Textbooks: better to study on a tablet or on paper?

E-readers and tablets are becoming more and more popular and in some middle schools they are starting to be adopted instead of textbooks. But is studying on a screen the same as reading a paper book? Some research suggests not. Compared to paper, the screen would seem to make it more difficult to remember what you have read. And among the reasons is the lack of physicality of the digital book.

For our brain, letters are physical objects

“There is a physicality to reading,” says developmental and cognitive science psychologist Maryanne Wolf of the University of Tufts, United States.
“Understanding the difference between reading on paper and on screen requires some explanation of how the brain interprets written language. We often think of reading as a cerebral and abstract activity, however, from the cerebral point of view the text is a tangible part of the physical world.

The brain sees letters as physical rather than abstract objects. We weren't born with a brain circuit dedicated to reading. After all, we have invented writing relatively recently (in the fourth millennium BC). So the human brain borrows brain structures dedicated to other activities such as speech, sight, motor coordination. Some of these brain regions are specialized in object recognition: just as they help us distinguish an apple from an orange, they also make us recognize a letter with its lines, curves, empty spaces ”.

Not for nothing, the first alphabets had the shapes of the objects they represent, not only Chinese or Japanese ideograms but also our alphabet was born representing objects, for example the letter C originally represented the crescent moon.

The paper book is like a topographical map: it orients the reader and helps him to memorize what he reads

In addition to treating letters as physical objects, the brain perceives a text as a kind of landscape: when we read, we construct a mental representation of the text similar to the map of a physical place, such as the plan of an apartment or a city.

Many studies have shown that people remember information in a text based on their position in the book.

Paper books have a more obvious topography than digital ones. An open book presents the reader with 2 clearly defined pages, and 8 angles for orientation. When one reads, one focuses on a page without losing sight of the entire text. He can also feel the thickness of the pages being read in one hand and feel the missing pages in the other. Turning pages is like leaving footprints on a path. There is a rhythm and a visible trace of how far one has progressed. All of this not only makes the book more navigable but also more understandable and easier to memorize.


Children at school around the world

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Schools ended last week. In this photo gallery we wanted to scout students around the world. Good vision at all.

The digital book lacks physicality and overall vision

Conversely, most e-readers and tablets interfere with intuitive text navigation and inhibit people from keeping track of the "journey" in the mind. A digital reader has difficulty seeing the whole, scrolls through the pages typing the text, but does not have a global vision of the book. It is as if Google maps shows street by street, without ever showing the whole map. "The physical feeling of where you are in a book is more important than what you thought" says Abigail Sellen of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England.

It seems that by limiting this overall view, screens also inhibit understanding. Anne Mangen of the University of Stavanger in Norway tested two groups of students: some had studied on screen, others on paper. And the students who had read on the screen had a poorer result.

Read also: Children learning, limit the use of tablets and smartphones

In digital you cannot underline or bend corners

Furthermore, screens interfere with two other aspects of text navigation: the sense of control because you cannot underline, take notes, bend corners; and pleasure: how to skip through the text, look forward, go back.

This is why many people when they want to totally immerse themselves in a text prefer to choose a paper book.

In a Microsoft survey, many people admitted that after reading a book they liked on e-reader they bought the paper book, because having a book on e-reader is not like owning it. Missing the cover, the thickness, the object to put in the library.

But digital offers multimedia possibilities that books do not have

However, the improvements to bring new technologies closer to old books are constantly evolving. But does it make sense to try to make digital books the same as paper ones? In this case, could it not be continued to read on traditional books? Probably when a thorough study of a text is required, the book on paper is still the most suitable. But digital can offer something more than text.

Screens offer possibilities that paper does not have. Not so much the classics, but in new publications you can insert multimedia contents that enrich the book.

  • children and technology
  • e-reader
  • studying on tablet
  • read
  • school books
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