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.

Reconnecting Information Literacy with Lifelong Learning

Somewhere along the line, information literacy became a set of academic, information problem solving skills, and its connection to lifelong learning got lost.

Way back in 1974, Paul Zurkowski coined the term ‘information literacy’ when he observed that “people trained in the application of information resources to their work can be called information literates. They have learned techniques and skills for utilizing the wide range of information tools as well as primary sources in molding information solutions to their problems.”

At about the same time, the term ‘lifelong learning’ was coming into into vogue, and the two ideas became indelibly intertwined. Information literacy was seen as the basis of lifelong learning (Weiner, 2011).

What happened?

Lifelong learning is certainly something we talk about when we discuss information literacy, but lifelong learning is not really the end goal in today’s classrooms. I think there are two reasons for this. First of all, the traditions of bibliographic instruction are still deeply rooted in information literacy instruction. That isn’t a bad thing, but it is an academic thing, which doesn’t necessarily translate into lifelong learning. Secondly, information literacy is really a set of multiple literacies. The information literacy of the freshman comp course differs from the information literacy of the discipline-specific course, which differs from the on-the-job requirements of information literacy. They share some elements in common, but each is also unique and situational.

I think this is also a larger institutional problem. Many institutions are so vocationally focused that they forget that education is about more than receiving a diploma. It’s also about molding students into thinkers and independent learners.

So how do we reconnect information literacy with lifelong learning?


Isn’t that what libraries are really all about?

To reconnect information literacy with lifelong learning through curiosity, you have to think outside the library and classroom. School and academic libraries have a whole campus of opportunities to foster curiosity and make students interested in learning (which leads to independent learning, which leads to lifelong learning).

It’s not a difficult task. It just takes creative thinking.

Consider these ideas:

  • QR codes across campus. Get them out of the stacks! Curiosity drives a person to scan a QR code to find out more information about something. And there are so many opportunities around campus where you can place QR codes and pique students’ desire to learn more. Put QR codes in the cafeteria to connect students to information about nutrition, or odd food facts, or cookbooks in the library. Put QR Codes next to the study abroad posters to connect students to databases and/or books about the country and culture. Put QR codes in the Career Center to connect students to library resources on careers, interviewing, or resumes. Put QR codes in the Financial Aid office to connect students to library resources on grants and scholarships. The ideas are endless…
  • Maker activities. Creativity and curiosity go hand in hand.  Join the maker movement and offer maker activities for students to get creative. And these activities can run the gamut from digital storytelling to game design to code-a-thons, and more. They don’t even have to be technology-based (they could be craft-based such as bookmaking).
  • Microlibraries. Place microlibraries around campus. This is a great way to foster both reading and curiosity. To get started, you can use books that have been donated to the library or to your Friends group.
  • Campus partnerships. There’s more to campus life than academics. Create partnerships with campus groups such as the Career Center, Financial Aid, or Student Life. Partnerships such as these give you the opportunity to make the library’s (and librarians’) presence known beyond being a place to study or do academic research.
  • Community partnerships. Partner with local businesses, organizations or the public library. By extending the library’s reach beyond the campus, you are showing students (and the community) that the library is a place of learning, not just studying or doing research. This is especially important for commuter campuses.