Dr. Baron: The Advantages of Learning on Paper


In today’s digital world, paper may seem like it’s taking a backseat to technology in the classroom. Dr. Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and former Guggenheim and Fulbright fellow, has seen the learning process from both sides. She now focuses on studying the relationship between students and their text, and fittingly, her book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, is available both on paper and as an ebook.

Why Print Still Matters for Learning

The digital revolution in schools is still young, but it’s already touching everyone from kindergarten to college. Microsoft Word replaces handwriting. Textbooks yield to tablets. Google is the new library.

Some motivations for shifting from print to words on-screen are obvious. Students can lighten their backpacks while school systems and families may bank savings. And learners have access to reading materials wherever they are. These days, paper is often cast as the villain—or more benevolently, as a dying technology, right up there with carrier pigeons.

Digital devices have undeniable benefits. Besides convenience and potential cost savings, they can democratize access to education. Citizens of many countries can’t afford print textbooks. Free distribution of eBooks, increasingly read on mobile phones (now available almost everywhere), can spur literacy. However, for another presumed advantage—helping the environment— the jury is still out. Socially conscious students may bemoan the use of paper for books and assignments, but they tend to overlook serious environmental consequences from manufacturing digital devices and powering server farms. What’s more, unlike the rare earth elements going into their laptops and iPads, trees are a renewable resource.

Where does print have advantages over digital reading? The answer is often in learning. Let’s look at four “C’s” important for reading: continuity, concentration, concepts and contemplation. As we’ll see, the printed page helps foster all four, arguably better than digital screens.

I have been surveying college students about their reading habits and preferences. I’ve gathered data from the U.S., Germany, Japan and Slovakia. Besides questions probing issues like cost, text length, multitasking and concentration, I asked what was the one thing they liked most—and least—about reading in print and reading on-screen.

Here’s some of what I’ve discovered.


One attribute of skilled readers is being able to work through lengthy stretches of text—a novel, biography or maybe a book on climate change. Short pieces like blog posts or news snippets are what we regularly access online. What happens when the material is longer?

In my study, I asked students, “If you are assigned a long text for school, do you prefer reading it in hard copy or on a digital device?” I then asked the same question about pleasure reading. In both cases, more than four out of five chose print. (When the text was short, the answers were mixed.)

Students’ open-ended responses were also telling here. One wrote that text looks longer in print, though of course it’s the same number of words on-screen. Another complained that what she liked least about reading print was that it took more time because she read more slowly and carefully—a worrisome but insightful admission.


The biggest challenge everyone faces when reading on-screen is distraction. Especially with an internet connection, the temptation looms to do something else—check a Facebook status update, post a new photo. Participants in my study were abundantly aware of the problem. A whopping 94% said the medium on which it was easiest to concentrate when reading was hard copy.

Among the Americans, when asked about the one thing they liked least about reading digitally, 43% complained about distraction or lack of concentration. And no wonder, since the same students reported multitasking more than three times as often when reading on a screen as when reading print.

Yet, even with print, some of us are now finding it hard to concentrate. Nicholas Carr—author of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”—talks about missing his old brain. Equally troubling is the college student, an avid reader of print books, who told me when he sits down to read hard copy, he finds himself waiting for something to happen: an alert signaling a new text message or a flash that it’s time to update his software. This competing digital mindset is undermining our ability to focus on the page.


Unless we’re breezing through a fast-paced thriller or leafing through a magazine, our goal in reading is commonly to learn and remember. An obvious question about reading platforms is whether we recall more when reading digitally or on paper. Most studies (with a couple of exceptions) are reporting that performance is about the same.

As with any research, results are only meaningful if they measure what we want to know. In these studies, subjects were asked to read a passage and answer questions, much as they would on the verbal portion of an SAT. But what really matters is whether significant learning has taken place. Think about the difference between facts and concepts. A study recently compared test results of students who took class notes by hand with those of people using a computer. Factual performance was the same, but students writing on paper by hand were better at answering conceptual questions. I’ll wager the same will hold true for reading on paper rather than on-screen, though we’ll need more research to say for sure.


There is another step beyond reading for concepts, and that is making what we read our own. Thinking about what an author has written. Agreeing or disagreeing. Contemplating.

Back in 1940, Mortimer Adler wrote in How to Read a Book that “One of the reasons why I find reading a slow process is that I keep a record of the … thinking I do” by making notes in the margin. Years earlier, Edgar Allan Poe spoke about using margins to write down “thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion.” Yes, digital devices let you annotate, but it’s more cumbersome than writing by hand. More than 25% of students in my study said the one thing they liked most about reading print was ease of annotation.

Why does print still matter for learning? Because print is tailor-made for helping us read continuously, concentrate, puzzle out concepts and contemplate the significance of what we have read. Students understand the effectiveness of print for reaching these goals. Parents and teachers need to as well.

Naomi S. Baron is Professor of Linguistics and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning at American University, in Washington, D.C. A former Guggenheim fellow and Fulbright fellow, her latest book is Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (Oxford University Press, 2015).