext fiction reading: haptics and immersion. Journal of Research in Reading, 31(4), 404-419. Abstract available at:

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