[Researcher Sara] Margolin’s team invited 90 student participants (average age 19 years) to read ten short passages of text. One third of them read on paper (A4 size, Times New Roman font), 30 of them read on a second gen. Kindle (6 inch screen), and the remainder read via a pdf reader on a computer monitor. Five of the passages were factual (biographies) and five were excerpts from literary fiction. After each passage, the students answered five to six multiple-choice comprehension questions. They could take as long as they wanted to read each passage, but there was no going back to the text once they started answering the questions.
Overall accuracy was at around 75 per cent and, crucially, there was no difference in comprehension performance across the three conditions. This was true whether reading factual or narrative passages of text. “From an educational and classroom perspective, these results are comforting,” the researchers concluded. “While new technologies have sometimes been seen as disruptive, these results indicate that students’ comprehension does not necessarily suffer, regardless of the format from which they read their text.”
But the experiment could have been more comprehensive:
Unfortunately the study didn’t look at the participants’ familiarity with e-reader devices. It remains to be seen whether the same results would hold with an older sample and/or with readers who may be less experienced with digital devices. Also the text passages were only around 500 words long. Future research needs to examine comprehension for entire chapters and books. Devices like iPads, which are back-lit and have more potentially distracting functionality, also need to be tested.