Does reading the internet count as reading?

I am not the only one wondering about this. The NYTimes has an overview article.

As teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books.

But others say the Internet has created a new kind of reading, one that schools and society should not discount. The Web inspires a teenager like Nadia, who might otherwise spend most of her leisure time watching television, to read and write.

Isn’t what I do on the internet writing? If you are reading it, isn’t it reading?

What do we mean when we say reading books? Often what we mean is reading and analyzing literature. Certainly as an English teacher I think that is a good thing. However, I don’t think that is the end of reading. I often read history and science books. They aren’t always (or usually) stories. They are most often non-fiction, more like essays, more like long blog posts. I don’t think I read less because I read nonfiction. I don’t think I read less because I read online. But many of us in academics do think that.

I think it is the same thing that Faye Halpern called “reading badly” in her article in College English (70.6 (July 2008): 551-577.). “Beginning students read fiction to identify with the characters.” And that matches perfectly with what the NYTimes article goes on to say.

Even accomplished book readers like Zachary Sims, 18, of Old Greenwich, Conn., crave the ability to quickly find different points of view on a subject and converse with others online.

Does the fact that a student wants different views and sees the net as a way of quickly accessing both sides of the question indicate a different kind of reading? If we are talking reading for information, that is far more akin to reading in the sciences than reading literature. We might need to make a differentiation in kinds of reading or in fiction/nonfiction reading. [This might be useful for my TYCASW paper.]

….Clearly, reading in print and on the Internet are different. On paper, text has a predetermined beginning, middle and end, where readers focus for a sustained period on one author’s vision. On the Internet, readers skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles and ends.

Young people “aren’t as troubled as some of us older folks are by reading that doesn’t go in a line,” said Rand J. Spiro, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University who is studying reading practices on the Internet. “That’s a good thing because the world doesn’t go in a line, and the world isn’t organized into separate compartments or chapters.”

Literature doesn’t always go from beginning to middle to end. And even the literature that does leaves blanks, taking out parts of a reality that are less essential to the story.

According to Department of Education data cited in the [National Endowment for the Arts reading] report, just over a fifth of 17-year-olds said they read almost every day for fun in 2004, down from nearly a third in 1984. Nineteen percent of 17-year-olds said they never or hardly ever read for fun in 2004, up from 9 percent in 1984. (It was unclear whether they thought of what they did on the Internet as “reading.”)

I would bet they don’t. They know the grownups don’t count it. And sometimes when surfing the net, I’m not really reading. It’s more like I am at the library and pulling books off the shelves, looking at them, and then putting them back. However, many times I do sustained reading on the internet. I looked at the questions for the report and did not see anything I would interpret to count online reading.

“Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media,” Dana Gioia, the chairman of the N.E.A., wrote in the report’s introduction, “they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.”

Why can online reading not offer the same level of personal development? I agree that it often doesn’t, but it could. That’s more an education process. How do they decide what is legit? How do they determine credibility? Those are good rhetorical concerns that could be addressed by reading teachers, if they understood the answers themselves.

I think to some extent that we don’t teach these skills because we don’t have these skills. Many of our students have abilities we do not. And we need to examine the skills involved in online reading and incorporate their use into the academic classroom because they are reading on the internet far more than in the classroom.

Children are clearly spending more time on the Internet. In a study of 2,032 representative 8- to 18-year-olds, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly half used the Internet on a typical day in 2004, up from just under a quarter in 1999. The average time these children spent online on a typical day rose to one hour and 41 minutes in 2004, from 46 minutes in 1999.
The simplest argument for why children should read in their leisure time is that it makes them better readers. According to federal statistics, students who say they read for fun once a day score significantly higher on reading tests than those who say they never do.

Reading skills are also valued by employers. A 2006 survey by the Conference Board, which conducts research for business leaders, found that nearly 90 percent of employers rated “reading comprehension” as “very important” for workers with bachelor’s degrees. Department of Education statistics also show that those who score higher on reading tests tend to earn higher incomes.
Literacy specialists are just beginning to investigate how reading on the Internet affects reading skills. A recent study of more than 700 low-income, mostly Hispanic and black sixth through 10th graders in Detroit found that those students read more on the Web than in any other medium, though they also read books. The only kind of reading that related to higher academic performance was frequent novel reading, which predicted better grades in English class and higher overall grade point averages.

Elizabeth Birr Moje, a professor at the University of Michigan who led the study, said novel reading was similar to what schools demand already. But on the Internet, she said, students are developing new reading skills that are neither taught nor evaluated in school.

One early study showed that giving home Internet access to low-income students appeared to improve standardized reading test scores and school grades. “These were kids who would typically not be reading in their free time,” said Linda A. Jackson, a psychology professor at Michigan State who led the research. “Once they’re on the Internet, they’re reading.”
Some scientists worry that the fractured experience typical of the Internet could rob developing readers of crucial skills. “Reading a book, and taking the time to ruminate and make inferences and engage the imaginational processing, is more cognitively enriching, without doubt, than the short little bits that you might get if you’re into the 30-second digital mode,” said Ken Pugh, a cognitive neuroscientist at Yale who has studied brain scans of children reading.

I would think it would not be impossible, or even that hard, to find online work which could be cognitive enriching. Would it be that hard to present the tools for literary analysis and let the students go to their favorite fan fiction site and examine a story there with the tools to see if it is really a decent story?

There are plenty of times that reading on the internet requires sustained reading, such as this post, and even serial sustained reading, such as when you are looking at multiple sites for information on a single subject.

Web readers are persistently weak at judging whether information is trustworthy. In one study, Donald J. Leu, who researches literacy and technology at the University of Connecticut, asked 48 students to look at a spoof Web site ( about a mythical species known as the “Pacific Northwest tree octopus.” Nearly 90 percent of them missed the joke and deemed the site a reliable source.

This is an example of the kind of skills we could give our students which would make their reading of the internet cognitively enriching. Cornell offers help for evaluating web sites. And New Mexico State University offers a good checklist of things to look for to determine usefulness and credibility. We as teachers wouldn’t even have to know the issues to use these lists. They are good for nonfiction online.

Still we would have to deal with fiction online, but there, I believe, the literary tools would be useful.

I found this via The Constructive Curmudgeon.

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