Indelible Ink: The Lasting Benefits of Print Media for Reading Comprehension

By Sunil Iyengar
graphic that says Measure for Measure. On the left side of the graphic, there are hatchmarks that suggest bar graphs

When I was in elementary school, I had a freakish talent, more like a parlor trick. You could give me any book from the classroom or school library shelves, and I would open it to a random page, take a whiff, and, shutting it, pronounce the year of the print run. More often than not, I got within a year or two. On one occasion, when I hit the bullseye, my challenger stared at the copyright page and spluttered an expletive far too advanced for his tender years.

I can’t recall when this bizarre proclivity began or when, just as suddenly, it vanished. (I’d fail miserably if put to the test today.) What was the secret? The scent of the glue? The binding? The film of dust on uncut pages? (We’re talking about school library stacks, after all.) I still don’t know. I can only conclude that, even to have dreamt up this exercise, I must have had constant access to large numbers of books as a child. (Perhaps I should have spent more time reading than sniffing them.)

Many years later, I found myself presenting data to dozens of book-publishing luminaries in New York at an event to preview a new NEA research publication, To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence. This 2007 report was a compilation of analyses about historical declines in leisure reading rates, and what they meant not only for the sector, but for the state of literacy and civic welfare at large. One of the report’s findings, in particular, drew a stunned look from audience members. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that the number of books in a child’s home is positively correlated with reading test scores.

What might have captured the attention of these CEOs was the prospect that books as artifacts—the tangible output of their industry—held untapped value that could be further commodified. And it’s true that books in a home are a reasonable indicator of educational and cultural aspirations. But, looking back, I realize that another appeal to the notion that books on a shelf could radiate their benefits, without even being opened, may have derived from a need for collective consolation. We had just entered the era of digital reading, and the future of traditional book publishing was murky at best. By coincidence, the day we released our report—Nov. 19, 2007—was also the day Amazon launched its Kindle digital reader.

As news copy, this double-header prompted many questions, directed at the report’s lead author (that’d be me), asking whether the advent of digital reading—not only via e-readers, but also web pages and text messages—meant the decline of conventional long-form reading, and whether the attendant benefits of reading print books (e.g., improvements in reading proficiency) transferred to e-books.

In such interviews, I refrained from hazarding my own predictions. As a researcher, I copped to the old stand-by: more data were needed. Now, we finally may have some answers.

Last month, in the journal of the American Educational Research Education (the Review of Educational Research), researchers from the University of Valencia, in Spain, published a meta-analysis of studies conducted from 2000 to 2022, including data from nearly 470,000 participants. The new study aimed to quantify the link between reading digitally and reading well.

“Previous research has evidenced a strong positive relationship between leisure print reading habits and reading comprehension across the lifespan,” the authors note. In their article, they ask if the same can be said of leisure reading when it comes to digital media—whether this activity, too, is associated with better reading comprehension.

For the purpose of the study, “leisure digital reading” activities included not only “reading e-books, e-magazines, or e-comics,” but also “looking for information on the Internet, or browsing a website, blog or forum.” In the end, the researchers claim that leisure digital reading (as here defined) does not seem to pay off in terms of reading comprehension, at least, as much as traditional print reading does.” Specifically, “the effect size is rather small, especially when compared with previous meta-analytical studies that have evidenced medium to strong positive associations between print-reading habits and comprehension.” 

Why might this be so? The researchers suggest that more “shallow” cognitive processes might be invoked by digital text characteristics such as “short length and fast-paced stimuli,” in contrast to print reading materials. They also speculate about a “lower linguistic quality of digital texts” as potentially adverse to reading skills development. 

Because only leisure digital reading was taken into account, other types of materials such as academic literature—as well as hybrid reading practices (i.e., reading in both digital and print media)—may yield different associations with reading comprehension in future studies, the authors suggest. 

Still, although the benefits of leisure print reading for reading comprehension appear to outweigh those for leisure digital reading, there remains a positive link between the latter activity and reading comprehension, even if the effect size is small. However, this outcome was detected only in high school and undergraduate students, while, for primary and middle school students, there was a significant negative relationship between leisure digital reading and reading comprehension.

Studies of leisure reading habits, whether involving print, digital, or audio media, inform the NEA’s understanding of public engagement with literary works. Last October, results from the 2022 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) showed that 48.5 percent of U.S. adults read any book not required for work or school, whether in print or digitally. This figure represents a decline of four and six percentage points, respectively, from the 2017 and 2012 levels. Meanwhile, the proportion of adult readers of novels and short stories has fallen at a 17 percent rate from 2012 to 2022, to 37.8 percent. The study from Spain should provoke conversation about the types of educational and cultural policy measures that might be needed to spur future generations of literary readers.

Sunil Iyengar directs the Office of Research & Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts.