Why reading books and writing longhand is better for learning

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 March, 2015, 6:05am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 March, 2015, 6:05am

My son is 18 months old and I've been reading books with him since he was born. Over the past six months he has started to recognise a few letters and numbers. He calls a capital Y a "yak" after a picture on the door of his room, and so on.

Reading is a young activity in evolutionary terms. Humans have been speaking in some form for hundreds of thousands of years; we are born with the ability to acquire speech etched into our neurones.

The earliest writing emerged only 6,000 years ago, and every act of reading remains a version of what my son is learning: identifying the special species of physical objects known as letters and words, using much the same neural circuits as we use to identify trees, cars, animals and telephone boxes.

It's not only words and letters that we process as objects. Texts themselves, so far as our brains are concerned, are physical landscapes. So it shouldn't be surprising that we respond differently to words printed on a page compared to words appearing on a screen; or that the key to understanding these differences lies in the geography of words in the world.

For her new book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, linguistics professor Naomi Baron conducted a survey of reading preferences among more than 300 university students from the US, Japan, Slovakia and Germany.

When given a choice between media ranging from printouts to smartphones, laptops, e-readers and desktops, 92 per cent of respondents replied that it was hard copy that best allowed them to concentrate.

What exactly was going on here? Age and habit played their part. But there is also a growing scientific recognition that many of a screen's unrivalled assets, like hyperlinks, are either unhelpful or downright destructive when it comes to reading and writing.

In three experiments in 2013, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer compared the effectiveness of students taking longhand notes with typing onto laptops. Their conclusion: the relative slowness of writing by hand demands heavier "mental lifting", forcing students to summarise rather than to quote verbatim; in turn, tending to increase conceptual understanding and retention.

Tests suggest the experience of reading itself differs between letters learned through handwriting and letters learned through typing.

It seems that the motor-skill-activating physicality of objects lights up our brains brighter than the placeless, weightless scrolling of words on screens.

It's not all bad. Screens are at their worst when they ape paper. But at their best, they're something which can engage and activate our wondering minds.

We must abandon the notion that there is only one way of reading, or that technology and paper are engaged in some implacable war. Because we are still lucky enough to have both.

The Guardian