How Well Do We Read Online?

Unlike a textbook, what we read online has not necessarily been examined or evaluated for accuracy. The web pages we visit are usually not directly assigned by an instructor. Oftentimes, we have to browse through the internet to find something. Thus, reading online requires at least two skills: the ability to locate the right pages and the ability to evaluate critically their content. Hence, in this respect, online reading is quite different from reading a textbook.

This blog is viewed quite often in the Philippines as shown in the following ClustrMap for this past week:

On Facebook, posts that point to some of the articles on this blog could receive as many as 1000 likes;

Since I have access to the records of this blog, I know that oftentimes the number of likes could easily outpace the times the article has been viewed, which of course leads to the question of whether people even bother to read the article. And we are not even asking if people had comprehended the article. That would be an entirely different question.

It is true that the web has a lot of content to offer and it is hoped that this blog contributes to providing useful and vetted information regarding basic education in the Philippines and the US. Still, it should be obvious that basic education must begin paying attention to how well students can read online content since such activity does require skills that are not necessarily relevant when one is reading a prescribed textbook. As mentioned above, locating the resource and critically evaluating the content are often not required if a student is simply handed a textbook to read.

A recent study from the University of Connecticut at Storrs published in the journal Reading Research Quarterly addresses this dilemma:

The main point of the above study is the need to pay attention not only to the offline reading achievement gap between children from low and high-income families, but also to how well these children read content from the internet. The study shows that there is quite a substantial gap in online reading ability that cannot be explained fully by existing gaps in offline reading, offline writing, and prior knowledge scores in state exams. Students from higher income households do have more access to the internet at home, but on the other hand, schools in the above study that serve lower income families have more computers.

The assessment performed in the above study is summarized in the following table:

Table 4. Means (Ms), Standard Deviations (SDs), and Hedges’ g Values for the Evaluation of Achievement Gap Differences: Offline Reading and Online Research and Comprehension

VariableWest Town M(SD)East Town M(SD)Hedges’g


  1. = 103 (West Town) and 105 (East Town) for offline reading tests and 108 (West Town) and 148 (East Town) for all online reading tests. Both school district names are pseudonyms.
State (Connecticut Mastery Test) offline reading scaled score282.60 (41.54)215.10 (31.07)1.87
Online research and comprehension assessment total score (out of 32)15.00 (5.69)7.65 (4.39)1.47
“How Do Energy Drinks Affect Heart Health?” research task (out of 16)6.91 (3.16)4.05 (2.64)0.99
“Can Chihuahua Dogs Cure Asthma?” research task (out of 16)8.09 (3.25)3.59 (2.38)1.61
Locate total (out of 8)4.47 (2.29)2.41 (1.86)1.00
Evaluate total (out of 8)2.26 (1.32)1.26 (0.93)0.90
Synthesize total (out of 8)5.15 (2.03)2.58 (1.89)1.31
Communicate total (out of 8)3.13 (1.55)1.43 (1.11)1.29
“Energy Drinks” component scores:
  • Locate (out of 4)
2.02 (1.32)1.30 (1.20)0.57
  • Evaluate (out of 4)
1.02 (0.81)0.72 (0.62)0.43
  • Synthesize (out of 4)
2.37 (1.33)1.37 (1.29)0.76
  • Communicate (out of 4)
1.51 (1.05)0.70 (0.68)0.94
“Asthma” component scores:
  • Locate (out of 4)
2.45 (1.36)1.11 (1.08)1.11
  • Evaluate (out of 4)
1.24 (0.88)0.54 (0.56)0.98
  • Synthesize (out of 4)
2.78 (1.25)1.21 (1.17)1.30
  • Communicate (out of 4)
1.62 (1.04)0.74 (0.71)1.02

Hedges' g is a measure of how different the two populations are. It tells us the difference in terms of the standard deviation from the combined pool. Simplistically, a Hedges' g of 1.0 means that one population differs by one pooled standard deviation from the other. This therefore is a very significant difference. In fact, a Hedges' g of 1.0 is considered "large". In terms of schooling, this difference is equivalent to missing more than one year of instruction.

West Town is a pseudonym for the school in which the annual median household income is $119,288 and East Town refers to the school where the median income is $58,981. Clearly, this is a comparison between students from wealthy and middle-class families.

Economic or technological indicatorWest TownEast Town
Median family income$119,228$58,981
Percentage of families below the poverty line2%12%
Percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch4%67%
Number of students per instructional computer at the middle school3.73.3
Percentage of computers with Internet access at the middle school100100
Percentage of computers with high or moderate power at the middle school100100
Based on the assessment made, the differences between the two schools are significant. There is a substantial gap in online reading ability between rich and middle-class students. However, the more important finding is that students from both schools have poor online reading ability. Focusing on the overall criterion,

Online research and comprehension assessment total score (out of 32)15.00 (5.69)7.65 (4.39)1.47

The total possible score here is 32. The scores from both school are only 15 and 7.65. These numbers are not even half of 32. One could just imagine how worse the scores are for students who are really poor and have no access to the internet. Thus, access to the internet and availability of computers do not necessarily guarantee that a student would be online literate. It may appear that a lot of people are technologically savvy, but this may just be a mirage. Simply because a person seems to know how to use a mouse, navigate the web, or post a status on social media does not necessarily mean that a person can read online critically.