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Study: Relationship Between Digital Reading, Improved Comprehension Marginal

The American Educational Research Association (AERA) has published new research on digital leisure reading habits, suggesting a mostly nonexistent relationship between digital reading and improved reading comprehension with ‘slightly positive’ effects in higher ed.

Lidia AltamuraLidia AltamuraDo New Forms of Reading Pay Off? A Meta-Analysis on the Relationship Between Leisure Digital Reading Habits and Text Comprehension” published Dec. 12 in Review of Educational Research, a peer-reviewed journal of the AERA. It involved nearly 500,000 participants and is the first meta-analysis of research focused on the specific links between leisure reading habits on digital devices and reading comprehension.

The study was conducted by Lidia Altamura, Cristina Vargas, and Ladislao Salmerón, all at the University of Valencia.

“In sum, for developing readers, leisure digital reading does not seem to pay off in terms of reading comprehension, at least not as much as traditional print reading does,” said study co-author Lidia Altamura, a Ph.D. student at the university. “Our findings are particularly surprising when you compare them to what we already know about the well-established positive association between reading frequency in print and text comprehension.”

Researchers expected digital leisure reading for informational purposes, such as reading the news online, would be more positively linked to comprehension, but that was not the case, according to Altamura. Extrapolating from previous studies, the authors estimated that if a student spends 10 hours reading in print in their free time, their ability to comprehend would be six to eight times higher than if they read on digital devices for the same amount of time.

Study results are based on the authors’ synthesis of 25 studies, published between 2000 and 2022, involving some 470,000 participants from about three dozen countries.

The findings revealed that at early stages (primary and middle school), there were small negative relationships between leisure digital reading and comprehension. At later stages (high school and university), the relationship turned slightly positive, according to Altamura. Overall, regardless of education stage, digital reading habits had a smaller relationship with reading comprehension, compared to print reading results from previous research.

The study’s authors suggest digital reading may not pay off for developing readers compared to print reading for two reasons. First, digital reading devices can serve many purposes other than reading, which distracts readers. Second, the internet has brought new types of reading, with features such as short- and fast-paced stimuli, lower quality content, and less sophisticated vocabulary.

“Based on our results, we cannot just assume that all leisure reading will be beneficial for developing readers,” concluded Altamura. “The medium used matters.”

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