Paper or Screen for Reading? It Depends.

When it comes to reading, paper and screens both have merits. Why not choose the right format for your goals?

We read all day, every day—to be informed and entertained. We read to stay in touch with friends and with the events and thoughts that drive our passions, our professions, and our world. Reading is our chief means of taking in human knowledge. But not all reading is created equal. Skimming a news article for the highlights, or a blog post for answers to specific questions, is far different than the sort of reading we bring to bear on complicated novels or volumes of history. In other words, the kind of reading we do depends on what we want to get out of that text—our reading intention.

These days, there are two principal vehicles for the written word, broadly defined as print and onscreen. Print encompasses books, magazine, newspapers, white papers, subway posters, etc.; its medium is its only substantive definition. Onscreen, on the other hand, claims computers, phones, reading devices, and anything else where text based information is displayed on a screen. The medium we choose for reading can also have dramatic implications on how well we reach our initial reading intention. With a little forethought, we can choose the most appropriate conveyance for the job.

Many writers, thinkers, and reading specialists break down reading into different kinds based on an assortment of experience- and goal-oriented factors. Writing in the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson proposed four distinct types of reading, ranging from skimming to hard study (which requires heavy note taking). In his classic work How to Read a Book, Mortimer J. Adler breaks the reading process into four levels that progress in focal and intellectual demands as the reader’s intention becomes more complex (Adler, 1967, p. 16). Naomi Baron uses two broad-sweeping categories: ‘reading on the prowl’ and ‘continuous reading’ (Baron, 2015). Two broad categories that encompass reader intention, I agree, are appropriate when comparing two broad formats of screens and print.

If publishing trends are any indicator, readers are more cognizant of the distinct advantages each format offers. Printed long-form book sales have rebounded while previously strong sales of their e-book versions have dipped. Conversely, the readership of shorter, article-driven online news publications is soaring (even for the ones behind pay walls) while their print counterparts continue to wane. Format can be a powerful factor in the information age’s reading calculus, and both print and onscreen reading have distinct, complementary roles in this age. We’re fortunate to have choices that can improve our synthesizing of information.

Screens are Good for Casual and Power Browsing

Most mornings, I spend some time sleepily browsing news headlines online. If one catches my interest, I’ll read the article. Or instead, I might scroll through Facebook or Twitter to catch up with friends and events. If a post piques my interest, I’ll click through to read more. You may have a similar morning ritual. Skimming posts and articles is an experience that is enabled, even encouraged, by the massive amount of information we can access via screens and the internet. Onscreen reading is a great way to scan text for attention grabbing keywords that pinpoint “gulps of information,” as Naomi Baron puts it. She points out that it’s also great for ‘power browsing,’ where browsing becomes active and focused with the help not only of scanning for keywords, but also with the robust searching that information technology enables, and that books lack (Baron, 2015).

Print Enables Thorough Understanding and Retention

Ideas and information that is layered with meaning and nuance demand a wholly different level of reading. This sort of reading with deep intent, for most of us, demands focused attention and concentration that we are not prone to give to onscreen text. Indeed, studies show that screen reading diminishes our comprehension and wreaks havoc on our retention of information (Mangen, Walgermo, & Brønnick, 2013). Print focuses us on the task of reading deeply by stripping away the distraction inherent in the onscreen experience. It also mitigates the multitasking behaviors we’ve learned from having so much information readily available via screens and the internet. E-readers solve many reading issues, but not all readers like the experience—possibly because of factors in how we learn to read in the first place.

Print and Screen Together: the Best of Both Worlds

Both print and onscreen reading have genuine advantages, but what happens when you use both formats for the same text? In a 2014 survey I conducted, 416 undergraduate and graduate students at the local university answered questions about their required textbook for a particular course. I asked them which format they were using: print (76%), e-book (12%), or both (12%); and if they were satisfied with the format they were using. While many studies show that students overwhelming prefer print textbooks, my study found that students who used either the print format or the electronic format were equally satisfied (dissatisfied, really, but that’s a story for another time) with using them to learn. However, some students used both print and e-book formats of their textbook, and they were much more satisfied with their reading experience. It seems likely that by using both formats, students could apply the entire spectrum of reading to their educational goals. They could scan texts for keywords, search for necessary information using the onscreen format, and the print format permitted them to dive into the text without distraction for a deeper reading and increased conceptual comprehension and information retention.

Nota Bene: When the Choice Isn’t Up to the Reader

There are times when the choice of how you read isn’t based on your intention. A reader may not have access to the most suitable format because the content has been published in that format. Even worse, cost is an issue, especially in education where textbooks can retail for hundreds of dollars. Students on tight budgets may choose a format not because it’s the best one for their intentions, but because it’s cheaper. It’s a choice that could lead to a poor grasp on the learning material and lower grades. Likewise, access to electronic media is not universal, much as we’d like to think it is. It’s especially an issue for low income people, who may not have internet in their homes or devices for onscreen reading.



Adler, M. J. (1967). How to read a book: the art of getting a liberal education. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Baron, N. S. (2015). Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mangen, A., Walgermo, B. R., & Brønnick, K. (2013). Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension. International Journal of Educational Research, 58, 61–68.