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Teaching Strategies: In Praise of Actual Books

Jordan Catapano

I know that in this age of tech immersion and one-to-one programs, I’m supposed to explain why eReaders and digital books are superior to their hardcopy predecessors. In fact, the original title of this article was “Teaching Strategies: Why Students Love Digital Books.” But apparently a host of recent research shows that I cannot write that article, because students by and large are opting for physical copies of books when they can.

Digital books doubtlessly come with their advantages, which should be utilized carefully in the classroom via your teaching strategies. Electronic books offer readers the opportunity to store hundreds of titles. They can annotate prolifically without regard to margin space. They can share, interact with, and save their texts. The advantages are numerous. Yet, eBook sales in the US actually dropped last year, and when given the choice, many students are opting to read hard copies.

Here’s why.

Teaching Strategies: Physical Books are More Social

A Nielson study from 2014 indicates, “While younger readers are open to e-books as a format, teens continue to express a preference for print that may seem to be at odds with their perceived digital know-how.” Yes, we imagine youth as inextricably drawn towards anything digital, but the truth is that this survey indicates there’s plenty of allure left in hardcopy books. The Nielson study suggests that students enjoy books socially, not just independently. Sharing or talking about books is more easily done with physical copies.

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Fewer Distractions

A digital device is a gateway to endless notifications, games, links, information, and distractions. Even voracious readers are forced to admit, “The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle” thanks to technology. A physical book, on the other hand, is a gateway to an immersive reading experience. A physical book presents fewer opportunities for distraction. Plus, ebooks themselves often come with glitzy graphics or enhancements that ultimately decrease a reader’s ability to recall details of the text, according to this 2012 study from The Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

Less Eye Strain and Screen Time

Today’s digital screens don’t necessarily cause eye strain, but the experience is largely dependent on the preference and habits of the reader. Some screens – like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook – are specifically designed for reading. Some poorly produced books or newsprint can strain the eye more. Poor lighting, the way a reader moves their eyes, and our blinking habits all affect how strained our eyes feel, no matter what we’re reading.

But with today’s students staring at tablet, computer, and television screens for countless hours, student sure do feel like they are giving their eyes and minds a break when they can stare at something other than a screen for a while.

Physical Books Are Objects

This is obvious, but physical books are actual physical objects we can hold, manipulate, and look at. They have a smell and a texture to them. We can store them on our shelves beside dozens of other unique books. We can paw through them, then put them back. We can track our progress with a physical bookmark, dog-ear pages, and even use them as coasters.

These might seem silly or minute, but contrast these descriptions to their digital counterparts: Every ebook smells, feels, and looks the same. While we might store an ebook in an eLibrary housing hundreds of volumes, that library takes up zero space. Research from a number of studies cited in Scientific American indicate “Modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way.”

Comprehension Declines with Screens

The Scientific American report cited above goes on to suggest, “In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension.” There’s something about the way our minds and bodies prepare to interact with a physical document that contrasts the way we absorb information from their digital cousins.

Professor Naomi S. Baron writes, “Why Reading on a Screen is Bad for Critical Thinking,” explaining that her studies have indicated, “The preponderance of students found it easiest to concentrate when reading in print.” Digital reading is a different kind of reading – one that has certain advantages – but the mind interacts differently with these different mediums of communication.

The interaction and ultimate comprehension is essential for educators to consider as they’re providing texts to their students. If we want to increase student comprehension and critical thinking, we may discover that printed sources are the texts that best allow students’ minds to do so.

Physical Libraries Vs. Digital Ones

Not only individual books, but entire physical or digital libraries contrast one another. Students in a physical library or book store can simultaneously view dozens of books, browse through titles and covers, take books off of shelves and glance at any page, show them to friends, and interact with the texts in all the ways described above.

A digital library, on the other hand, offers few of these perks. A digital library might offer more books, but the entire library is limited to a screen. This makes the experience more individual rather than social, negates any sensory experience, and generally makes it harder to engage with a variety of texts.

Interestingly, parents with young children prefer to expose their children to physical books. And dramatic research from the University of Nevada, Reno, indicates that children raised in a home with hundreds of books (that’s physical books, not a digital library) are propelled as much as 3.2 years ahead in their education.

Giving Students the Choice

Although students are largely choosing printed texts, there is a steady increase in digital reading. The type of text readers choose often depends on the information and purpose for reading.

Perhaps it’s not our job to choose for students what they need to read from. Perhaps a stronger approach to the “Which is better?” debate is to try to educate students on the differences between physical and digital texts. Talk to students about comprehension, preference, types of reading tasks, and so on. Open up a discussion on what students think. Then we must allow students to decide what they feel is best.

What do you think about using physical or digital books in the classroom? Share your thoughts with our community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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