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.

Who Should Teach Digital Citizenship?

Students need to become digital citizens in order to function in a digital world. I think we all recognize that, but teaching the skills that make up digital citizenship is a patchwork job in many of the schools that are addressing it. And some schools aren’t addressing digital citizenship at all.

Why is this? I think that part of the problem stems from the uncertainty of who is supposed to teach it. And therein lies the problem. Technology teachers that follow ISTE standards do address some aspects of digital citizenship. But, librarians are also important players in teaching it, as are other staff.

Who is most qualified to teach digital citizenship? To answer that question, I took a close look at how Mike Ribble’s 9 elements of digital citizenship line up to ISTE and AASL standards and came to some interesting conclusions. But before I discuss my findings, take a look at this alignment chart I created:

9 Elements of Digital Citizenship

Aligned to AASL and ISTE Standards


Digital access: Advocating for equal digital rights and access is where digital citizenship starts.

Digital etiquette: Rules and policies aren’t enough — we need to teach everyone about appropriate conduct online.

Digital law: It’s critical that users understand it’s a crime to steal or damage another’s digital work, identity or property.

AASL 3.3.1 Solicit and respect diverse perspectives while searching for information, collaborating with others, and participating as a member of the community.

AASL 3.3.2 Respect the differing interests and experiences of others, and seek a variety of viewpoints.

AASL 3.3.6 Use information and knowledge in the service of democratic values.



Digital communication: With so many communication options available, users need to learn how to make appropriate decisions.

Digital literacy: We need to teach students how to learn in a digital society.

Digital commerce: As users make more purchases online, they must understand how to be effective consumers in a digital economy.


ISTE 5b. Exhibit a positive attitude toward using technology that supports collaboration, learning, and productivity

ISTE 5c. Demonstrate personal responsibility for lifelong learning

AASL 3.3.4 Create products that apply to authentic, real-world contexts.

AASL 3.3.3 Use knowledge and information skills and dispositions to engage in public conversation and debate around issues of common concern.

AASL 3.3.5 Contribute to the exchange of ideas within and beyond the learning community.


Digital rights and responsibilities: We must inform people of their basic digital rights to privacy, freedom of speech, etc.

Digital safety and security: Digital citizens need to know how to protect their information from outside forces that might cause harm.

Digital health and wellness: From physical issues, such as repetitive stress syndrome, to psychological issues, such as internet addiction, users should understand the health risks of technology.

ISTE 5a. Advocate and practice safe, legal, and responsible use of information and technology

AASL 3.3.7 Respect the principles of intellectual freedom.

ISTE 5d. Exhibit leadership for digital citizenship

Note:  School counselors should play a role in addressing digital health and wellness issues.


Helping students develop into digital citizens should be a collaborative effort. And each group involved should look to their strengths to determine what aspects of digital citizenship they are best suited to teach.

Based on the chart above, librarians are the best suited to address the skills in the ‘respect’ category of digital citizenship. Those skills are well-addressed in AASL standards.

A collaborative effort should be made to address skills in the ‘educate’ category. Technology teachers and librarians should work together to create lessons that address a combination of AASL and ISTE standards. Those lessons should be integrated into the classroom and curriculum, not taught in isolation.

The ‘protect’ category of digital citizenship should really be a school-wide effort, with all parties involved drawing from their strengths. I believe librarians are best-suited to address digital rights and responsibilities, while digital safety and security could be addressed by multiple groups, including librarians, technology teachers and even IT staff. Finally, school counselors can play a special role in addressing digital health and wellness, especially in areas of cyberbullying.

In conclusion, because digital citizenship impacts so many areas of a student’s academic and personal life, teaching it should be a concerted, collaborative and communicative effort by all parties involved (and we must recognize that A LOT of parties are involved in teaching these skills!).