Print Out Your Kid’s Nonfiction eBooks

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I don’t read a lot of ebooks with my kid, but I can certainly appreciate the convenience of them. They’re fantastic for travel (take this from someone who just helped my daughter lug a backpack full of giant activity books onto an airplane). They can also cost less per title than print versions and may include bonus features such as built-in dictionaries, read-along functions and updates on evolving topics such as the planetary status of Pluto. In schools, students are quickly moving toward a paperless future—textbook publishing company Pearson recently announced it is going “digital-first,” abandoning its traditional print model. As a parent concerned about the “decline by nine” reading trend, I’m all for encouraging children to read in any form—and if it’s on a screen, so be it.

Still, if your kid really needs to absorb a particular chunk of material, it’s probably best to print it out.

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When Virginia Clinton, an assistant professor of education at the University of North Dakota, took a deep dive into 33 high-quality laboratory studies, most of them showed that students of all ages tend to absorb more when they read on paper. This applies only to nonfiction informative texts. Although the benefit for reading on the printed page was small, as The Hechinger Report explains, Clinton’s analysis is now “at least the third study to synthesize reputable research on reading comprehension in the digital age and find that paper is better.”

It’s not entirely clear why paper seems to reign when it comes to reading comprehension. Digital distraction is an obvious answer—we know that even as adults, open tabs and constant notifications are catnip for our brains. However, in these laboratory studies, internet browsing or app checking was not allowed. Speed isn’t to blame either, as Clinton “didn’t find any difference in reading time between the two formats.” One of her suspicions is that when people read on screens, they overestimate their ability to comprehend the material. It makes sense: When we think we already understand something, we stop putting in as much effort.

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At times when I need to fully understand what I’m reading, I’ll often print the pages out, grab a pen to take notes in the margins and plop myself far away from my screens. I think this could be helpful for kids who might be having trouble comprehending certain nonfiction material, whether it’s something from their world history class or a how-to guide on planning a trip to outer space. In printing out pages from ebooks, you’re usually limited to a certain percentage of the entire work, due to digital rights management (DRM) restrictions. Typically, to find out how many pages you can print or download from an ebook, you can click the “print” or “download” option. Or simply buy hard copies of your kid’s most important books.

With any book, on paper or on a screen, you can help your child retain information by having them predict what they’re going to read, asking them to teach you the material and showing them how to trade passive learning tasks for active ones. This will help them improve their reading comprehension skills, even in the future when they may just ask, “What’s a printer?”

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