Learning with printed books

As a print industry veteran and book enthusiast, I have watched with dismay for many years as my own kids stared, deeply engrossed, at their cell phones.  Witnessing them growing up with a deep love for children’s books in the early years, only to see them transition seamlessly to every new electronic device they could get their hands on, dumping printed books of all kinds in the process, was a deeply disagreeable and disquieting experience.

Times change. New technology impacts everything. I tell myself that my boys will be okay foregoing the satisfying and tactile experience of being engrossed in a book, turning pages for hours, and absorbing stories and knowledge, endlessly made available by authors around the globe.

As true digital natives, they will absorb all that information from gazing at that little phone screen, on their laptops, iPads, and e-readers. They will find a way to navigate all the digital distractions out there and get to read, really read, something eventually. But it sure didn’t look like it for many years.

Print still reigns

However, now that my sons have entered college, I noticed a significant change. Suddenly, they are surrounded by printed books; not only textbooks, but also fiction and other genres. It turns out when it comes to studying and learning, they both prefer printed books.

A variety of studies explain why. Reading is essentially a skill, a cultural competence that can be trained and honed for effectiveness. Today, there is more reading and written content being produced than ever before. However, the vast majority of reading these days seems to be the quick kind: checking of mail, checking for news, scanning a text, the faster the better, because we are all busy. This trend has prompted researchers to consider how this changing reading behavior and reading competence impacts the way we live and how our children learn.

Knowledge retention is better with printed matter

The European Research initiative “E-Read” (Evolution of Reading in the Age of Digitization) published the so-called Stavanger Declaration a few years ago. One of the main findings of this vast study with over 170,000 participants was that reading on paper provides better comprehension and retention for texts that require higher levels of concentration.

There seems to be a lot more to the book-form factor than I had always assumed, but now have data to support my assumptions. A book, with its bulk and its number of printed pages, provides a reference point that is lost when scrolling on screen. When reading from a page in a printed book, we know where that page is in relation to the other sections of the book. We can see and feel how much of the book we have read. We can thumb through the part we have already finished and physically gauge how much we have left to go. That tactile experience is one of the elements that make reading on paper more effective for long-distance reading, the kind that requires more concentration and yields more knowledge.

Who knows what the future will hold, but I have a feeling that the evolution of the printed book is far from over.

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