The state of (e)reading
Commonweal publisher Tom Baker passes along the news today that fully one-third of American adults now own a tablet computer (like an iPad or Kindle Fire), which is nearly double the number recorded last year.
Why is this worth a mention on this blog? In part because of our recent redesign: The Commonweal site has been rebuilt to adjust to whatever device—PC, phone, tablet—you might be reading it on, and more of you are using tablets. Of course, some readers get more excited about this kind of thing than others (full disclosure: I am among the 66 percent of adults who do not own a tablet, although I have been making much more use of my phone to visit not just Commonweal but many other sites as well). But this news on usage comes at about the same time as a couple of other items on, for lack of a better term, e-reading.
First is Farhad Manjoo’s piece in Slate, the promisingly headlined “You Won’t Finish Reading This Article,” which reveals that few who begin to read a story online actually finish it; people steadily bail out (“bounce,” in the parlance) as they scroll down:
Data shows that readers can’t stay focused. The more I type, the more of you tune out. And it’s not just me. It’s not just Slate. It’s everywhere online. When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page. A lot of people don’t even make it halfway. Even more dispiriting is the relationship between scrolling and sharing. [Data] suggest that lots of people are tweeting out links to articles they haven’t fully read. If you see someone recommending a story online, you shouldn’t assume that he has read the thing he’s sharing. …
Maybe this is just our cultural lot: We live in the age of skimming. I want to finish the whole thing, I really do. I wish you would, too. Really—stop quitting! But who am I kidding. I’m busy. You’re busy. There’s always something else to read, watch, play, or eat.
It would thus seem to follow that people who read online retain or comprehend relatively little of what they click on. But Andrew Sullivan today points to studies showing the opposite. Researchers invited ninety students (average age: nineteen) ten short passages of text:
One third of them read on paper (A4 size, Times New Roman font), 30 of them read on a second gen. Kindle (6 inch screen), and the remainder read via a pdf reader on a computer monitor. Five of the passages were factual (biographies) and five were excerpts from literary fiction. After each passage, the students answered five to six multiple-choice comprehension questions. They could take as long as they wanted to read each passage, but there was no going back to the text once they started answering the questions.
Overall accuracy was at around 75 per cent and, crucially, there was no difference in comprehension performance across the three conditions. This was true whether reading factual or narrative passages of text. “From an educational and classroom perspective, these results are comforting,” the researchers concluded. “While new technologies have sometimes been seen as disruptive, these results indicate that students’ comprehension does not necessarily suffer, regardless of the format from which they read their text.”
Another “but” (and it seems to be a substantial one): the passages were only about 500 words in length. This post is already a hundred words longer than that. Many on this blog can be much longer. And stories from the print edition of the magazine….
What’s your approach to reading online? Do you tend to skim, skip, or “bounce”? Does the length of an online article affect your decision of how to read it? Does the medium (print vs. electronic) affect your ability to retain or comprehend what you read? And if you’re a parent, professor, or teacher, are you noticing anything about the habits of your e-reading children and students, or their ability to retain and comprehend?
My commute provides a lot of time for reading, and on the subway I always choose a book or magazine over my phone. Today I took note of someone reading a hardcover edition of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding—not because of the book, but because it was a book, apparently the only other one aside from mine on the car I was in. There were no newspapers or magazines in sight. But there were plenty of tablets.
About the Author
Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.