K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education
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The experience of reading on the web, with its hypertext, media, and unvetted sources, can be like navigating a complicated traffic pattern. (Image source. More about the photograph)

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Imagine, if you will, that you are beside me as I peer over the shoulder of my twelve-year-old son. He’s using a web browser to search for an article on creating stop-motion movies, which is one of his hobbies. I barely have time to say, “That looks interesting,” before he has clicked on a hyperlink and is off on entirely different page. A video catches his eye and he ignores me completely as he hits the “play” button, only to discover the video is a commercial for an upcoming movie. I want to say something, but I don’t have time. The mouse works its magic, and he is off again, this time in full reverse, clicking on arrows that direct him back to the original page. I keep silent now, watching him scan the article for the headlines in bold. Then he is following yet another link to yet another page.

And so it goes.

If you are a teacher or parent who revels in the deep reading of novels or articles, with discussions and contemplations of character development and plot design, this kind of “reading” is enough to drive you to the brink of despair. In fact, the question of whether this kind of activity is even “reading” is one worth asking. We traditionally think of reading in terms of sounding out words, understanding the meaning of those words, and putting those words into some contextual understanding.

And yet, if you read The National Council of Teachers of English’s definition of reading, you’ll recognize some semblance of what my son was doing, even as he jumped here and there with the mouse:

Readers read for different purposes. Sometimes they read for pleasure. Sometimes they read for information. Their reason for reading impacts the way they read. They may skim or read carefully depending on why they are reading. Throughout this process, readers monitor the meaning they are constructing. When the text does not meet their purposes, they may switch to another text. Readers expect what they are reading to make sense. They use a repertoire of strategies, such as rethinking, re-reading or reading on to clarify ideas, to make sure they understand what they read in order to accomplish their purposes.1

This NCTE definition notes that “When the text does not meet their purposes, they may switch to another text,” and that seemed on the surface to be what my son was up to. But I wonder if he knew what he was doing. Could he articulate why he was making the choices he was making? In short, no. He could not. He has not yet developed the information-synthesizing skills and understanding of the medium to make those connections.

If the kind of text our students are encountering in these online travels is embedded with so many links and media, and if those texts are connected to other associated pages (with even more links and media), hosted by who-knows-whom, the act of reading online quickly becomes an act of hunting for treasure, with red herrings all over the place that can easily divert one’s attention. As educators, we need to take a closer look at what online reading is all about and think about how we can help our students not only navigate with comprehension but also understand the underlying structure of this world.

As we begin this discussion, perhaps it would help to first examine the ways in which the two reading environments differ: How is traditional, in-class reading different from online reading? The following list was put together through a crowd-sourcing effort on Twitter by a handful of teachers who collaborated with me in late August 2010.

Traditional reading
(in school)
Online reading
Texts are mostly narrative (e.g. novels, short stories, plays, poems). Texts are mostly informational.
Reading takes place mostly in whole-class or small group reading activities; readers can be grouped together by level. Reading is more individualized, often with one student at one computer.
Writers/sources are typically deemed authoritative by virtue of being published. Because it’s easy for anyone to publish online, authority of information typically merits more evaluation.
Information typically consists only of text, sometimes with images. Hyperlinks, images, audio, and video are usually part of the reading experience.
Information typically flows sequentially (from the first word of the book to the last). Information can flow non-sequentially (one word might lead via hyperlink to an entire new piece of reading).
Reading is focused on one page at a time — choice of the reader is limited. Reading can be interactive (reader response possibilities, potentially limitless decisions about where to go with the text, etc.).

Given that our students are reading online and are experiencing these kinds of fluid information environments, it seems that we educators need to find ways to teach our young people how to process the information they are finding, and how to find it with more precision and understanding. Here are few ideas that might be helpful, from a very simple tool available online to an entire unit of instruction.

Cutting out the clutter

The easiest way for a teacher to begin addressing the hyper-reading of young people might start with the process of elimination, by helping readers remove the clutter on the web pages they encounter.

Readability is one online tool that can help in this regard. The tool is free and simple to use: To install it, just drag the “Readability” button up to your browser’s tool bar. When your students are at a website that you want them to read for content, they can simply click on the button to convert the page into a simple black-text-on-white-background format.

You can adjust the settings as well: Adjust the text size, narrow the margins of the converted pages, or change the colors from black on white to white on black. The transformation of a page by Readability is pretty dramatic, and its use can lead to a focused conversation in the classroom about what has been removed, and why, and what has remained, and why. This forced awareness of the construction of a web page is valuable knowledge for young users of the web.

Reading strategies

Colorado State University offers a useful guide to reading on the web. While it is aimed at college students, much of the information is pertinent to readers of all ages and could easily be part of lessons in the classroom. The following list includes some of the CSU strategies to strengthen reading comprehension, along with my thoughts on how to incorporate them into classroom instruction:

  • Synthesize online reading into meaningful chunks of information. In my classroom, we spend a lot of time talking about how to summarize a text by finding pertinent points and casting them in one’s own words. The same strategy can also work when synthesizing information from a web page.
  • Use a reader’s ability to effectively scan a page, as opposed to reading every word. We often give short shrift to the ability to scan, but it is a valuable skill on may levels. Using one’s eye to sift through key words and phrases allows a reader to focus on what is important.
  • Avoid distractions as much as necessary. Readbility is one tool that can make this possible. Advertising-blocking tools are another effective way to reduce unnecessary, and unwanted, content from a web page. At our school, we use Ad-Block Plus as a Firefox add-on to block ads.
  • Understand the value of a hyperlink before you click the link. This means reading the destination of the link itself. It is easier if the creator of the page puts the hyperlink into context, but if that is not the case, then the reader has to make a judgment about the value, safety, and validity of the link. One important issue to bring into this discussion is the importance of analyzing top-level domains. A URL that ends in .gov, for example, was created by a government entity in the U.S. Ask students what it means for a URL to end in .edu. What about .org? .com? Is a .edu or .org domain necessarily trustworthy?
  • Navigate a path from one page in a way that is clear and logical. This is easier said than done, since few of us create physical paths of our navigation. However, a lesson in the classroom might do just that: draw a map of the path a reader goes on an assignment that uses the web. That visualization of the tangled path might be a valuable insight for young readers.

Implementing online reading comprehension instruction

A group of researchers under the banner of the New Literacies Collaborative has been seeking to develop and pilot some ideas in classrooms, building on existing reading comprehension approaches while adapting them for online reading. (Disclosure: I am a member of the Massachusetts New Literacies Teacher Leader Initiative, which was initially run by some of the folks in the New Literacies Initiative.)

Dr. Don Leu, of the University of Connecticut, and his colleagues in the New Literacies Collaborative have been developing an approach they call Internet Reciprocal Teaching. What I like about the Internet Reciprocal Teaching (which is adapted from the Reciprocal Teaching methodology) is that it is designed to build student reading skills through stages of scaffolded inquiry. Its approach is to make visible much of what is behind the websites that we encounter: Who is the writer? What is the rhetorical stance? What is the message? etc. Focusing on such questions makes the discovery of information explicit and visible to the reader.

The three phases of Internet Reciprocal Teaching are teacher-led instruction, collaborative modeling, and inquiry.2

Teacher-led instruction
In this first phase, teachers model strategies for reading online text to the entire class, including “talking through” the thinking process of an active reader. Included in this scaffolding stage are checklist questionnaires given to students that contain topics of basic computer and technology understandings, ranging from how to use a computer mouse, to locating an appropriate search engine, to being able to toggle between multiple browser windows. (See the checklist, in Word Document format.) The results of these questions, which can be done as an online form or as a paper survey, allow the teacher to gather data about each student’s prior knowledge and about the class in general, which should provide a path to future lessons around specific topics.
Students explore and inspect websites as both individuals and as members of collaborative groups. Mini-lessons by teachers in this stage also allow for the nurturing of the guided discovery process. A teacher projects a website sample on a class screen, talking through and pointing out the various components to which an active reader should pay attention. These areas of focus may include navigational strategies as well as awareness of specific features of online text, such as the use of embedded hyperlinks, menu options, mouse-over features, internal search engines, site maps, and even the use of media such as video, image, and audio as part of the text.
In addition, the teacher demonstrates the specific features of different search engines (how Google differs from Bing, etc.); opens up discussions around the varied results of search queries (why do different search engines generate different kinds of results?); and shares tools to help students determine how to find out who is hosting a site (such as WhoIS Source), which can give an underlying understanding to the views of the information being presented. The goal of this stage is to make the viewing of online resources as transparent as possible, with the teacher leading by example.
Collaborative modeling
In this follow-up stage of learning, students work in groups on larger projects to solve questions based on research. Here, the validity of information and sites is a key to understanding and synthesizing knowledge. Most important is the reflection time, when students share what they have learned not only about the information they found, but the sources and strategies they used to uncover that information. As they present their findings, the students take time to notice what they might have otherwise passed over in their rush to the next link or video. One example of an assignment here is sending student teams to a series of “hoax” websites, having them identify the elements that make the information implausible, and then having them create their own “hoax” site. (Dr. Mary Anne Bell of Sam Houston State University hosts a list of hoax sites, including the website of the Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency.)
Inquiry
This phase involves students in a larger project based on their own interests and learning from the two earlier stages. Much of the work done around gathering data and research online involves a reflective stance, in which students must articulate the reading strategies they have brought to bear on the project. Sometimes the inquiry step involves collaborators from other schools in other parts of the world, as students learn to use technology to not only learn, but to publish what they have learned to a global audience.

The e-book revolution, and the accompanying shift of reading from the desktop computer to a smaller device like the iPad or Kindle, is sure to run headlong into the issue of how we use our screens for reading. And mobile devices, such as cell phones and iPods, offer yet another wrinkle, as young people become more and more attuned to screens that fit in their pockets or backpacks. Surely the experience of reading on those screens will be different than cracking open a novel. As publishers begin to use the medium of the screen for more interactive reading experiences such as video-embedded texts, all of us as readers — young and old — will feel the impact on our literary lives. It’s also clear that much of the media consumption by our students is happening outside of school, which makes it all the more imperative that educators provide a solid framework for reading comprehension, no matter the medium.