The ins and outs of e-readers

The Kindle is an e-reader that replicates the experience of reading a paperback novel, being of that size, shape and heft. On it, one flips a page by swiping the corner. It uses a technology which imitates how ink looks on printed paper. On most tablets and smartphones, the free Kindle app gives about the same experience.

Do such devices adversely affect certain aspects of reading? A small Norwegian study presented at a conference in Italy earlier this year claimed that while there was no difference in "empathy, transportation and immersion" in reading novels on e-readers compared to print, those using e-readers could not recall the narrative sequence as accurately.

A National Central University of Taiwan study published in Computers and Education last year had also shown this to be so.

It found that users couldn't construct an effective mind map because reading on screen lacked "contextual information cues". That is, the reader could not tell how far along in the story he was as he could not picture in his mind how many pages were left.

When reading a physical book, one usually has a mental image of where a certain piece of information might be located in it - near the start, in the middle or nearer the end - whereas an e-book offers no such spatial landmarks.

With physical books, you read the first page, flip it over so it lands on the cover on the left which, as a pile, grows thicker and thicker as you proceed even as the right side of the book becomes progressively thinner.

In this manner, the real book offers the mind a spatial navigation mechanism for engagement, which the e-book lacks.

If recall of narrative sequence suffers when reading digital novels for leisure, is there a similar handicap when reading digital versions of academic works presenting more complex knowledge?

If the lack of navigational cues with digital texts impedes learning in this context also, could it be overcome somehow?

The same Taiwanese researchers published another study in Educational Technology & Society this year.

It showed that a mind map of sorts that they had integrated into the digital text in which students could make notes significantly improved the way students navigated digital texts of an academic nature.

The mind map helped students create and organise their notes, summarising complex content of that nature. It could be included in e- textbook software in future.

Recall of details may not be too important these days. In our look-it-up culture, the ability to Google on mobile platforms means there is much less of a premium to the recall of facts and figures or narratives and histories than before. Such details can be retrieved from the Internet instantaneously, so learning should focus on developing critical and creative thinking skills rather than recall.

If so, any argument that an e-reader is not as good as the real book because recall with it is not as good may be too narrow. It wrongly focuses on the medium or platform.

Instead, other factors that have an impact on the reading of e-books must be considered, like who does it and how.

In a Kansas State University study published in Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy last year, young adults who had not used e- readers before read an assigned novel on one over three weeks.

All liked the e-reader's features such as note-taking, highlighting and search tools, voice-over narration, dictionaries, Internet access, customisable fonts, margins, colour or brightness of the page's appearance.

About a third reported that using the e-reader neither impeded nor enhanced their reading comprehension.

But two-thirds said they preferred the hard copy because they simply did not like having a screen. They missed the tactile experience of handling a real book, turning real pages, "hugging" the book to the chest or even smelling its pages. Many adults would rather do their leisure reading with print than digital.

When adults do choose to read digital, it is usually because of work or study needs. A Kent State University study just published in Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology found that adults read e-books more for work or school than for leisure. So there are certain functions which make adults read e-books out of need.

But while many adults could perhaps regard e-books as different from print, children may not.

A 2007 Kansas State University doctoral dissertation reported that, unlike adults, children didn't see reading real and e-books in either/or terms but rather as two equally nice things to do on their own or one after another.

Compared to adults, children focus much less on text and much more on pictures. Using the EyeLink headband - think of it as a primitive cousin of Google Glass - to record what children looked at when reading, a Canadian study published in Psychological Science in 2005 confirmed that most kids frequently focused on the illustrations in a book and only very infrequently on the text.

If this is so, can e-book technology be harnessed to help children with their reading comprehension and literacy development?

Earlier this year, Israeli researchers from Bar-Ilan University and Tel Aviv University published a study in Reading Research Quarterly showing that children learnt words best when an interesting video (moving visuals) accompanied the text compared to just text alone or even text accompanied by static visuals.

So e-books for children should exploit the medium's interactive features, incorporating animated dictionaries with voice-over explanations, say, to enhance their language development and comprehension of text.

But while e-reading concerns for children generally have to do with their literacy development, those for adults are mainly commercial in nature: It is for publishers to identify how adults define their informational needs and how to get them to adopt e-readers to satisfy those needs.

This article was first published on November 8, 2014.
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