School & District Management

Skills Gaps for Online Reading Linked to Family Income

By Benjamin Herold — October 14, 2014 3 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, researchers say.

Now, there is more bad news: The real magnitude of that reading achievement gap may be greater than previously believed, because educators and researchers have not adequately accounted for the different skills that are required to successfully read online, as opposed to in print.

That is the gist of a new study, conducted by Donald J. Leu of the University of Connecticut, which 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 news release from the university.

Donald J. Leu, a researcher the University of Connecticut, speculates that the online-reading-skills gap could derive from unequal expectations for how the Internet should be used in school.

Titled “The New Literacies of Online Research and Comprehension: Rethinking the Reading Achievement Gap,” the complete study examined 256 7th graders from two Connecticut school districts. It is scheduled to be published in January in the academic journal Reading Research Quarterly.

Mr. Leu’s findings were limited to a small sample that did not include students whose families are at or below the poverty line.

The study found that 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. Across the board, participating students were particularly bad at gauging the reliability of scientific information on a website and writing to communicate information via an email message and classroom wiki.

And the gap between students from the two income groups being studied, Mr. Leu found, was large: about a year’s worth of learning during the middle school years.

In an age when the Internet is an increasingly essential daily tool for finding answers, seeking understanding, and communicating, such findings could have significant implications for schools.

Professional associations such as the Washington-based International Society for Technology in Education and the National Council of Teachers of English have attempted to codify the need to teach students so-called digital-literacy skills.

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In 2013, for example, the Urbana, Ill.-based NCTE updated its definition of “21st Century Literacies,” which focuses on imbuing students with a “wide range of abilities and competencies,” including many of those that Mr. Leu highlighted as lacking. According to the NCTE, “active, successful participants in this 21st century global society must be able to develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology,” as well as “manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information,” and “create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts.”

Internet Use at School

For the most part, teachers in the field have been slow to embrace and implement instructional strategies that would support those goals, said William R. Kist, an associate professor of education at Kent State University, in Ohio, who has written extensively about the use of technology in the classroom.

“I think there’s a really active backlash among teachers to screen-based literacies,” Mr. Kist said in an interview. “But the fact is, kids are going to be reading on screens all the time, and they need to learn how to be discerning readers of online and Web-based content.”

Mr. Leu’s research is valuable because it highlights the distinct skills that are required for online and screen-based reading, said Mr. Kist, who said he was “surprised” by the findings of an income-based achievement gap in online reading and comprehension.

The Connecticut researchers did not attempt to scientifically pinpoint a cause for that gap, but Mr. Leu speculated that it could derive, in large part, from unequal expectations for how the Internet should be used in school. Participating 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.

The researchers used 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, as causes behind the newly identified gap.

The new study is the latest in an emerging body of research pointing 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.

A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2014 edition of Education Week as Literacy Skills For the Web Showing Gap

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