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In Web age, reading could be redefined

Books are not Nadia Konyk's thing. Her mother, hoping to entice her, brings them home from the library, but Nadia rarely shows an interest.

Instead, like so many other teens, Nadia, 15, is addicted to the Internet. She often spends at least six hours a day at the computer at her home in a suburb southwest of Cleveland.

Nadia checks her e-mail and peruses social networking sites, reading messages or posting updates on her mood. She searches for music videos on YouTube and logs on to Gaia Online, a role-playing site. 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, TV 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 debate about 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.

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 TV or mashing 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.

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.

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