5 Ways to Improve Students’ Online Reading Comprehension

Students prefer print to reading online. At least that’s what the research has found. I think most librarians can confirm this anecdotally.

Is anybody asking why? Because its implications are problematic.

We know that online reading comprehension requires a separate set of skills than print-based reading comprehension; skills such as interpreting, critically evaluating and then synthesizing multiple modes of information.

Online reading comprehension becomes even more critical as students enter college and are required to locate, evaluate, synthesize and communicate information stemming from online resources. That of course, is the basis for information literacy.

Students’ current preferences for print suggests that their online reading comprehension skills are underdeveloped. This is not surprising considering that schools have been very slow to adapt to 21st century learning — and many still equate 21st century skills with technology skills.

Add to that the misinterpretation of what a digital native is (yes, being born into a digital age makes you a digital native in a sense, but not necessarily a digitally literate native) and you can see we have a problem. A BIG problem that ultimately is hurting students’ abilities to function as information and digital literates in both college and career.

So what can we do to nurture the development of students’ online reading comprehension skills? Here are 5 ways librarians can tackle the problem:

  1. Transmedia storytelling. Transmedia storytelling is storytelling across multiple media platforms, exercising multiple literacies. Librarians can support online reading comprehension by promoting the reading of transmedia stories in the library, and collaborating with teachers to integrate transmedia stories into the classroom. See my previous posts here and here to learn more.
  2. Maker activities. Maker activities, especially of the digital variety, support online reading comprehension as students locate, evaluate and learn how to synthesize multiple digital elements together to communicate messages within their local or global communities. Transmedia storytelling can serve as an inspiration for maker activities.
  3. Digital games. Strategy (e.g. Minecraft, SimCity) and role playing (e.g. World of Warcraft) games, in particular, help develop the types of problem solving skills that are inherent in digital and information literacies. In that way, digital games are also good for supporting online reading comprehension skills. Librarians can provide access to digital games and game play in the library, and collaborate with teachers to bring digital games into the classroom to promote multiple literacies.
  4. WebQuests. WebQuests use elements of gamification to help students develop online research skills — and online reading comprehension skills along the way. WebQuests that are presented with a storytelling narrative (e.g. scenario-based, fantasy-based) motivate students to solve online information problems in an authentic context. Librarians can use WebQuests for library instruction, or just as easily integrate them into classroom-based lessons.
  5. Alternative research assignments. Research assignments that utilize social media (e.g. blogs, wikis) or share-able tools (e.g. infographics) support the full gamut of online reading comprehension skills – locating, evaluating, synthesizing, and communicating information. Librarians play an important role in advocating for and articulating the value of alternatives to the traditional research paper.
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9 thoughts on “5 Ways to Improve Students’ Online Reading Comprehension

  1. I think you bring up some great points about why so many students are struggling with digital literacy. I also see some super ideas about how to address it, like the alternative research assignments and maker activities. Those are excellent ways to connect learning in digital environments. And you’re correct in that most K-12 schools are slow to adopt. I attribute that to primarily the bureaucracatic environment in which most of them operate. Change is arduous and slow.

    However, I don’t think we can neglect the idea that there is something to be said for the kinds of research activities that can be done online. Most college students still prefer print, in part because it mirrors what they’re accustomed to, but also in part because the online environment can be muddled for in-depth research. Think of the ‘F’ or ‘Z’ web page design patterns based on how people view text on the web. I enjoy using e-readers, tablets, and smartphones for “light” reading. Readings where I have to mark pages, pull out main ideas, cross-reference, etc. are much easier to handle on paper. I recognize that software allows much of this, but in my experience most of the interfaces still seem to be more cumbersome than plain old pen and paper. I’m not anti-technology by any means, but understanding the ways in which the human mind absorbs different kinds of information is important.

    • I tend to be from the camp that views the way we process and comprehend information as an outcome of the cultural and historical artifacts (tools) we use — its a sociocultural perspective. I think it explains the differences in reading comprehension between static and dynamic texts. We have evolved to process information using print sources, but are still learning how to do that in digital environments. Of course, because digital environments are dynamic, online reading comprehension demands will change as the tools change. That requires more flexible cognitive processing. That being said, we really need to look at print and online reading comprehension as two separate literacy practices, with librarians and reading teachers playing a key role in helping students make connections between the two. The annotation software you mention is one way to make connections – and yes the technology needs to become more user friendly.

      In my own experience, I was pretty much forced to develop online reading comprehension in writing my thesis. I used my iPad and PerfectReader to read and annotate articles. Some learning curves, but I was motivated by necessity – I couldn’t IMAGINE having to print out all those articles! Also, we need to keep in mind that textbook publishers are probably not going to move back to print because it is so much more expensive. I think we are heading into an age where online reading comprehension is absolutely essential.

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