School & District Management

A Look at 4th and 5th Grade Students’ Digital Literacy Skills

By Liana Loewus — May 24, 2016 4 min read
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A survey of how 4th and 5th grade students read online finds that girls significantly outperform boys on a test of digital skills such as searching for and communicating information. That’s despite the fact that boys seem to engage in more digital activities than girls, and that they have more confidence in their online skills than girls do.

The survey also found, in contrast to previous research, that students are doing more of their digital activities in school than out of school.

About 1,300 students from five schools in a suburban school district took the survey in the fall of 2014. According to the researchers, the district was chosen because it had a 1-to-1 laptop program, which, in this case, meant all students had access to Chromebooks both in and out of school. The unnamed district was located in the Midwest and made up of largely white and middle-class students.

As the researchers note, many previous studies on students’ technology use have focused on teenagers. This study looked only at 4th and 5th graders.

Students answered questions designed to measure their ability to do an Internet search, evaluate sources, and communicate online, among other skills. Of a possible composite score of 27, the average digital skills score for all students was 13.61. “This score indicates that the students in this sample are moderately skilled at navigating, reading, and writing online,” says the report, “What Are Preadolescent Readers Doing Online?,” which was recently published in the International Literacy Association’s Reading Research Quarterly.

When viewed by gender, girls scored an average of 14.43, and boys scored an average of 12.69.

“I was actually somewhat surprised because previous studies done with older students have shown that females perceive themselves as less skilled but there’s no difference [in their skills,]” Amy Hutchinson, an associate professor at Iowa State University and one of the lead researchers, said in an interview. “But in this case, females actually scored significantly higher than males, but in reports asking how they felt about their skills, males perceived themselves as more skilled.”

Other research has also shown that boys have more confidence in their abilities than girls, in particular when it comes to technology.

Boys also reported engaging in online activities more often than girls, both in school and out of school.

Hutchinson said it’s not quite clear why girls performed better than boys on digital literacy skills, but it may be in part because girls tend to have stronger print-based literacy skills than boys. “We do know that females are often higher achievers in reading, which transfers into this,” she said. “If you already are strong in traditional literacy skills, you have much more to build on.”

Another possible explanation, she said, is that girls are more motivated to do online reading because they’ve been successful with print-based reading.

A recent national test on technology literacy (and engineering) also found that girls outperformed boys.

Both boys and girls reported that using the Internet is more difficult than reading a print book, though they preferred the Internet.

In Class vs. at Home

The survey also showed that 4th and 5th graders are doing the bulk of their digital activities in the classroom rather than at home.

“The research we have from previous studies, including my own, show students doing more outside school than in school,” said Hutchinson. The difference in these findings could be because the students being studied in this case are younger (and using the Internet less overall) or because teachers are using more technology in the classroom, she said. “It’s hard to know the cause.”

The kinds of activities students reported doing in school were more about consuming information than creating it. “For example, the most frequent in-school activities were searching for information online, creating documents, watching videos online, submitting work online, and using reference websites,” the report says. Students were not creating videos or other media very often in school. (Though they weren’t doing that much out of school either.)

The findings speak to how important it is for teachers to do direct instruction on digital skills, rather than assuming students are “digital natives,” Hutchinson said. “Teachers have a tremendous responsibility in this area already, but knowing this is the primary place [students] are doing this activity reinforces the idea that teachers need to think carefully about how they introduce these skills.”

Hutchinson also offered the caveat that the findings should be viewed in context and are not likely generalizable to all districts. “This could look very different if done in a different area of the country or in a district with less technology available in classrooms,” she said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.