Equity & Diversity

Growth of Online Reading Fuels New Achievement Gap, Researchers Say

By Benjamin Herold — September 30, 2014 6 min read
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Long a cause for alarm, the gap in reading skills between poor students and their more affluent peers is well-established and worsening.

Now, there’s more bad news: Educators and researchers may be underestimating the real magnitude of the reading achievement gap because they have not adequately accounted for the different skills that are required to successfully read online, as opposed to in print.

In a new study, researcher Donald Leu of the University of Connecticut, in Storrs, and his team found “a large and significant achievement gap, based on income inequality, in an important new area for learning—the ability to read on the Internet to learn information,” according to a release from the university.

Titled “The New Literacies of Online Research and Comprehension: Rethinking the Reading Achievement Gap,” the complete study looked at 7th graders from two Connecticut school districts. It is set to published January in the academic journal Reading Research Quarterly.

Leu’s findings, while limited to a small sample that did not include students whose families are at or below the poverty line, are significant, both statistically and from a policy perspective.

Both upper- and lower-middle income students generally do a poor job of reading to locate online information, critically evaluating and synthesizing that information, and communicating online, the study found. Across the board, the students were particularly bad at gauging the reliability of scientific information on a Web page and writing to communicate information via an email message and classroom wiki.

And the gap between students from different income groups, Leu found, is large: About a year’s worth of learning during the middle school years.

In an age where the Internet is an increasingly essential daily tool for finding answers, seeking understanding, and communicating, that spells big trouble.

Leu and his fellow researchers didn’t attempt to identify a cause for the online-reading gap. They did use statistical and other research methods to rule out pre-existing differences in how well students read in offline or traditional settings, as well as the amount of prior knowledge students brought to the subjects covered in the research study.

In their paper, they speculate that the online reading achievement gap could derive in large part from unequal expectations for how the Internet should be used in school. In the study, students in the lower-middle income category (who came from families with a median income of $58,981) were six times as likely as students from the upper-income category (median family income of $119,228) to report that they were never required to use the Internet while at school.

As Education Week reported last May, a new body of research is emerging that points to the ways in which the rise of digital reading, fueled in schools by the sudden, massive influx of digital devices and software—is posing new challenges (and opportunities) for teachers, students and ed-tech vendors.

Student comprehension when reading on screen in a traditional manner—a fixed test, with a clear beginning and end—is one issue.

According to Leu, students’ ability to read in a new, Internet-based manner—searching among limitless text, in order to answer a particular question or solve a particular problem—is another big issue.

All of it has potentially huge implications for schools. I caught up with Leu on the phone this week to hear more about what he thinks the new research means for people in the field.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

What do you want Education Week’s audience to understand about your new research?

The biggest challenge I have when I try to explain the work that we do is that most people assume that offline and online reading are the same.

There is overlap. Sounding out words, vocabulary knowledge, those apply online or offline.

But when it comes to trying to locate information [online], there are different tools and skills that are required. And reading online is almost all information, whereas reading offline often means reading stories or narratives. And online reading almost always involves trying to solve a question or problem you’ve got. Offline, we still read just for pleasure.

Talking to principals and teachers, the classical example is the new assessments delivered by computer. Principals and superintendents say, “Well, we are measuring [online reading].” Really, the kids are just doing offline reading that has been put on a computer.

What do you think all this means for teachers?

Kids are reading both online and offline, and we have to account for both components, because the achievement gap is even greater than we thought it was.

[The skills associated with online reading and comprehension] are not generally being taught in schools. Some teachers are doing some great things, don’t get me wrong. But this is certainly not a priority in schools or for the common core, which doesn’t even use the words “online” or “Internet” in the reading standards. And it’s generally not a priority in our instructional approach, where reading programs are based largely on skills for offline reading. You almost never see [teaching of the] reading skill of evaluating the reliability of a web source, and yet that is fundamentally important. You almost never see students being taught how to locate information online or use search engine strategies.

What would a successful instructional program in online reading look like in your opinion?

The two weakest areas we regularly find are in the areas of evaluating reliability of online information and communication. Our kids are very weak in those areas. It’s horrific.

We need to regularly and consistently show students how to use three critical skills: Being able to identity the author of information. Being able to evaluate the expertise of that author. And being able to evaluate the point of view that’s being expressed on a web page. The first two are almost never taught. The third tends to be taught, but with offline information, in the form of narratives.

When it comes to communication, some schools doing wonderful work in creating more student email accounts and wiki access and getting teachers using blogs within school. But the vast majority don’t. Students need to become well-versed in communicating in multiple modalities.

How do you think schools can help close the income gaps you found?

We could only speculate about that. But based on what we see, the most economically challenged schools are under greater pressure to raise test scores. In wealthier districts, there is certainly pressure, but there are many more degrees of freedom to explore things, and as a result, there is better integration of the Internet into the classroom. In economically challenged districts, if the standards don’t say “online” or “Internet,” they’re not teaching it.

To what extent do you think the influx of digital devices and software into schools will help?

The concern I have is that often schools will propose solutions that do not facilitate the development of online research and comprehension skills. So, for example, the “app-ification” of the universe with the iPad, that does little to support these kinds of skills. Typically those apps are teaching offline reading skills, such as word recognition or vocabulary. They’re not teaching critical evaluation of sources on a Web page, or effective email communication, or how to synthesize information from multiple websites to draw a conclusion.

The purchase of iPads or the [bring your own device] movement, those do not facilitate online research or comprehension skills. You can do it, don’t get me wrong. But the [screen] real estate is so small and your ability to construct information is so limited, that it doesn’t facilitate the development of these skills as much as a Chromebook or something with a keyboard.

The real issue is that we really want our students to be working with the tools that are powerful enough to give them every opportunity to learn at the highest level.

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.