With the introduction of new technology such as laptops, eReaders, tablets and smartphones, you could be forgiven for thinking that reading and writing on paper will soon become a thing of the past. However, a recent study has shown that reading from hard copy requires the reader to concentrate more, while taking longhand notes onto paper increases both conceptual understanding and information retention, leading us to the conclusion that printed words will continue to be a mainstay in reading and writing.
Unlike speaking, reading is a relatively new activity. While we’ve been communicating with speech for hundreds of thousands of years, the first writing systems only date back 6000 years. To read requires us to identify a series of symbols known as letters and words, and uses pretty much the same neural circuits as those used to identify other objects such as people, houses and cars. However, our brains appear to respond differently to seeing words printed on a page and those which appear on a screen.
In her book, ‘Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World’, Naomi Baron, a linguistics professor explains that 92% of her study sample found that they were able to concentrate easier when reading hard copy. Of course, this won’t come as a surprise to those who work with words and text. Many writers still work by making notes on paper before transferring their ideas to the screen. This may be explained by age and habit, however there is a growing belief in scientific communities that many of the screen’s perceived ‘assets’ are actually detrimental to the whole reading and writing process. When required to write by hand, we tend to summarise, which in turn, increases our conceptual understanding and ability to retain that information. It’s also believed that the experience of reading differs between handwritten letters and those learned by typing them onto a screen, with the physical geography, i.e. where the words are placed on the page or in the book, being an additional memory aide.
However, to live in the digital world means adapting to reading and writing on both mediums, and while we can’t imagine a world without printed books, pens and paper, the truth is that most of us rely to a great extent on our technological devices and will continue to do so as newer versions are brought to the market.