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Paper vs screens: Does the way we read really matter?

Part of the global digital transformation of our lives now means that a lot of the words we read are no longer in books, newspapers or magazines, but on a screen.

While many put themselves in a Kindle vs book camp when it comes to reading for pleasure, our working lives often don’t give us a choice.

With the average person able to read a few thousand words every day, what are the advantages of paper vs screen, and should we be favouring one over the other?

The answer is yes – and no. The truth is there are pros and cons to both reading on screen and paper. If we can tailor what we’re reading to the medium that suits it best, we can make sure we’re absorbing the information we need in a way that’s useful.

Research tells us a few things…

Print is easier to understand

According to the experts, print is easier to understand than digital text. This is due to a few factors.

Printed text gives the reader spatial and tactile cues that help us comprehend words on the page. That’s things like chapters, paragraphs, pages numbers and actual pages you have to turn.

Books or papers also give us a better understanding of how much we have read and make it easier to go back and find a section of text.

If we remember a detail was in the first third of a book it’s easier to flick back through pages, than scrolling back through screen after screen of words.

Screens can also flicker, causing eye strain and fatigue that we don’t get from print.

We miss more detail on screens

Studies show that we absorb more information in print, which may be due to the fact we are trained to read faster on screen.

Scrolling through Facebook or an online newspaper, we read the headline and maybe the first paragraph of a story but might not get absorbed by the whole text.

There are more distractions and moving parts on screens that we don’t get in print.

Some research even shows that our brain behaves differently when reading something in print vs on screen. Print triggers more emotions, making it easier for the reader to recall detail in the future.

Digital is sometimes best

Before you start madly printing every two-line email in your Inbox, remember that for some kinds of text, digital is just fine.

Short emails, articles, headlines, or comments are going to be clear and easy to understand and digest.

Save the paper and resources and stick to reading shorter, simpler texts on screen.

Print wins for longer texts

For a lengthy piece of text, such as a white paper, brochure, or report, that’s dense with information you need to understand and retain, it might be better to hit Print.

As well as slowing your reading pace down, allowing the brain to absorb smaller details, you can also make longhand notes, an act that stimulates areas of the brain that help you remember things.

Whether you favor screen or paper, reading is always an amazing way to learn and connect to the world around us. As the great Dr Seuss once wrote: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

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