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Ask A REL Response

June 2019


What research has been conducted that compares achievement outcomes in literacy proficiency of students who were instructed with traditional paper-based instructional materials versus digital, or online, programs and instructional materials?


Following an established REL Southeast research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles that compares achievement outcomes in literacy proficiency of students who were instructed with traditional paper-based instructional materials versus digital, or online, programs and instructional materials. We focused on identifying resources that specifically that compares achievement outcomes in literacy proficiency of students who were instructed with traditional paper-based instructional materials versus digital, or online, programs and instructional materials. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. These references are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Also, we searched the references in the response from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist."

Research References

  1. Ciampa, K. (2012). Reading in the digital age: Using electronic books as a teaching tool for beginning readers. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 38(2).
    From the abstract: "Beginning readers' motivation to read and the texts they choose to read impact on their literacy achievement and willingness to engage with reading activities in the primary years of schooling. This study investigated the eBook reading experiences of eight grade 1 students. Eight students were given ten 25-minute sessions with the software programs over 15 weeks. Qualitative data were collected from students, teachers, and parents through questionnaires, interviews, observations and field notes. The results suggest the promise of electronic books in enhancing the reading motivation of beginning readers. (Contains 2 figures.)"
  2. Colwell, J., & Hutchison, A. C. (2015). Supporting teachers in integrating digital technology into language arts instruction to promote literacy. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 31(2), 56-63.
    From the abstract: "A systematic review of relevant literature was conducted to provide a source of information and practical guidelines for teachers and teacher educators to consider instructional methods for using digital tools in elementary language arts classrooms to promote literacy. Focal studies are highlighted to provide rich descriptions of practical uses and considerations of integrating digital tools into literacy instruction. The following nine digital tools are discussed to provide methods, affordances, and potential obstacles to their use: (a) wikis, (b) digital video production tools, (c) blog/online threaded discussion, (d) iPad apps, (e) digital games, (f) Kindle e-reader, (g) podcasts, (h) digital cartoon creator, and (i) e-mail. Barriers from the research for each tool are also discussed to provide a comprehensive resource for teachers and teacher educators."
  3. Korat, O., & Segal-Drori, O. (2016). E-book and printed book reading in different contexts as emergent literacy facilitator. Early Education and Development, 27(4), 532-550.
    From the abstract: "Research Findings: We present 3 studies that focused on preschoolers' electronic book (e-book) reading in different contexts aimed at supporting children's early literacy. In Study 1 we researched the impact of children's age and number of independent readings on phonological awareness and word reading. We found that all age groups benefited from e-book reading, and 5 readings benefited most skills better than 3. In Study 2 we investigated (a) parents' behavior during joint e-book reading with their children compared to joint printed book reading and (b) parental mediation in joint reading of a considerate e-book compared to joint reading of an inconsiderate e-book. The joint printed book reading yielded more expanding talk than the joint e-book reading, and reading the considerate e-book yielded higher expanding talk than reading the inconsiderate e-book. In Study 3 we compared adult support in joint e-book reading to joint printed book reading and compared both readings to children's independent e-book reading. Reading the e-book with adult support assisted children in progressing in phonological awareness and word reading compared to other group reading. Practice or Policy: Well-designed e-books may serve as good tools to support children's early literacy, and when parents or educators read them with children, children's progress is enhanced. We recommend that these findings be taken into account by e-book designers, policymakers, teachers, and parents."
  4. Lee, S. H. (2017). Learning vocabulary through e-book reading of young children with various reading abilities. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 30(7), 1595-1616.
    From the abstract: "Previous studies revealed that young children learn novel word meanings by simply reading and listening to a printed book. In today's classroom, many children's e-books provide audio narration support so young readers can simply listen to the e-books. The focus of the present study is to examine the effect of e-book reading with audio narration support on the novel vocabulary learning of first grade students with advanced, average, and poor reading abilities. The effect of adding teacher's word explanation on novel word learning was also examined. By employing a within-subject design, students read an e-book that contained ten explained words and another e-book containing ten unexplained words. Their performances were compared to ten unexposed control words. As a whole group, results indicated that teacher's word explanation resulted in greater word learning compared to when word explanation was not provided. However, e-book reading conditions without teacher's word explanation did not lead to incidental word learning from the e-book context compared to the unexposed control words. When the students were divided into subgroups based on their reading abilities, readers with higher reading abilities learned more word meanings from e-book with teacher's word explanation. However, three subgroups of readers showed different patterns of word learning across the e-book with and without word explanation and the control conditions. Educational implications of using e-books for students with different reading abilities and limitations are discussed."
  5. Nielen, T. M. J., Smith, G. G., Sikkema-de Jong, M. T., Drobisz, J van Horne, B., & Bus, A. G. (2018). Digital guidance for susceptible readers: Effects on fifth graders' reading motivation and incidental vocabulary learning. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 56(1), 48-73.
    From the abstract: "In this digital era, a fundamental challenge is to design digital reading materials in such a way that they improve children's reading skills. Since reading books is challenging for many fifth graders--particularly for those genetically susceptible to attention problems--the researchers hypothesized that guidance from a digital Pedagogical Agent (PA) could improve students' reading motivation and incidental vocabulary learning. Using a sample of 147 fifth-grade students, the researchers carried out a randomized control trial with three groups of students reading: (a) hardcopy (print) books, (b) digital books, and (c) digital books with a PA. For students with a genetic predisposition to attention problems, carriers of the DRD4 seven-repeat allele, the PA supported their incidental vocabulary learning. For noncarriers, there were no effects of the digital reading materials or the PA."
  6. Neumann, M. M., Finger, G., & Neumann, D. L. (2017). A conceptual framework for emergent digital literacy. Early Childhood Education Journal, 45(4), 471-479.
    From the abstract: "As we progress in the 21st century, children learn to become proficient readers and writers of both digital and non-digital texts. Knowledge, skills, and understandings of literacy emerge through sociocultural interactions with non-digital tools (e.g., paper-printed books) and digital tools (e.g., touch screen tablets). However, debate is ongoing over the role that digital experiences play in emergent literacy development. Researchers have voiced the need to conceptualise a common framework for literacy development that considers the emergence of digital literacy skills alongside conventional literacy skills and how these skills might interact during development. This is particularly important in light of the increasing use of digital texts used by young children, such as E-books and digital games. Therefore, this paper proposes a framework that might guide research and practice by examining the relationships between emergent literacy skills, emergent digital literacy skills, and proficiency in reading and writing."
  7. Wright, S., Fugett, A., & Caputa, F. (2013). Using e-readers and internet resources to support comprehension. Educational Technology & Society, 16(1), 367-379.
    From the abstract: "The advancements of technology have led to the use of electronic reading systems for digital text. Research indicates similarities and differences in reading performance and comprehension in digital formats compared to paper formats. This study compared vocabulary understanding and reading comprehension scores from two reading sources (electronic story book and paper-based book). This study also evaluated the use of reading resources available (dictionary, thesaurus, word pronunciation) between the two reading methods. An AB experimental design consisting of three females currently enrolled in the second grade, between the ages 7 years 0 months to 8 years 11 months without an identified disability, was conducted between two reading methods (paper versus electronic book source) with the participants serving as their own control in both conditions. The results of this study conclude that although vocabulary and reading comprehension is consistent between the two reading methods, students are more likely to utilize reading resources when engaged with digital text. This article supports that comprehension of written materials remains unchanged for students regardless of presentation method (print versus digital). It also provides evidence that supports students who are typically developing demonstrate more willing to utilize reading resources when technological advancements are integrated into reading practices. Further research is needed in order to determine if this trend is consistent for children with a diagnosed receptive language or reading disorder."


Keywords and Search Strings
The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Literacy instruction, traditional compared to online, student achievement
  • Teaching reading face-to-face, online, or digitally
  • Traditional compared to online literacy instruction
  • Online versus face-to-face literacy instructional materials

Databases and Resources
We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published for last 15 years, from 2003 to present, were include in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types - randomized control trials,, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc. (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Southeast Region (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast at Florida State University. This memorandum was prepared by REL Southeast under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0011, administered by Florida State University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.