Goodwin, A. P., Cho, S. J., Reynolds, D., Brady, K., & Salas, J. (2020). Digital versus paper reading processes and links to comprehension for middle school students . American Educational Research Journal , 57 (4), 1837–1867.

Journal Article

Goodwin, A. P., Cho, S. J., Reynolds, D., Brady, K., & Salas, J. (2020). Digital versus paper reading processes and links to comprehension for middle school students. American Educational Research Journal, 57(4), 1837–1867.


Dictionary/glossary; Electronic administration; Elementary; Highlighting by student; Middle school; Multiple accommodations; Multiple ages; No disability; Reading; U.S. context




Paper-and-pencil and computer-based (touchscreen) test formats were compared. "Students had access when reading on paper to highlighters, pens, and sticky notes and when reading digitally to digital highlighting, annotating, and dictionaries" (p. 1846).


A population of 371 students in grades 5 to 8 in three schools in the Southeast (U.S.), including three English learners and some small number of special education students, provided the group mean scores that were compared. However, individual and subset scores from students with and without disabilities were not compared, so no differentiation was reported between these population subgroups. Additional demographic details were also reported, including sex, race/ethnicity, and languages other than English spoken at home.

Dependent Variable

A reading passage and reading comprehension questions from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was used; additional test items seeking multiple-choice, true/false, and open responses were designed by study authors who were content specialists. The passage was split into two segments of differing lengths so that the factor of passage length and complexity could also be examined. Participants' testing behaviors were observed and videos were captured, and their uses of paper and digital highlighting, annotations, and dictionaries were recorded. Participants were screened with a pre-test of previous content knowledge and Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) Reading subtest, showing no group differences.


Student participants in grades 5–8 with no identified disabilities tended to use highlighting differently between paper and digital reading formats, and the relative benefits of highlighting for comprehension performance were different. Specifically, participants highlighted almost 2.5 times more frequently on paper than when using a digital highlighting tool; however, the higher quantity of paper highlights was negatively correlated to student performance. When considering students' preferences between reading paper or digital formats, or both, there were no links of preferred formats and frequency of using paper or digital highlighting. Higher reading comprehension performance was linked to digital highlighting, but no relationship was shown between comprehension and use of these tools: paper highlighting, digital highlighting, and online dictionary. The researchers suggested that highlighting can support active engagement with the text and constructive processing of the content. Limitations of the study were reported, and future research directions were suggested.