New Literacies, Old Problems

Reading comprehension in the US varies across socioeconomic status, and several national assessments of eighth graders have found that the difference between lower- and higher-income students is roughly the difference of two to three years of middle/high school. These figures represent reading comprehension generally, but might there be an even greater difference when it comes to the new literacies of online reading and research? The importance of these new literacies skills—e.g., finding, generating, and communicating information online—in a knowledge-based society like our own cannot be overstated, and so researchers from the University of Connecticut, Storrs investigated whether an achievement gap in online reading comprehension exists independently of the gap in print-based literacy.

The participants—all seventh graders—came from two different school districts, which were specifically selected to represent different socioeconomic strata. The study looked at both online and offline reading literacy, and the results reveal statistically significant differences related to socioeconomic status in both areas. The achievement gap measured for the offline reading comprehension test is consistent with national data, indicating that the population used in this study represents a reasonable sample to test for online reading comprehension as well.

The study was able to isolate the online reading gap from other variables like prior knowledge and gender. Based on national data on internet use by household, the study posits that lack of internet access in lower income homes may be an important source of the achievement gap in online research and comprehension.

The nature of online reading is complex: isolated reading events like reading an email or an online newspaper don’t differ substantially from the way we read offline; however, online reading that focuses on solving a problem or answering a question typically takes place within a rich, integrated multimedia environment. The study highlights the urgency for more robust instruction in online, multimodal literacies, and the researchers make the case that addressing multiple literacies is an issue of social justice.

Leu, D. J., Forzani, E., Rhoads, C., Maykel, C., Kennedy, C., & Timbrell, N. (2014). The new literacies of online research and comprehension: Rethinking the reading achievement gap. Reading Research Quarterly, 50(1), 37-59.