Online reading comprehension for kids is not the same as reading on paper. That may seem self-evident, but the skills involved are entirely different, as are the intentions with which internet users read. Online reading is non-linear, based more on skimming than deep reading. Jakob Nielsen, a usability expert and consultant, calls this “information foraging.” We are “informavores,” and on the internet, we hunt for what we need. Because of much faster computers and internet access, we can quickly move from site to site.
A skill children learn is to scan a site’s text quickly, trying to find the “information scent.” If they don’t hit on what they are interested in or what answers their specific question, they move on to more fruitful hunting grounds. And the answer may lie on five different websites; people, school-age children especially, search for what they need and typically discard the rest. For instance, a history project on Barack Obama may be assembled piece by piece as students learn about his childhood from one site, skip to another for information on his Senate career, and yet another to find out his views on different issues.
Rand J. Spiro, professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University, says that students “aren’t as troubled as some of us older folks are by reading that doesn’t go in a line. That’s a good thing because the world doesn’t go in a line, and the world isn’t organized into separate compartments or chapters.”
The benefit of online reading comprehension for kids is that children develop scanning skills and become proficient in accessing information they need to solve problems. This is an invaluable life skill. And, it seems to benefit children who would otherwise not be big readers, such as those with dyslexia. Yale professor and author of Dyslexia, Sally Shaywitz, says, “When you read online there are always graphics. I think it’s just more comfortable and — I hate to say easier — but it more meets the needs of somebody who might not be a fluent reader.”
Critics of online reading comprehension for kids like past Chairman Gilia of the NEA, say:
“What we are losing in this country and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading. I would believe people who tell me that the Internet develops reading if I did not see such a universal decline in reading ability and reading comprehension on virtually all tests.”
The catch is that the only type of reading that seems to correlate directly to improved test scores is novel reading, which is very different in nature than internet reading. Why not test digital reading proficiency? Some countries will soon start participation in international assessments of digital and technological literacy.
Students aren’t concerned about whether internet reading will corrupt traditional literacy. For them, the internet is about communication, friends, information, and, occasionally, homework. What schools need to focus on is improving the quality of reading and building comprehension skills, regardless of medium. One of the ways to do this is to teach students of all ages how to evaluate sites. A study done by Donald J. Leu, literacy and technology researcher at the University of Connecticut, demonstrated how weak this skill is, despite widespread use of the internet across age ranges. Have you ever heard of the Pacific Northwest tree octopus?
Students were asked to visit a site and judge its veracity. The site was a spoof that gave information on the fictional Pacific Northwest tree octopus. Ninety percent of those in the study said the site was reliable and its information accurate. Students need to recognize whether sites are reliable and learn to use other sites to verify information. This is especially important because literally anyone with internet access can publish anything online and make it look “official.”
Another approach to online reading comprehension for kids is to emphasize that online reading is a viable and valuable medium, but that it is only one way to learn. Carol Jago of the National Council of Teachers of English, says, “Nobody has taught a single kid to text message. Kids are smart. When they want to do something, schools don’t have to get involved.”
That is true insofar as it relates to learning how to use the internet and technology, but the teacher’s job is to make sure students use it well and can continually improve and adapt. Students may know how to find information on the Pacific Northwest tree octopus, but they need to know how to evaluate that information and what to do with it.
Verifying sources, using self-questioning strategies, summarizing, and employing other essential reading skills build comprehension whether students read online or on paper. But it is also important to expose students to books. Judith Zorfass of the Education Development Center (EDC) says, “Technology alone is not enough to improve student achievement. It should be intertwined with best teaching practices, with an eye on student needs and curriculum goals.” A focus should be on using a variety of media to answer questions and solve problems in the classroom and in life.