July 28, 2008
Experts on Reading Wonder: Is the Internet Friend or Foe?
By Motoko Rich
Books are not Nadia Konyk's thing. Her mother, hoping to entice her, brings them home from the library, but Nadia rarely shows interest.Instead, like so many other teenagers, Nadia, 15, is addicted to the Internet. She regularly spends at least six hours a day in front of the computer in this suburb southwest of Cleveland.
Nadia checks her e-mail and peruses myyearbook.com, a social networking site, reading messages or posting updates on her mood. She searches for music videos on YouTube and logs onto Gaia Online, a role-playing site where members fashion alternate identities as cutesy cartoon characters. But she spends most of her time on quizilla.com or fanfiction.net, reading and commenting on stories written by other users and based on books, television shows or movies.
Her mother, Deborah Konyk, would prefer that Nadia, who gets A's and B's at school, read books for a change. But at this point, Konyk said, "I'm just pleased that she reads something anymore."
Children like Nadia lie at the heart of a passionate debate about just what it means to read in the digital age. The discussion is playing out among education policymakers and reading experts around the world, and within groups like the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association.
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.
At least since the invention of television, critics have warned that electronic media would destroy reading. What is different now, some literacy experts say, is that spending time on the Web, whether it is looking up something on Google or even britneyspears.org, entails some engagement with text.
Few who believe in the potential of the Web deny the value of books. But they argue that it is unrealistic to expect all children to read "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "Pride and Prejudice" for fun. And those who prefer staring at a television or pushing buttons on a game console, they say, can still benefit from reading on the Internet. In fact, some literacy experts say that online reading skills will help children fare better when they begin looking for digital-age jobs.
Some Web evangelists say children should be evaluated for their proficiency on the Internet just as they are tested on their print- reading comprehension. Starting next year, some countries will participate in new international assessments of digital literacy; but the United States, for now, will not.
Young people "aren't as troubled as some of us older folks are by reading that doesn't go in a line," said Rand 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."
Some traditionalists warn that digital reading is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories. Often, they argue, writers on the Internet employ a cryptic argot that vexes teachers and parents.
Zigzagging through a cornucopia of words, pictures, video and sounds, they say, distracts more than strengthens readers. And many youths spend most of their time on the Internet playing games or sending messages, activities that involve minimal reading at best.
Web proponents believe that strong readers on the Web may eventually surpass those who rely on books. Reading five Web sites, an op-ed article and a blog post or two, experts say, can be more enriching than reading one book.
"It takes a long time to read a 400-page book," said Spiro. "In a tenth of the time," he said, the Internet allows a reader to "cover a lot more of the topic from different points of view."
Web readers are persistently weak at judging whether information is trustworthy. In one study, Donald Leu, who researches literacy and technology at the University of Connecticut, asked 48 students to look at a spoof Web site, at http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/, 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.
Some literacy experts say that reading itself should be redefined. Interpreting videos or pictures, they say, may be as important a skill as analyzing a novel or a poem.
"Kids are using sound and images so they have a world of ideas to put together that aren't necessarily language-oriented," said Donna Alvermann, a professor of language and literacy education at the University of Georgia. "Books aren't out of the picture, but they're only one way of experiencing information in the world today."
The United States is diverging from the policies of an increasing number of countries. Next year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers reading, math and science tests to a sample of 15-year-old students in more than 50 countries, will add an electronic reading component. The United States says it will not participate because an additional test would overburden schools.
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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