Today’s rising generation of “digital natives” claim to be successfully navigating this digital world. How true is that claim?

Whether you are an editor, author, or reader, you will inevitably produce or encounter online written content. As the world shifts online because of ease and accessibility, it is important to consider the implications. What effect does online reading have on reading comprehension? Is there something printed media provides that online media simply can’t replace?


Lauren M. Singer and Patricia A. Alexander conducted a 2017 study titled “Reading Across Mediums: Effects of Reading Digital and Print Texts on Comprehension and Calibration,” addressing the question of how paper and online reading comprehension really compare. They surveyed 90 university students and had them read eight written passages on either digital (4 passages) or print mediums (4 passages). This was followed by a questionnaire about the main idea, key points, and any other relevant information found in either text. Students were also asked which medium they prefer, which they use most, and which they think works best for their learning and comprehension. 

The results indicate that the vast majority of students prefer reading digitally, with 95.6% of the students saying they access digital text at least once a day. When asked to judge which medium works best for them, 69% said digital. This perceived strength contrasted with the results of the reading comprehension test. While the results indicated no significant variance between digital and print text for the comprehension of the main idea and key points, print text was significantly more effective for the recall of other relevant information.

“While there were no differences across mediums when students identified the main idea of the text, students recalled key points linked to the main idea and other relevant information better when engaged with print.”

Singer (2016)


The results suggest that amidst a world flush with digital text, there is still a place for print. While this study involved students as participants, its results can provide a framework for future discussion between those involved with digital and physical written content. The question now centers on the pros and cons of digital text comprehension. For publishers, is it worth the expedited publishing process and widespread accessibility of online print if the reader misses out on secondary information? For writers, editors, and readers, will a main-idea or key-point level of comprehension suffice? Or is the best strategy simply to improve digital reading to meet the high demand for it? The ongoing debate of online versus print reading is far too complex for a single answer. But the hope is that armed with an understanding of the pros and cons of digital text, we can continue to successfully navigate our digital age.

To learn more about reading comprehension across digital and print mediums, read the full article: 

Singer, Lauren M., and Patricia A. Alexander. 2016. “Reading across Mediums: Effects of Reading Digital and Print Texts on Comprehension and Calibration.” The Journal of Experimental Education 85 (1): 155–72.

—Rebecca Watkins, Editing Research


Find more research

Take a look at Amanda Buxton’s Editing Research article to learn more about the scientific writing world and their preference for publishing digitally: “Preferences for Internet Publications.”

Read Sigal Eden and Yoram Eshet-Alkalai’s (2012) study to learn more about how digital vs. print text format effects the performance of editors: “The Effect of Format on Performance: Editing Text in Print versus Digital Formats.” British Journal of Educational Technology 44 (5): 846–56.