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Professor’s New Book Unveils Pros and Cons of Reading Onscreen

By Rebecca Basu

Reading choices

Linguistics professor Naomi Baron found that most college students in the United States, Japan, and Germany said they could better concentrate when reading in print.

E-book or print book: Does it matter? According to new research by American University linguistics professor Naomi Baron, depending on the circumstances, the answer is yes.

For the past 20 years, Baron has been probing how technology shapes the ways we speak and listen, read and write. In her new book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (Oxford University Press), Baron uncovers the advantages and disadvantages of e-reading and makes a case for educators, parents and policy makers to slow down the rush to digitize all reading.

Surveying university students in the United States, Japan, and Germany, Baron found that 92 percent of them found it easiest to concentrate when reading print. Not surprisingly, they were three times as likely to be multitasking when reading onscreen. What’s more, if cost were the same for hardcopy and digital versions, between 75 and 94 percent (depending on the country) favored print, both for school work and when reading for pleasure.

“Millennials’ preference for print may seem paradoxical given that they use so many digital devices in their daily lives,” Baron said. “Educators need to be mindful about the potential consequences of digitizing so much reading. Educators also need to listen to students’ voices rather than assume we know how they prefer to do their reading, and why.”

Conflicts in reading choices

Words Onscreen presents a research-based challenge to the growing move in education from K through college to replace print with digital reading to help the environment and to save money. Among Baron’s findings are that

• Students generally believe that digital screens are more environmentally friendly than paper. Yet some who cite environmental concerns as their reason for reading digitally nonetheless declare a strong preference for print. In reality, digital devices (and the cloud they access) have many negative environmental impacts.

• Students, especially in the U.S., repeatedly complain that they turn to digital textbooks to save money, not because they believe digital reading is the best way to learn.

• Many students report they learn more when they read in print.

• Length of reading matters in choosing between reading onscreen or in print.

In addition to her empirical research, Baron sketches out the modern evolution of reading. New forms of writing and publication (the novel, the magazine, and anthologies) made for new styles of reading. Today, the web propels people into search mode and skimming snippets rather than long reads. Baron, like many experts, is concerned that digital technologies discourage deep, individual, reflective reading.

“If you are reading on a device that has an Internet connection, it’s tempting to break off to send a text message, update social media accounts, or check out restaurant reviews,” Baron says. “These interruptions short-circuit concentration. The vast literature on multitasking documents how much time and mental focus we lose when we keep switching tasks.”

Baron also considers whether the surge in online social reading networks, along with eReader features that share other readers’ highlights, privilege superficial commentary and mechanical agreement, rather than encouraging people to wrestle with authors and their texts individually.

The smell of the pages

Triple-digit growth in eBooks from 2009 to 2011 led many people to believe that digital reading would soon overtake print. However, annual eBook growth has slowed down to the single digits. In Words Onscreen, Baron cites surveys indicating that today’s readers are interested in having multiple reading options available, including print and electronic versions of the same book – one to use at home and the other to access when on the go.

While eBooks are convenient and often less costly, readers don't own e-books the way they own print books, Baron stresses. When surveying students, many enthused about the look and feel of books, their ease of use, and even the smell of pages and bindings.

“Readers talk about the difference between having a collection of titles that are out-of-sight, out-of-mind, versus being able to view on their shelves the books they’ve read, or even having an unread title stare them down,” Baron said.

Though Baron’s point-of-view is cautionary, she recognizes the virtues of both media. The book’s final chapter offers readers pragmatic steps for capitalizing on the best of both formats.

“Digital reading devices will be with us for the long haul,” Baron observes. “It’s important for us as readers, parents, and teachers to capitalize on their very real advantages. But it’s equally vital for us to remember that form should follow function: Some reading is best done in print – just ask the millennials.”

Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World will be available in early February.