E-book vs paper book: what is best for learning?

Student Life

E-book vs paper book: what is best for learning?

22 Jan, 2021

The sensory experience is a unique moment: leafing through, smelling, weighing a paper book is priceless. It is, but an e-book is more practical, and it can contain hundreds of texts. Okay, but you have to remember to recharge the battery, while the paper book doesn’t need it. Right, yet with the e-book it is possible to read even in the dark.

And so on, there are countless opinions in defense of one or the other side: e-book or paper book?

Ebook_paper_book_learning_reading_comprehension_San_Raffaele_University (5)

The first novel in digital format [“Riding the Bullet” by Stephen King, Ed.] dates back to about 20 years ago, and in recent years the use of digital texts, such as those of e-books, has continued to increase rapidly.

An ISTAT survey in 2018 indicated that 20.6% of Italian readers had read at least one e-book, and data from Idealo in 2020 indicate that 62.8% of Italians participating in their survey say they prefer the digital format to paper, with the highest number of purchases of this type coming from young people 25-34 years old.

What are the pros and cons of the two ways of reading? Are there any differences in understanding and learning processes? Let’s check this out together in this news.

Ebook_paper_book_learning_reading_comprehension_San_Raffaele_University (6)

Reading: 1-0 for the paper book (with some “buts”)

Review and meta-analysis of the literature agree that reading is globally better on paper than on the screen. For example, the levels of comprehension of the text are higher when the passage is on paper, and episodes of distraction from the reading task decrease.

The greater effectiveness of reading on paper also emerges from studies that have used the analysis of eye movements, which show that e-books are less legible and strain the reader more. On the other hand, there are no differences in the speed of reading, which is similar in the two modes.

Ebook_paper_book_learning_reading_comprehension_San_Raffaele_University (3)


The observed “advantage” for reading on paper seems to be effective in particular for informative texts, like most of those we study on; for narrative texts such as novels, however, no significant differences seem to emerge between the two modes of reading. An interesting fact is the one that highlights how this difference between modes has been decreasing over the years, suggesting that an important role is played by familiarity with the reading tool: the more I experience reading e-books, the better I can read and understand them.

Ebook_paper_book_learning_reading_comprehension_San_Raffaele_University (2)

The digital revenge

It should be emphasized that, beyond simple reading, having a document written in digital mode allows you to quickly carry out a series of operations that can support the understanding and study of what you are reading. Think of the possibility, common to most e-books, of being able to immediately know the meaning of an unknown word thanks to access to a vocabulary and/or digital translator.

This can be very useful especially when reading texts that are not in your native language. In addition, some digital texts allow immediate access to additional information, original sources, images, etc. via links, making the integration of the text with other useful information quick and easy.

Ebook_paper_book_learning_reading_comprehension_San_Raffaele_University (1)

Let us also consider that the digital text can be a very important and versatile compensatory tool for those who have difficulty reading, for sensory problems, for dyslexia or for other reasons. The digital text in fact allows the use of speech synthesis, which transforms the written text into oral text, or the ability to enlarge and change the writing font. These additional functions can make digital texts more usable.




Written by

Valentina Tobia
Valentina Tobia

Valentina is a psychologist, with a PhD in Experimental Psychology, Linguistics and Cognitive Neuroscience; since 2019 she has been a researcher at the UniSR Faculty of Psychology. She deals with learning processes in preschool and school age, both considering the typical development and in relation to specific learning difficulties and disorders. She also does research in the field of school well-being and the effects of stressors in the school context. She carries out clinical activities at the Development Psychopathology service of the San Raffaele Turro Hospital and collaborates with various schools as a school psychologist and trainer.

Visit the author's page

Sign up to our newsletter

Please fill in the form to be updated on our latest news and events