E-readers, such as Kindle, have become many people’s first go-to choice for reading. Although Kindle tries to mimic the reading experience of a paper-bound book, such as by implementing a screen substrate specially designed to mimic the texture of ink on paper, E-readers lack many features of a traditional book. For example, the user cannot flip pages on an E-reader. Physical manipulation provides important tactile cues that help us build an internal representation of the spatial characteristics of an object. By feeling the difference in weight of a book on your left and right hand, one can keep track of the pages they read and the number of pages they still have left (Mangen et. al). In fact, many digital readers have reported difficulty in localizing a given part of information within the text (Rose et.al). However, an experimental study conducted by several research teams did not find a significant difference in comprehension accuracy between using Kindle vs. paper books (Kretzschmar et. al). Inspired by their research, Anne Mangnen and a team of researchers at the University of Stavanger refined existing methodology to investigate the lack of tactile cues on one’s reading comprehension.
Mangnen and her team selected a mystery story with a linear plot as the stimulus. Then they recruited 50 participants and divided them into two groups, one with a hardcopy of the story and the other with Kindle. The groups were created based on their demographic information and reading habits, such that both groups are of approximately the same age, reading frequency and E-reader familiarity. Unlike previous studies, the team changed the layout of Kindle such that it is identical to those of the physical copy, to avoid visual discrepancies as a potential confound. In addition, they removed page numbers from both the book and Kindle, which isolate the impact of tactile cues on reading comprehension. Participants on average spent an hour reading it, which is much longer than existing studies and gave more room for physical manipulation.
After reading the story, participants took a reading comprehension test that evaluated five aspects of their reading: emotional engagement, content recall, word/sentence recognition, reading time, and temporality. There was no significant group difference between the first four categories. Kindle users performed just as well as those who read physical books in recalling facts about the books and recognizing whether certain words or passages occurred in the story. However, Kindle users performed significantly worse than those with a physical copy at plot reconstruction and had lower accuracy at ranking events by temporal order. Mangnen and her team speculate that spatial representation of the text that readers with physical copies gained from tactile cues have better informed them of temporality. Furthermore, in linear narrative, events that occurred earlier often are the causes of later events. Inferior ordering of events could have negatively affected readers’ mental construction of casuality, which could result in poorer “big-picture” understanding (Mangnen et.al).
The study demonstrates that the lack of tactile feedback has decreased the reader’s comprehension of temporality and causality in linear narrative. It would be interesting to extend the research further on non-linear narrative. Would the search bar in Kindle help its users to rewind the plot easier, which would allow them to better establish causality than readers with physical copies? Future research can also robustify current results by investigating MRI scans across groups and see if participants with the physical copy of the story have higher activation in the dorsal stream, which is the “where” pathway of perception.
Mangen, A., Olivier, G., & Velay, J. L. (2019). Comparing Comprehension of a Long Text Read in Print Book and on Kindle: Where in the Text and When in the Story? Frontiers in Psychology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00038
Rose, E. (2011). The phenomenology of on-screen reading: University students’ lived experience of digitised text. British Journal of Educational Technology, 42(3), 515–526. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.01043.x
Kretzschmar, F., Pleimling, D., Hosemann, J., Füssel, S., Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, I., & Schlesewsky, M. (2013). Subjective Impressions Do Not Mirror Online Reading Effort: Concurrent EEG-Eyetracking Evidence from the Reading of Books and Digital Media. PLoS ONE, 8(2), e56178. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0056178