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Reading & Literacy

Q&A: Researcher Identifies Gaps in Online-Reading Skills

By Benjamin Herold — October 14, 2014 3 min read
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Researcher Donald J. Leu of the University of Connecticut talked with Education Week about his new study, “The New Literacies of Online Research and Comprehension: Rethinking the Reading Achievement Gap.”

What do you want educators 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.

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.

Talking to principals and teachers, the classic 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 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 identify 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 are 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-related achievement gaps you found in students’ online-reading abilities?

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.

A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2014 edition of Education Week as Q&A: Judging Online vs. Offline Reading Skills

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