The Screen Inferiority Effect: How Screens Affect Reading Comprehension

screen inferiority effect
Students who read print seem to comprehend more due to what is known as the screen inferiority effect (Image credit: Getty Images)

The screen inferiority effect is the name scientists have given to the phenomenon in which students, and others, seem to comprehend more when reading print vs. digital texts. The effect was noted as early as 2008, and has been seen in recent studies as well.

“It's inconsequential for some types of content and consequential for other types of content,” says Daniel T. Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia

For leisure reading, the screen inferiority effect is minimal. “People love Kindles, they like reading on their phone, they appreciate the convenience, and so what that indicates is they're not noticing any inferiority,” Willingham says. “It's not ruining the experience for them.” 

When you start reading textbooks, however, the difference becomes more pronounced. “When you get to more difficult content, the effect size is larger and people do notice it,” Willingham says. “They keep rereading, they perceive that they don't understand very well.” 

Because of the extra time screen readers take with texts, readers may end up with comparable test scores to print readers but have to spend more time to achieve the same learning, Willingham says.  

Evidence For The Screen Inferiority Effect  

Studies since the 2000s have observed the screen inferiority effect. One recent study looked at whether this effect still occurs when you compare students reading on a phone or tablet to print, as most research into the screen inferiority effect had compared text reading to reading on a computer. This study still found a small benefit for reading printed text over tablets

Ladislao Salmerón, this study’s lead author and a professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Valencia, says though small, this impact could add up over time. “In interpreting this, we must consider that children in schools read every day, so this effect could be accumulated over time,” he says.

Despite this research, many question marks about the screen inferiority effect persist, including what exactly causes it. 

One possibility is called the shallowing hypothesis, which assumes that when reading on digital devices people are generally doing so for short periods of time and for short pieces of text. Another theory holds that the tactile nature of reading, feeling each page, and remembering whether it was at the beginning of the book or the end, helps provide more information cues to connect with your memory. Yet another theory has to do with personal preference. 

“One thought is it might be due to most readers having a preference for paper and dislike of reading from screens, making it difficult to engage with ebooks,” says Virginia Clinton-Lisell, a professor in educational psychology at the University of North Dakota. “I wonder if this will diminish with time as children are using screens to read from a young age and may feel more comfortable with the devices.” 

Clinton-Lisell is the lead author of a 2019 meta-analysis, a look at multiple studies, that found evidence for the screen inferiority effect. However, since that study was released she has conducted several of her own experimental studies that have not observed the screen inferiority effect. “I am honestly skeptical of my own meta-analysis's generalizability,” she says. 

Natalia Kucirkova, professor of Early Childhood and Development at the University of Stavanger, Norway, says there are a number of factors that contribute to reading comprehension in young children. For instance, whether they reading to learn or reading for enjoyment has an impact, as does the type of digital text being read. 

Interactive features in digital books can either enhance or hinder the experience,” she says. “For instance, strategically placed feedback can aid comprehension, while distracting elements can detract from it. In other words, it is not the screen that is inferior, but the design” 

Implications of The Screen Inferiority Effect for Educators 

Salmerón believes the implications of the screen inferiority effect for classroom educators and school readers is fairly simple: “Printed texts should not be abandoned,” Salmerón says. “Tablets may be well-suited for internet-inquiry tasks, but paper should be preferred when promoting comprehension of long texts.”

For Clinton-Lisell, the takeaway is that educators should think about how to use digital texts more effectively. “I think the emphasis going forward should be on how to use interactive tools that are afforded by screens,” she says. “Like was shown in my meta-analysis, interactivity, such as questions with feedback and embedded glossary definitions, have great potential for helping learning.” 

In her classes, she assigns digital readings with social annotations. “This way students are more likely to interact with the material and take advantage of the affordances of screens,” she says. 

Willingham says that textbook companies are working to improve the digital experience of textbooks and understand what might cause the screen inferiority effect. “My hunch is that it's not any one thing,” he says. “For example, one of the things that people figured out fairly early on, is that there's a comprehension advantage if you have people reading on virtual pages and flipping those pages rather than scrolling on one long text as you usually do on a PDF. That accounts for a very small boost in comprehension, but doesn't solve the problem.” 

In the meantime, Willingham says the screen inferiority effect should be a factor in the decision-making process for schools and individual educators, although other factors, of course, need to come into play, such as print text cost, access, and age, as digital texts can be much easier to update. Personal preference for educators and students might also come into play. 

“There are people who like paper just because they like paper and there's a certain nostalgia or romance and it feels different,” he says. “Then there are tech enthusiasts who enjoy adopting new technologies.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.