iPads in the classroom are all the rage, but how does an eBook compare to reading words printed on the page? Here’s what the latest research shows.

Book lovers, make room for tablets

Are you an old-fashioned reader who thinks “dead-tree” books are superior because shiny iPad and eBook screens are annoying and alien? It may be time to adjust your attitude. According to some experts, many children’s brains assimilate information from an electronic page just as quickly as they do from paper. A 2013 study used EEG and eye-tracking measures to test whether reading from digital media required more effort than reading conventional books. The result? Subjective preferences aside, effort and comprehension levels were the same in both mediums.

Another test, from University of Pavia, Italy, examined readers using desktop PCs, iPad tablets, Kindle e-readers — and printed books. This report concluded that reading behavior with all devices was very similar to reading the old-fashioned way.

E-readers all around? Not so fast!

Some studies tell a different story. A University of Leicester study found that when students read information in books, they had a better understanding of what they read compared to students who read the same information from eBooks. According to psychology professor Kate Garland, who conducted the study, eBook readers could remember information they’d studied, while conventional book readers knew the information; that is, they had a deeper understanding of what they read. This issue is also comprehensively addressed in a 2013 Scientific American report that favors the old-school format of print on paper.

What’s more, some experts worry that eBooks are ruining our ability to comprehend complex language. Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive scientist at Tufts University, is concerned that the “eye byte” culture will destroy our grasp of long, meandering, multiple-clause sentences. Will authors like George Eliot, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf be indecipherable to future brains pampered by screen reading?

Benefits of a new format

On the other hand, if your child is dyslexic, eBooks may be a blessing. A 2013 Harvard study of 103 high schoolers with dyslexia found that the students were able to read faster and with increased comprehension using an e-reader, compared to traditional reading material. Of note, however, is how the e-readers were formatted to present text for this study: just a few words per line. In their discussion, researchers suggest that it may be this format, versus the device itself, that makes reading easier.

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