The Reality of Digital Reading

The ebook and comparable online texts are only a few decades old, but they have forever changed the way we learn from and interact with text. As with any new technology, society is quick to spell out doomsday and become wary of the new medium and the changes it will invoke. But while there have been many studies comparing the experiences and comprehension of reading on an electronic versus a paper format, we do not yet have longitudinal data on the subject (Konnikova). Let’s review some of the information we do have.

The general consensus among current studies is that readers using an electronic format have a slightly lower comprehension of the material and are less able to answer abstract questions than their paper-reading peers. Some theorize that deeper comprehension is possible in a paper format because paper formats allow for the input of additional sensory and spatial information (touch, smell, and location on the page), which unite with the visual information to aid in understanding. Interestingly, the ability to answer concrete questions about the text is unchanged across mediums, and when readers were given a specific period of time in which to read the text, there was no difference in comprehension across formats (Allcott).

Despite some of these setbacks, digital reading has become an increasingly popular option among students and instructors because of the convenience and cost-effectiveness of electronic texts. And it isn’t going away anytime soon. The real solution to the challenge of digital reading is to develop the tools to help you become a better online reader. 

Improving Your Electronic Reading Skills

While there are inherent differences in the reading format between digital and print texts, there are also differences in the way we approach reading in different formats. Much of our time online is spent reading messages, short status updates, and social media content, so we tend to approach all digital texts similarly—skimming and searching for keywords (Hurt). The following tips will teach you to adjust your mindset for digital reading and help you take advantage of the convenience of online materials without letting your comprehension lag. 

1. Prepare and Slow Down

Setting the proper mindset for online reading is one way to ensure success. Part of that mindset is anticipating how difficult you expect the reading to be (Hurt). Before you start reading a long digital text, such as an online textbook, take a moment to scan the content, assess its level of difficulty, and mentally prepare yourself to address it. If you just assume the text will be easy to read, you might not put as much effort into understanding it. To combat the tendency to skim electronic texts, try giving yourself a specific timeframe for your reading. 

2. Take Notes

Taking notes is a great way to deepen your comprehension in any kind of learning format, but it can be especially crucial in online learning (Benson). Because people are predisposed to skim digital content, actively taking notes, either by handwriting or typing, can greatly improve comprehension and critical thinking. 

3. Self-Check for Comprehension

One of the potential setbacks of reading digital texts is that you don’t naturally take time to pause and check your comprehension. Turning a page in a print book creates a natural moment for this reflection to occur; in digital texts, you have to consciously create a similar moment. When you scan the text before reading, set places to self-check for comprehension. This can be at every major heading or every third scroll—whatever works for you. 

4. Remove Distractions

In the online sphere, we are constantly bombarded with messages, notifications, and updates. When you need to read expository text online, try muting your notifications and closing unnecessary tabs to give yourself the focused space you need.

Adapting your reading habits to make the most of an increasingly digital world will give you the edge you need to take control of your own learning, no matter what format it takes.  


Allcott, Lisa. “Reading On-Screen vs Reading in Print: What’s the Difference for Learning?” National Library. October 11, 2021.

Benson, Kerry. “Reading on Paper Versus Screens: What’s the Difference?” BrainFacts. July 28, 2020.

Clinton, Virginia. “Reading from Paper Compared to Screens: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Research in Reading 42, no. 2. (2019): 288-325.

Hurt, Avery Elizabeth. “Will You Learn Better from Reading on Screen or on Paper?” Science News for Students. October 18, 2021. 

Konnikova, Maria. “Being a Better Online Reader.” The New Yorker. July 16, 2014.