Reading on screens vs paper

In another life, before law school, I taught first grade. My six-year-old students showed up in their new clothes the first day of class fully expecting to go home able to read. To satisfy this expectation, I taught them a simple sentence and, in those days, it was probably "See Spot run." They were given a paper copy complete with picture, painstakingly colored with their new crayons, to take home and read to their parents.

They left that first day tired from the strain of being at school all day, but thrilled that they had tangible evidence of their reading ability. And, in their minds, it was a done deal. They could now read.

But what if, instead of a paper to clutch in their hands or stuff in the new lunch box along with the scraps of lunch they were too excited to eat, they had an e-reader with the sentence and picture? Would the thrill be the same?

Researchers are saying maybe not. According to a recent article in the Scientific American by Ferris Jabr, there have been over 100 published studies on screen reading with varying results. While older studies concluded that screen reading is slower, less accurate and less comprehensive, more recent studies found few significant differences.

The first problem, according to the studies, is the loss of the feeling of where you are in the story. With screens there is a beginning and an end, but the scroll of the finger doesn't tell readers how far they have traveled. The second problem is a sense of control over paper text. The reader can highlight parts, write notes in the margin, or return to a previous page for more in depth reading. The text on the screen is an ephemeral image--it appears and disappears with a touch of the finger.

And, third, there is the problem of comprehension. Researchers suggest that because screen based reading is more mentally taxing than reading on paper, people comprehend less. Also screen readers take shortcuts, they spend more time scanning and browsing and will usually only read a document once.

What does this mean for the lawyer writing briefs, client communications or marketing materials? A brief meant to present a winning argument or a client communication may require careful, attentive reading while the marketing materials can be scanned.

Will readers print out the materials that need careful review, such as complicated contract questions or the Internal Revenue Code and thus defeat the paperless concept? Does the push for e-filing need adjustment? Or will the technology gurus come up with a solution?

Those are the questions. I suspect that time, experience, and, yes, technology will provide the answers.

To read the article: The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens, please visit: (http://www/

Published: Fri, Jun 21, 2013