The Science of Reading – Part 4: Online Reading

[Editor’s note: This is the last part of our five-part series on the best practices of learning to read and learning to read better.]

To read Part 1, “Unlocking Language,” click here.

To read Part 2, “Vocabulary and Comprehension,” click here.

To read Part 3A, “Developing Fluency,” click here.

To read Part 3B, “Developing Fluency” (continued),” click here.

We find ourselves at a unique and interesting point in time — the development of online reading and the eBook and eText as a complement to, and some say a replacement for, printed material. As we stand at this crossroads, we don’t know what the future will bring, but we can — and should, as the research tells us — develop strong, effective reading techniques for both types of material.

Earlier eText research focused on a number of different topics, ranging from student format preferences and the impact of eText-based learning on retention and comprehension (Van Horne, Russell, and Schuh 2016), to the complexities of eText design. Such research showed there was a relatively slow adoption of eTexts from the time the idea entered the lexicon of university education in the late 1990s until today (Smith et al. 2013). However, adoption of mobile devices more recently has increased student access to screen-based learning resources (Martin, Mcgill, and Sudweeks 2013), leading to a higher demand for eTexts (Records et al. 2015; Warschauer 2015), and that makes the study of eText use in education timely.[1]

Of some importance is whether or not the eText has been converted from a print version to a digital one. Porion et al. (2016) demonstrated that converted print differs significantly from text created either primarily or exclusively for the digital medium, and instruction for converted texts has remained pretty much the same. However, new eTextbooks have evolved from print-converted material designed solely to deliver content to a more collaborative, active learning resource. That means the instruction of reading printed text that’s been shifted to the digital realm needs to be reconsidered moving forward (Pegrum 2015), and instructional approaches to eText need to change if it’s going to be used more effectively in the classroom.[1]

What’s interesting are the results of a number of studies testing the strengths, limitations, and overall student reading ability and comprehension for both print and eText materials. Jeong (2012) showed students received higher quiz scores for comprehension in print-based media, while students reported more eye fatigue and strain when reading eTexts. As far as higher-order thinking skills are concerned, eText-based learning yielded inferior results compared to print-based text learning in two studies (Ackerman and Lauterman 2012; Lauterman and Ackerman 2014), though subsequent research has questioned the accuracy of those studies’ methodologies (Norman and Furnes 2016).[1]

Navigation, display, and scrolling are all possible causes of lower reading comprehension scores in digital media than in print-based sources (Mangen, Walgermo, and Brønnick 2013), but the issue may be more complex than that. If text navigation is simple in print material and, therefore, less taxing cognitively, the reader may have more free mental power to devote to comprehension tasks. Dundar and Akcayir (2012) showed that eTexts used more of the reader’s mental resources than print, and they suggested that this cognitive drain made recall more difficult.[1]

Patricia A. Alexander and Lauren M. Singer of the University of Maryland are leading researchers in learning and text comprehension whose work has focused on the differences between reading print and digital media. Since new forms of classroom technology like eTextbooks are more accessible and easily portable, one might assume “that students’ familiarity and preference for technology translates into better learning outcomes.” However, “it’s not reasonable to assume students will automatically be better served by digital reading simply because they prefer it.” In fact, while students indicated they preferred and performed better in the digital realm, the researchers found that:

  • Reading was significantly faster online than in print.
  • Students judged their comprehension as better online than in print.
  • Paradoxically, overall comprehension was better for print versus digital reading.
  • The medium didn’t matter for general questions (like understanding the main idea of the text).
  • But when it came to specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when participants read printed texts. [2]

eText is changing, though, and a larger number of devices and greater technical ingenuity are smoothing over some of the deficiencies found in older technologies. In specially designed eReaders, no scrolling is required; instead, the reader pushes a button to “turn the page,” making the action the equivalent of a physical page turn (Bilton 2010). Some educators claim students are more likely to skim a computer-based text or scan for key terms rather than reading line by line (Nielsen 2006); however, many readers also skim or scan when presented with a physical book (Nel, Dreyer, and Klopper 2004), and this may just reflect a difference of student approaches to reading in general. And some of the new eReaders are not lit from the inside as smartphones and tablets generally are, meaning they don’t strain the eyes as much. But since students may use an array of devices to access eTexts, generalizations become problematic (Bilton 2010).[1]

Professional learning must step up to assist teachers in developing language facilitation skills with eTexts — traditional strategies for reading instruction may not necessarily transfer from print sources to any form of eText. And the need for training and professional development exists across all education levels, from K-12 to university students (Warschauer 2015). Abaci, Morrone, and Dennis (2015) call for best-practice-based professional development opportunities for all instructors to enhance their use of eTexts for teaching in an increasingly digital world.[1]

Reading specialist Paul Schmidt also sees a need to update instruction techniques for the online domain, which starts by showing students that eText is not just something you see in computer-based games, but it’s actually a learning tool — for reading and other content areas — where language is presented electronically. The speed of presentation forces students not only to read more quickly, but also to comprehend words and pieces of information faster so they can keep up with the quicker rate.

To process information faster, students have to give up tactile or auditory habits they formed when learning to read print material. These include pointing to words, running a finger along each line, tapping a pen to the rhythm of the words, or subvocalizing — the act of reading along in your head with the words you’re reading on the page, so that you “hear” each word as if it were spoken out loud. All these habits are not only unnecessary for comprehension, but they can get in the way of processing information quickly, as on a computer screen.

Assistive technology such as AceReader can provide a valuable instructional tool for eText reading, as it uses the electronic domain to build and hone reading skills (teaching you to read better, or more fluently); it provides comprehension assessments; and text is presented so it comes to your eyes rather than the reader having to search out the words with their eyes across a page.

So which is better, print or eText? “We live in a dual-modality world,” Schmidt says. “Our language has different modalities, but one is not greater or more important than the other. We can appreciate both in different ways —the immediacy of electronic information, and the long history of writing and books that contains the sum of our knowledge.”

It will be interesting to see where education and technology head from here.



[1] Ross,Bella; Pechenkina, Ekaterina; Aeschliman, Carol; and Chase, Anne-Marie. (Fri, 03 Nov 2017). “Print versus digital texts: understanding the experimental research and challenging the dichotomies.” Research in Learning Technology. DOI: 10.25304/rlt.v25.1976. Retrieved from

[2] Alexander, Patricia A. and Singer, Lauren M. (October 3, 2017). “The enduring power of print for learning in a digital world.” The Conversation. Retrieved from



We gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Paul Schmidt, ME Secondary Reading Specialist — Education, in the development of this series.

Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to

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