If you were to sit down with a book about west coast marine life, what skills would you need to proficiently read and comprehend the text? What if the book was an EBook on your tablet? Would you require the same skills? What if you were on your computer and performing a query on the topic to browse webpages? Are your comprehension skills the same ones you initially used?
With the print-based text, a proficient reader would be predicting, making connections, questioning, drawing inferences, summarizing, synthesising, and altering strategies along the way as they monitored their understanding. Similarly, a skilled reader would employ these strategies as they navigated online or digital text. But would they be enough and would they look the same in a digital context? Which leads to the question – are traditional, offline reading comprehension strategies sufficient for comprehending digital text?
The notion of literacy has always been evolving (Alexander & Fox 2008). Continued research and developing theoretical perspectives have influenced classroom practice and shaped the skills teachers foster in their students. However, we are in a unique period of time where change is happening faster than ever; “The emergence of the internet has brought about a period of rapid, continuous technological change and, as a result, rapid, continuous change in the nature of literacy” (Leu, McVerry, O’Bryne, Kiili, Zawilinski, Everett-Cacopardo, Kennedy & Forzani, 2011. p. 5), thus shaping the field of new literacies.
Yet, within educational research and school policy development, not all perspectives have caught up with the need for change (Coiro 2011 & Leu et al. 2011). A point well illustrated when considering the new literacy skills required for online non-fiction reading. As Coiro points out, “despite both informed speculation and evidence to the contrary, our field often assumes online reading skills to be primarily the same as offline reading skills or sets them aside as technology skills rather than new reading comprehension skills” (2011, p. 353). Through their commentary, Leu et al counter this mindset and support a shift in thinking, “online reading comprehension is not isomorphic with offline reading comprehension”. Furthermore, they state, “new online and traditional offline reading comprehension skills are both required, often in complex and interrelated ways” (pp. 6-7). Offline skills such as accessing prior knowledge and synthesising information are necessary and utilized strategies in digital contexts; however, the “new technical stuff” of the 21st century “require new literacies to effectively exploit their potentials” (Nahachewsky, 2013. p.76).
In a quantitative study of 118 grade 7 students, Coiro (2011) sought to evaluate student reading performance when using online reading comprehension strategies over and above their offline strategies. In her research, she reported that, “successful Internet reading experiences appear to simultaneously require both similar and more complex applications of (a) prior knowledge sources, (b) inferential reasoning strategies, and (c) self-regulated reading process” (p. 357). In addition, she found that online comprehension requires the use of a unique set of skills such as, “accessing search engines, generating reasonable search terms, understanding web addresses, navigating multilevel websites, and using new information and communication tools” (p. 372).
References to comprehension can also be found within definitions of digital literacy. In a teachthought.com blog post, 4 Principles of Digital Literacy, author Terry Heick lists comprehension as the first principle of digital literacy, simply defining it as, “the ability to extract implicit and explicit ideas from a media”. In the 5 Resources Model of Critical Digital Literacy, developers Juliet Hinrichsen and Anthony Coombs designate 3 of their 5 resources to comprehension skills: decoding, meaning making and analysing. While both offline and online comprehension strategies, Hinrichsen and Coombs define how each is applied in a digital setting.
If you answered the questions presented in the beginning of this post, I don’t think these findings and definitions will be shocking. It is understandable that offline or digital reading would require its own set of comprehension skills while still utilizing traditional skills, albeit with adaptations. What these finding do is reinforce the importance of explicit instruction. The dynamic and complex nature of the internet and ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) demand dynamic and complex reading skills from students. The findings and definitions also help to shape our understanding of the ethos, “the ‘kinds of values, emphases, priorities, perspectives, orientations and sensibilities’” (Lankshear & Knobel in Nahachewsky, p. 75) of new literacies.
If policy makers and educators continue to ignore the growing evidence that new skills and strategies may be required to read, learn and solve problems with the Internet, our students will not be prepared for the future (Coiro, p. 353).
Alexander, P., & Fox, E. (2008). Reading in perspective. In M. Fresch (Ed.), An essential history of current reading practices (pp.12-32). Newark, DE: International Reading Association
Coiro, J. (2011). Predicting reading comprehension on the internet: Contributions of offline reading skills, online reading skills and prior knowledge. Journal of Literacy Research, 43, pp. 352-392.
Leu, D., McVerry, J., O’Bryne, W., Kiili, C., Zawilinski, L., Everett- Cacopardo, H., Kennedy, C., & Forzani, E. (2011). The new literacies of online reading comprehension: Expanding the literacy and learning curriculum. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(1), pp, 5-14.
Nahachewsky, J. (2013). Understanding the importance of ethos in composing the “everyday” new literacies classroom. Language and Literacy, 15(1), pp. 74-92.