Study aims to improve internet literacy

This fall, students at a handful of schools in Connecticut and South Carolina will learn how to read, understand, and critically evaluate internet search results using an experimental new technique. The project is part of a three-year, federally funded study by researchers at the University of Connecticut and Clemson University that aims to find a way to improve the internet literacy skills of disadvantaged students.

If the results from an earlier part of the study are any indication, it’s an area of urgent need. Fewer than 10 percent of the study’s participants always check the accuracy of the information they read online, according to the researchers.

The $1.8 million project, called “Developing Internet Comprehension Strategies among Poor, Adolescent Students at Risk to Become Dropouts,” is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Educational Sciences. The study examines reading comprehension on the internet, with a focus on increasing students’ ability to identify important problems, then locate, critically evaluate, synthesize, and communicate information as they go about solving problems online.

While traditional literacy rates appear to be climbing in schools, researchers with the project say the ability of students to read, understand, and decipher online material requires a unique skill set–qualities many of today’s students have yet to grasp.

Students “spend lots of time chatting, looking at pop culture web sites, and downloading MP3s, but they don’t deal with critical evaluation of information,” said Donald Leu, lead researcher for the UConn team.

The two-state project aims to change that. Through a series of studies, team members will test a research-based approach to helping students acquire the kinds of higher-level comprehension skills necessary to navigate the vast and varied spaces of today’s digital landscape.

Leu, who is the John and Maria Neag Chair of Literacy and Technology at UConn and director of the school’s New Literacies Research Lab, and his team are focusing their efforts on economically disadvantaged seventh-grade students at six urban schools across five Connecticut districts. Their counterparts at Clemson University in South Carolina will take a similar approach to economically disadvantaged seventh graders from rural community settings.

The project consists of three phases. In the first phase, researchers interviewed roughly 1,500 students between the two states about their in-school and at-home internet use. Although the majority of students interviewed during this initial phase were from poor communities, researchers found that about 75 percent had a household internet connection.

This school year, in phase two, researchers will use a custom-built instructional model to teach critical internet reading and evaluation skills to participating students. Year three will evaluate the effectiveness of this instruction.

“We expect our students are going to perform higher on regular reading because they’ll be reading more, perform higher on online reading because that’s what they’re learning, and they’ll also have higher math, science, and English grades because they’ll be much more involved in schools,” Leu said.

The instructional model that Leu’s team will be using is based on a reciprocal teaching model developed by a University of Michigan researcher. This reciprocal approach centers on the idea that reading comprehension is a process that happens inside a reader’s head, unseen by others, which makes it difficult for teachers to teach to students.

Through this model, teachers read aloud to students and essentially “show” them how they think while reading, by talking about what the words mean and what they think will happen next. Then, teachers hand the task over to their students, who read aloud and are forced to think about their reading and why they do the things they do while reading.

The New Literacies research team is adopting this reciprocal model, but is fine-tuning it for internet reading comprehension. The difficulty, Leu said, is that in text-based reading, students read the same book together. In internet research, students are not necessarily finding the same web pages with their search results, so the research team is working on different ways for students to talk aloud through their research–whether they print out their search results and bring them to the class, or perhaps recreate their search on a laptop for the team to observe.

Regardless of which approach they take, the process of thinking through their decisions aloud helps the research team understand why students make the decisions they do, Leu said.

Although they share many of the features of traditional literacy skills, online reading skills are vastly different in many ways, Leu said. The internet–and particularly search engines–present students with a whole new type of reading comprehension they must master.

“You can have some very high-level book readers get online, and if they don’t have good search-engine skills, they’re sunk,” explains Leu.

Why? There are reading skills for reading search-engine results that are not used when reading a book, Leu explained–for example, “you have to make inferences about things such as the bolded text and the URL … Eighty percent of adolescents don’t read Google search-engine results, largely because they don’t know how to read them or to figure out which hit is the one that will help them.”

Also, most students simply aren’t taught to be critical evaluators of information, he said, adding: “The reason they don’t have critical evaluation skills is because what they read at school is already filtered and understood to be true.” But online, where anyone can publish anything, the ability to distinguish credible information is key.

In a striking example of the way students are failing to learn this skill, the researchers asked 25 seventh graders from various middle schools to review a web site devoted to a made-up endangered species, called the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. All but one student fell for the hoax, and all but one said the site was “very credible.”

Researchers are applying the new teaching model in English, language-arts, and reading classes at the selected schools. If the model proves effective, randomly selected teachers at the schools will go through a week-long, in-service workshop next year, where they will receive training in the method. Researchers hope it will give educators a proven way to strengthen students’ online skills–skills they’ll need to succeed in the 21st century.


University of Connecticut

New Literacies Research Team

Clemson University

Laura Ascione

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