Why Print Textbooks

5 Learning, Literacy, Accessibility

Acorn. Some students require a printed textbook because of their learning style, literacy level, or accessibility needs.

Chapter table of contents

Learning style

Learning English


Learning is a complex process that involves acquisition of information through experience, instruction, and study. According to Gagné and Glaser, how well a student learns depends on several factors, such as working memory and academic ability.[1] Learning by reading the printed or digital page taps into even more competencies, including vocabulary, prior subject knowledge, and the speed — and comprehension level — at which one reads.[2] [3]

Some research suggests that choosing to read digital versus physical text can sacrifice a student’s depth of knowledge because of practices characteristic when using a screen: faster reading and extensive scrolling.[4] [5] Adding these effects to the learning challenges experienced by certain students makes the printed page a better choice — or even a necessity — for some.

Learning style

Many faculty and staff have observed that content format influences how well some of their students learn. Jennifer Kirkey, Chair of the Physics Department at Douglas College in British Columbia, says that she has “a small, but significant, number of students for whom print is essential due to problems with reading on the screen.”

Jennifer Stacey, Course Materials Manager for the University of British Columbia Bookstore, points out that learning differences mean that various formats should be made available for students in order to increase accessibility, comprehension, and success.

“Students should be able to access materials that support needs or preferences for how they best learn,” she says, “and, for some students, that means having a print option available.”

Learning English

Adult Basic Education

Shantel Ivits, Department Head of Basic Education at Vancouver Community College, says that having textbooks available in print ensures a level playing field for students who do not own the technology or possess the computer literacy skills to access textbooks online.

“For adult literacy learners who are already working hard to learn to decode text,” explains Ivits, “the online interface adds an extra layer of intimidation and challenge. Printed texts remove this barrier and help make literacy learning a more comfortable experience.”

See the Adult Basic Education options in the B.C. Open Collection.

English language learning and foreign language learning

Learning another language is difficult for most people. In English-speaking countries, like Canada and the United States, we refer to these programs as ELL (English language learning), ESL (English as a second language), and EFL (English as a foreign language). A broader term given to language learning is FLL (foreign language learning). Regardless of the label, the form in which these learning materials are provided can affect the road to fluency.

At the Acsenda School of Management in Vancouver, where over 80 per cent of students come from outside Canada, Ali de Haan, Manager of Library and Instructional Services, says that many international students report feeling more comfortable with a printed book.[6]

“A common bit of feedback I’ve heard,” says Ali, “is that it is easier to understand English in print, and they feel like they can take their time with it. Also, I think there is a comfort factor with print, as many of them haven’t used an eBook in their studies before.”

This approach can also be applied to students who are native English speakers and learning a foreign language, such as French or Mandarin. In a 2019 paper from Indonesia, Pardede reviewed literature on reading comprehension among ELL students who were using digital text. He reported that, compared to the printed page, online reading requires a complex set of strategies, such as scrolling, navigating, decision making, and visual processing. These demands may result in lower comprehension scores for some students.[7]


Finally, for some students, online resources present accessibility problems. Susan Fleming, Educational Technologist at College of the Rockies in Cranbrook, B.C., says she has worked with students who have difficulty reading from a screen for more than a couple of minutes due to visual impairments, visual processing problems (e.g., dyslexia), and visual focusing issues. More specific conditions that can cause problems, says Fleming, include Meares-Irlen Syndrome, which can result in chronic dizziness that can trigger psychiatric issues, and Computer Vision Syndrome.[8]

For more information, see the Accessibility Toolkit – 2nd Edition.

Media Attributions

  1. Robert M. Gagné and Robert Glaser, “Foundations in Learning Research,” in Instructional Technology: Foundations, ed. Robert M. Gagné (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1987), 49–83.
  2. Peter Afflerbach, ed., Handbook of Individual Differences in Reading: Reader, Text, and Context (New York: Routledge, 2015).
  3. Steven G. Luke, John M. Henderson, and Fernanda Ferreira, “Children’s Eye-Movements During Reading Reflect the Quality of Lexical Representations: An Individual Differences Approach,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 41, no. 6 (November 2015): 1675–83, https://doi.org/10.1037/xlm0000133.
  4. Wolfgang Lenhard, Ulrich Schroeders, and Alexandra Lenhard, “Equivalence of Screen Versus Print Reading Comprehension Depends on Task Complexity and Proficiency,” Discourse Processes 54, no. 5–6 (2017): 427–45, https://doi.org/10.1080/0163853X.2017.1319653.
  5. Maria Giulia Cataldo and Jane Oakhill, “Why Are Poor Comprehenders Inefficient Searchers? An Investigation into the Effects of Text Representation and Spatial Memory on the Ability to Locate Information in Text,” Journal of Educational Psychology 92, no. 4 (2000): 791–799, https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.92.4.791.
  6. “Admissions,” Acsenda School of Management, accessed March 25, 2020, https://www.acsenda.com/admissions-for-international-business-programs/.
  7. Parlindungan Pardede, “Print vs Digital Reading Comprehension in EFL,” Journal of English Teaching 5, no. 2 (2019), https://doi.org/10.33541/jet.v5i2.1059.
  8. American Osteopathic Association, “Chronic Dizziness Can Result from, or Trigger, Psychiatric Disorders: Research Notes Psychiatric Disorders Present in 15 Percent of Patients with Chronic Dizziness,” ScienceDaily, April 30, 2018, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/04/180430102506.htm.


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