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When it has gone, it has gone – why pupils who turn to e-books are weaker readers

Recent research carried out by the National Literacy Trust has found that children who use only electronic books every day are significantly less likely to be strong readers than those who read in paper print – and enjoy reading less.

One of  the reasons for these findings may be linked to the limited visual space available at any one time.  Digital technology presents information in screen or “byte” size, which must be held in working memory after moving on to the next “page” on the screen.  This is in contrast to a hand held book, where it is possible to flip back and look at several pages at one time.  Digital technology places an increased strain on working memory – even if “windows” remain open behind the screen – it is much harder to refer back to earlier material using screen technology than with a book.  When working memory is stressed, it simply eliminates immediately irrelevant information from its temporary record  in order to focus on the present.

While e-media has enabled us to access a vast amount of information, the human brain is not well adapted to store this volume of information.  In flipping from page to page on screen,  once material is no longer visible, much of it tends to be forgotten, a case of “out of sight, out of mind”.  It may well be this medium of reading affects how vocabulary and story sequences are stored in memory.

Screen reading may also encourage a bias towards purely “visual” reading as opposed to hearing an “inner voice” when reading silently, as if reading aloud.  It has been shown that children who develop an inner voice when reading tend to be stronger in reading and spelling.

The virtual library stored on an electronic reading device is also less attractive to revisit for reference and repetition purposes.  Just as in child development, physical experience is essential to build connections within the nervous system, it is also possible that the relative remoteness of e-media as a medium for reading in contrast to physically handling a book, alters how information is processed.

E-reading is not all bad and can be used help children struggling in learning to read  by increasing the size of font and reducing the  number of words on one line, thereby decreasing problems caused by poor visual tracking skills.  There are advantages when travelling and in animating books, but there is something about “handling” a physical object, turning pages and holding an entire book in the hands, which alters how the brain processes and remembers material.  While technology can help, it can also result in decreased attention if too much information is thrown at the brain without physcial reference points.

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