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Article  •  4 August 2022


Want more enjoyment and better reading? Put down the e-reader, data suggests

In the debate over e-readers versus paper books, scores from PISA 2018 suggest that good-old-fashioned books beat digitised modes of reading.

The debate over e-readers versus paper books is nothing new.

Since the first ink-based e-reader came out over 15 years ago, readers have had the same qualms with the medium that still ring true today. To quote a Forbes review from 2004, reading on an e-reader just ‘isn't anything like flipping through a paperback.’

Despite this reality, however, e-readers are nevertheless on the rise. The market for gadgets like Kindle, Kobo, Onyx etc. is forecast to grow to roughly 23.12 billion USD by 2026.

On the one hand, this is good news for readers worldwide. More people will have more access to more books. Forget waiting weeks for a book to be shipped from overseas. Say goodbye to that library waiting list. No matter where in the world you are, all you need is an internet connection and a device that can connect to it, and you could be reading in less time than it takes to skim this article.

Not only do e-readers bridge the gap of access to different books for readers, but they also allow book-lovers to collect more and carry that collection with them at all times – albeit in a digital form.

But while it might seem great on the surface, e-reading does have a dark side.

The most glaring disadvantage is access. While it might be handy to keep your entire library in your carry-on, the benefits offered by e-readers are strictly limited to those with access to such devices in the first place. Not only that, but new research suggests that reading on a device, as opposed to paper, makes for a less enjoyable experience.

Most worrying, however, is the fact that readers who opt for the digital option are worse at reading altogether.

Results from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018 show that ‘students who reported reading paper books or balance their reading time between paper and digital tend to achieve higher scores in reading than students who reported reading books on digital devices.’

Findings from PISA 2018 comparing paper books to e-readers

If you're unfamiliar with PISA, it is an international study that was started by the OECD in 1997. The assessment now covers over 80 countries and measures the abilities of 15-year-olds in reading, maths, science, and real-world challenges. Not all students are assessed, as participation is voluntary. In 2018, 14,273 Australian students took part.

A recently-published paper by PISA dives into the 2018 results, exploring the relationship between screens, reading, access, and education. 

In addition to finding that paper book readers have better comprehension and enjoy reading more, the results also showed a correlation between socio-economic status and the number of books at home. Unsurprisingly, children from advantaged households typically had more paper books at home than their disadvantaged classmates. What’s more, the students who had more exposure to paper books not only read more paper books, but they preferred reading them over digital books.

Therefore, children with more books at home not only read more – they also found it more enjoyable and scored higher in the reading portion of the assessment.

Key takeaways

  • E-readers are advantageous when it comes to convenience, access and portability.
  • Like paper books, e-readers are still only beneficial for those who have access to them and the means by which to operate them.
  • E-books are increasingly popular, with a projected market of 23.12 billion USD by 2026.
  • Disadvantaged students typically have fewer paper books at home than advantaged students.
  • Students with more paper books at home opt for paper books more often.
  • Reading paper books, as opposed to reading on a device, is associated with greater enjoyment and higher reading scores.

While e-readers certainly have their advantages, it is nevertheless crucial that all students have access to paper books. The PISA 2018 scores affirm the need for public libraries and paper books at school, as well as the encouragement of children to reach for paper books over e-readers.

Though the test scores only reflect a small demographic, the findings are worth consideration for us all. The next time you reach for your Kindle, why not consider a paper book instead? 

Perhaps you will find the experience more enjoyable or get more value out of your reading time.


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