In the month of International Literacy Day, we look at the benefits of educating with print.
As students of all ages return to classrooms and lecture halls up and down the country, the debate over whether print or digital is better for education has grown. Over the past decade, many schools, colleges and universities have increased the amount of online content for their students, a move accelerated by the pandemic. But with more and more studies showing that print is better for comprehension and retention, many schools, teachers and students are showing a clear preference for pen and paper.
This preference was highlighted recently by the decision of Sweden’s Schools Minister to move children away from tablets and devices in the classroom to reading print books and handwriting using pen and paper. The Swedish government plans to go further and to completely end digital learning for children under the age of six.
In a statement on the country’s earlier national digitalisation strategy, Sweden’s Karolinska Institute said: “There’s clear scientific evidence that digital tools impair rather than enhance student learning. We believe the focus should return to acquiring knowledge through printed text books and teacher expertise, rather than acquiring knowledge primarily from freely available digital sources that have not been vetted for accuracy.”
The Case For Paper-Based Learning
This paper-positive move by the Swedish government has a huge body of research behind it. In 2018, researchers in Israel and Spain examined 54 studies involving more than 171,000 readers that compared reading from digital text and printed text. They found that comprehension was better overall when people read printed as opposed to digital texts.1
Similarly, a study involving millions of high school students in the 36 countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that those who use computers heavily at school “do a lot worse in most learning outcomes”. The same study also revealed that fourth-grade students (9-10 years) “who used tablets in all or almost all their classes had, on average, reading scores 14 points lower than those who never used them – a differential equivalent to an entire grade level”.2
Writing on paper rather than typing on a keyboard has also been proved to produce better results. A 2014 study compared the outcome of students taking lecture notes by hand with those who took notes on a laptop. When it came to testing the students on their knowledge of the information, they were allowed to review their notes for 10 minutes before the test; “those who took longhand notes performed better on both factual and conceptual questions”.3
International Literacy Day
While the debate over print vs digital continues, millions of young people simply don’t have the choice of which media they use to learn with, and every year, International Literacy Day highlights the importance of literacy and learning. Taking place in September every day since its launch in 1967, the theme of this year’s International Literacy Day is ‘Promoting literacy for a world in transition: Building the foundation for sustainable and peaceful societies’, which places a focus on achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education and lifelong learning.
Around the world, literacy is an ongoing problem. Over 244 million 6-18 year-olds are not enrolled in school4, while 763 million young people and adults aged over the age of 15 lack basic literacy skills.5 International Literacy Day aims to improve those figures, underlining its importance in building more inclusive, peaceful and sustainable societies through a conference in Paris alongside a literary award ceremony and a series of local events around the world.
“If literacy is a victory for humanity, it is a fragile one,” said Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO. “There is always the possibility of a relapse. Let this International Literacy Day be a reminder of this and an opportunity to honour all those who are dedicated to making universal literacy a reality, not just a goal.”
For more information on International Literacy Day, go to www.unesco.org/en/articles/international-literacy-day-2023