October 21, 2009, 10:00 AM ET
Screen Reading and Print Reading
With students doing so much of their reading assignments through the screen instead of on book or paper formats, it's important for educators to determine how the shift is altering their habits and learning. The research is just beginning, but it's getting deeper, and one recent article worthy of note appears in the Journal of Research in Reading (2008, pp. 404-419). It's by Anne Mangen, and it has the title "Hypertext fiction reading: haptics and immersion."
Mangen notes the growing sub-field of screen reading studies, but finds that the "intangibility and volatility of the digital text" remain under-examined. She focuses first, then, on the material nature of digital and non-digital reading experiences. "Unlike print texts," she writes, "digital texts are ontologically intangible and detached from the physical and mechanical dimension of their material support, namely, their computer or e-book (or other devices, such as the PDA, the iPod or the mobile phone" (405).
This is important, she argues, because "materiality matters." The reading experience includes manual activities and haptic perceptions (what the skin and muscles and joints register), and so as activities and perceptions of that kind are changed from one kind of reading experience to another because of the object, the reading experience, too, will change.
The differences between screen and paper go deeper than the physics of each. They also involve the relationship the reader has to them. For Mangen, a crucial difference lies in the nature of the immersion in screen "worlds" as being distinct from the technology that facilitates it. In other words, the mouse, head set, and so on provide the entry into the visual world, but are not constitutive parts of it. "In contrast," she explains, "consider the sense of being immersed in a fictional world which is largely the product of our own mental, cognitive abilities to create that fictive, virtual (in the figurative sense of the word) world from the symbolic representations -- the text, whether purely linguistic or multi-modal, digital or print -- displayed by means of any technological platform." Books don't have tools to help readers make up that fictive world, and so they do it more with their own minds.
That's a dense formulation, but it comes down to physical and technical features that do or do not "disturb" the immersion typical of reading a novel (as opposed to the immersion typical of playing a video game). Compare clicking on the mouse to turning the page. Turning the page is a literal touch of the thing you read. Clicking the mouse is an instrumental touch of the device that purveys an intangible thing through it. You read a book, but you don't read a computer screen. You read a text through the screen. You turn a page, which is part of the book, but you click a mouse or touch a screen icon which is not part of the "book" you're reading. "The digital text has no material substance," no tactile existence, and so it has no haptically-perceived relation to the screen.
One effect, Mangen maintains, is that the digital text makes us read "in a shallower, less focused way."
There are other effects as well, but this one is far-reaching. While "shallower" reading through or on the screen serves certain purposes quite well, when it comes to reading complex texts and interpreting, analyzing, or even summarizing them, a slower and deeper habit is needed.
For more, see Mangen's interview with Dan Bloom here.