A+ Advice for Parents

Parents Can Help Kids With Online Literacy and Research

Q: Our daughter's high school is offering an online literacy workshop for parents, so we can help teach kids how to use the Internet for homework. However, my daughter knows way more than I do; she's on Instagram and other sites a lot. Why is the school offering this?

A: Just because she's social-media savvy, it doesn't mean that your daughter knows how to choose the best websites for her research report on the early days of the U.S. space program; nor how to distinguish among accurate sources on diet and nutrition and those with a point of view to push.

A recent study released by the New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut shows that, despite the fact that today's teens are digital natives -- strong in social networking, texting, video and gaming, they are incredibly weak when it comes to using the Internet to gain new knowledge, says Donald Leu, the lab's director.

The ability to read on the Internet to learn information is a critically important new area for schools to teach, Leu says.

"There's a big difference between online reading and offline reading," he explains. "Online reading isn't simply taking a passage from a book and putting it on a computer screen."

Online reading is using the Internet to read, evaluate and learn new information -- skills that students need in an increasingly digital world.

Leu calls these new literacies "online research and comprehension" skills. They include:

-- Reading to answer questions and solve problems. This means knowing how to effectively frame or define a search or a question.

-- Reading to locate online information. This means teaching students how to query search engines and quickly scan sources for relevancy in a sea of information.

-- Reading to critically evaluate online information. "Kids tend to use the first hit they get when they research a subject, without thinking about where the information is coming from and whether there is a vested interest involved," says Blanche Warner, a library manager in Naples, New York.

-- Reading to synthesize vast amounts of information. Once, students took notes from print sources on index cards. Now students have multiple media formats to research -- from YouTube videos to slideshows to online journals. It takes practice for students to make sense of varied information on a topic and to use it effectively.

-- Reading and writing to communicate online information. Leu wants students to "become well-versed in communicating in multiple modalities" and creating and sharing work online. He'd like to see more schools promote blogging and provide students with email accounts and wiki access.

He encourages district literacy leaders to engage students in far more online reading and to use school librarians trained in online research to lead instruction.

Meanwhile, Warner says, "It makes a huge difference when there is a librarian in the school who can teach students how to evaluate sources of information and foster these other online reading skills."

So sign up for the workshop. "Parents have a key role in this," Warner emphasizes. "It's important to reinforce at home what students learn at school."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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