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Study: Large online literacy achievement gap exists

Many students lack ability to evaluate the reliability of information on the web
Donald Leu (center) leads the team of the New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut.
Donald Leu (center) leads the team of the New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut.

Today’s students may be skilled at texting and social media, but many are unable to perform online research and distinguish accurate information on the web, according to a new study.

Further, there is a large achievement gap in online reading ability between students in economically disadvantaged districts and their peers in wealthier schools.

This gap is separate from the more widely reported offline reading achievement gap, and is not addressed in most states, reports the study, “The New Literacies of Online Research and Comprehension: Rethinking the Reading Achievement Gap,” published in January’s Reading Research Quarterly.

Online reading is not simply taking a passage from a book and putting it on a computer screen. Rather, it is using the internet to read and learn new information—a skill that students need in an increasingly digital world, says Donald Leu, co-author of the study and director of the New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut, the most widely recognized center in the world for conducting research on new literacies such as online learning.

The study, conducted by the lab’s researchers, examined seventh graders in two Connecticut districts. The districts had the same number of medium-power and internet-connected computers, but were substantially different in terms of family income levels.

The study used Online Research and Comprehension Assessments (ORCAs) developed by the New Literacies Research Lab as part of a federal research grant. Students completed online reading tasks in science, and wrote short reports of their findings in an email message and on a classroom wiki. Those in the economically advantaged district, on average, performed twice as well with online reading as those in the economically disadvantaged district.

Researchers found the achievement gap is about equal to a year of learning in middle school.

Lacking skills

Despite the differences, all students generally lacked online reading skills. Students in both districts responded correctly to less than 50 percent of items. Students in the high-poverty district responded correctly to less than 25 percent. Performance in both districts was low in the ability to communicate results and evaluate the reliability of information on the web.

The results are surprising, considering that the students are, after all, digital natives. “They tend to be strong in social networking, texting, video and gaming, and incredibly weak with information,” Leu says.

“We’ve learned that it’s important to look at those two categories of skills very differently, and not to assume that students are strong with online information use when they are strong with social networking.”

Leu notes that neither district represents an extreme of poverty or wealth. For example, the median family income in the lower-income district was $60,000, while the national poverty threshold is $24,028 for a family of four, according to the Census Bureau. Therefore, the results may be starker in other states.

The subject is difficult to study on a national level because the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test does not include online reading and comprehension skills.

Leu speculates the gap may be a result of poorer districts feeling pressured to teach to tests to raise scores, while dedicating little time to online literacy skills.

And the subject is not mentioned specifically in the Common Core State Standards. For example, one of the key reading standards focuses on close reading to draw conclusions and point out evidence to support answers. Most people apply this only to offline, narrative texts, Leu says.

“But where close reading should be taught is in reading search engine results,” he adds. When analyzing the short descriptions provided with search results, students need to determine which web sites will have the information they need.

District leaders should ensure students are doing far more online reading. And school librarians who are trained in online research should be leaders in instruction, Leu says. Professional development for teachers is also key to closing the gap, he adds.