How We Read Now: Strategic Choices for Print, Screen, & Audio

  • By Naomi S. Baron
  • Oxford University Press
  • 304 pp.

A well-researched, accessible treatise on all the ways we experience and absorb words.

What does it mean to read? Print materials are no longer the only option. Digital technology has produced a massive surge in online texts, and aural offerings such as audiobooks, podcasts, and audio-plus-video materials mean “we can ‘read’ with our ears” as well as our eyes, says author Naomi S. Baron. With so many options now available, educators, parents, and general readers are asking: Which medium is most effective?

In How We Read Now, Baron examines research conducted over the past 20 years in several countries. Most of the studies were carried out at universities using students at subjects, but some focused on children, and a few on older populations. She concentrates on “reading to learn,” analyzing how much readers retain of what they have read and whether they can analyze underlying ideas and derive conclusions. While these issues are of particular importance to students preparing for tests or writing research papers, her findings are significant for all readers.

The questions involved are complex. To begin with, consensus does not exist on what constitutes reading. Should audiobooks be included? What about print books enhanced with audio? Furthermore, the efficacy of the medium may vary according to the reader’s objectives, motivation, prior knowledge of the subject, time constraints, age and experience, attitude toward the medium, or other factors. One platform may be more effective for one purpose than another. Over two-thirds of readers under 55 say they prefer print, although the percentage drops to below 60 percent for readers over 55 — perhaps because of the ease with which one can adjust font size on e-books.

In spite of multiple platform options, people overall are reading less than before — although there are variations internationally. “In Norway, for instance, 88 percent of adults recently said they had read at least one book in the past year,” writes Baron. “By contrast, in the U.S., the figure was 73 percent, while in Italy it was closer to 42 percent.”

Among young people, pleasure reading has declined alarmingly. In 2016, 22 percent of American youngsters 15 to 17 had read no books over the summer, the time when high-schoolers most often engage in reading for fun. By 2018, 32 percent had read no books. Yet, notes Baron, American adolescents manage “to fit in at least two hours of television-watching daily.”

The decline in pleasure reading among young people is not unique to the United States. In Holland, youngsters between 13 and 19 read about 23 minutes a day in 2013, but in 2018, only 14 minutes a day. Among 20- to 24-year-olds, the amount dropped from 17 to 13 minutes over the same five-year span. A Japanese study of more than 10,000 students found that, in 2017, 53.1 percent read no books at all, an increase of 18.6 percent over the previous past five years.

The statistics are even bleaker for assigned reading. In 1981, students reported completing about 80 percent of their course reading. “By 1997,” writes Baron, “the average was closer to 20 percent.” Today, students report spending only between 14.4 and 15 hours a week on class preparation, including reading, writing, studying, lab work, etc.

Baron attributes the low numbers in part to demographic shifts: “[M]ore people are in college than 40 or 50 years ago, and they come from increasingly diverse backgrounds.” Many of today’s students have jobs, and demands are also made on their time by sports, volunteer activities, and social media.

Consequently, professors have lowered their expectations. In a survey conducted in the U.S. and Norway, “more than 40 percent of respondents said they now assign less reading than in the past.” They also assign less difficult reading and more audio and visual materials.

In both countries, a large majority of professors report that digital technology impacts the amount and effectiveness of student reading: Students not only read less, but also comprehend and retain less of what they read. Yet some professors praise digital platforms, arguing that they are easier to access and cheaper than books, and that they facilitate retrieving relevant information via hyperlinks.

Today, even young children have access to touchscreens, which some specialists believe contribute to vocabulary development and fine-motor control. Although research shows that print books are more conducive to adult-child conversation than e-books, the latter can be effective when dialogue and other engaging activities are included.

With respect to enhanced digital books (those that incorporate animation, sound, or games), Baron finds: “If the enhancement is relevant to the storyline (or at least doesn’t detract), the digital feature has either a neutral or beneficial effect. If not, the enhancement gets in the way of potential learning.”  

However, when e-books are “done right,” they can be even more effective than print. Investigators in the Netherlands found that when an adult was present providing support, “the amount of learning with multimedia eBooks was on par with learning from print.” When not, children’s vocabulary and comprehension were actually better with enhanced e-books.

With older children, researchers found that comprehension was sometimes as good for online materials as print, but “very rarely was it better when reading digitally.” While students grasped concrete details when reading online, they did better using print for more abstract questions requiring them to make inferences. However, if they engaged in an activity involving abstract reasoning beforehand, their performance in this area improved.

For questions on absorbing the key points of a passage, another study found that results were the same for print and digital texts. However, when questions required more focused reading, “print proved superior.” One reason is that people tend to read faster on a screen than a page, which diminishes comprehension. Significantly, “heavy users of social media have lower reading comprehension scores.”

Today, schools and universities increasingly rely on technology for instructional materials. Students have access to multitudinous resources and must learn to analyze and synthesize large amounts of information. Baron’s research shows that navigation skills increase with age. Older children learn to focus on relevant information and filter out the rest. Those whose print-comprehension skills are good tend to do better at identifying online sources, although “good navigation skills can help compensate for weaker print reading skills.”

Much depends on the reader’s mindset, however. A digital mindset includes an openness to the advantages of digital reading, including the ease of skimming, scanning, and accessing an abundance of information.

Educating tomorrow’s generations is of urgent importance to all of us, and for that reason, How We Read Now is must reading. Baron does not prescribe particular reading platforms, but rather enables us to better assess all the possibilities. The move toward digital is inevitable, she argues, and we must be aware of both the disadvantages and benefits of different mediums. And although How We Read Now is chockfull of statistics and tables, Baron’s light, conversational style makes for enjoyable reading — whether in print or on a screen.

Bárbara Mujica, a professor emerita at Georgetown University, is a novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and scholar. Her novels include the international bestseller Frida, based on the relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Sister Teresa, based on the life of Teresa of Ávila, and I Am Venus, which explores the identity of the model for Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus. Her collection of stories, Far from My Mother’s Home (Spanish edition: Lejos de la casa de mi madre), focuses on the immigrant experience. Collateral Damage, published this month by the University of Virginia Press, is an edited collection of women’s war writing, and Imagining Iraq contains short stories told from the perspective of the mother of a veteran. Mujica has won several prizes for her short fiction, including the E.L. Doctorow International Fiction Competition, the Pangolin Prize, and the Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award for short fiction. Three of her stories and two of her novels have been winners in the Maryland Writers’ Association national competition. I Am Venus was a quarterfinalist in the 2020 ScreenCraft Cinematic Novel Competition, and “Ahmed the Tailor” was a quarterfinalist in the 2021 ScreenCraft Cinematic Story Competition. Her latest scholarly book is Religious Women and Epistolary Culture in the Carmelite Reform: The Disciples of Teresa de Ávila (Amsterdam University Press, 2020).

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