Most toddlers can swipe an iPad, tap an e-book, and call grandma on mom’s phone, so you’d think that kids in upper elementary school would be seasoned digital users and experts at navigating the web. As it turns out, a new study published in the International Literacy Association’s Reading Research Quarterly has found that we don’t know as much as we thought about the online activities, preferences, and skills of the preadolescent set.
Amy C. Hutchison, an assistant professor at Iowa State University School of Education, surveyed more than 1,200 fourth and fifth graders and was quite surprised to discover how infrequently students engaged with digital tools outside of school, compared with how often they use them in the classroom. “Other research I’ve conducted has shown that students don’t engage with technology very frequently in school, but now it seems classroom tech time is increasing,” she notes. More such use is a positive sign, especially with teacher guidance and a connection to the curriculum.
For her survey, students were given in-school and out-of-school digital tasks from which to choose. At school, the most common ones were searching for information online, creating word documents, and watching videos. Popular out-of-school choices included watching videos, searching for information, and collaborating or chatting online with kids in classes other than their own.
Hutchinson concluded that while preadolescents report a preference for using the Internet and are moderately skilled at online research and communication (with girls scoring higher than boys), students believe they’ll learn more from a title than from the web. They also report more difficulty using the Internet than reading books.
“The results of the digital reading tasks suggest that preadolescents are not as literate as their ‘digital native’ status might lead us to believe,” says Hutchison. She points out that there’s a big difference in knowing how to use a digital device and using it to locate, understand, and effectively communicate information to others.
The gender gap seen between boys’ and girls’ digital skills is the same one that exists for print reading, adds Hutchison. “National Assessment of Education Progress scores have consistently shown that girls score higher on print-based reading tasks than boys, so I speculate that girls scored higher on the digital reading tasks because they already had better traditional skills, which are foundational for online reading,” she explains.
The mere conclusion that this age group prefers books over tablets and laptops is noteworthy. “Kids find it easier to learn from books rather than the Internet because online reading is more complex than print reading,” says Hutchison. Online reading requires skills and strategies that are used for print-based reading plus the ability to be able to simultaneously interpret multiple modes of information (such as color, image, video, hyperlinks, and text) that are encountered in digital spaces. “And information on websites and apps is organized differently—readers have to make inferences about why the text is set up the way it is and what might happen if they click on a hyperlinked image or word.”
For librarians, recognizing the distinction between using a computer and online reading and writing is key. “Many libraries have great computer programs that teach phonics, narrate a book, or provide comprehension questions and activities related to a book, but these don’t require the same skills as reading and writing on the web,” points out Hutchison. Librarians can also play a big role in providing exposure to a wider range of technologies.
Parents, even those who don’t consider themselves especially tech savvy, are likely more skilled than their tweens at reading, problem-solving, and making sense of information online, so they need to be encouraged to support their kids as they work digitally. “With print-based reading we provide children with plenty of opportunities to read appropriate texts independently, but we also help them read increasingly difficult books so that they can continue to develop their skills,” she says. The process is the same for online reading and writing.
Hutchison follows her own advice at home with her three kids, ages two, five, and six. Because of where they are developmentally, her children don’t use technology alone, she explains. “But if they are playing a game on the iPad, I sit next to them and help them understand it and teach them as they encounter new things. Otherwise, they might just tap the screen nonstop and not learn anything.” When it comes to books, she sticks with good ol’ paper. “I rarely read digital books with my children because they are too enamored with the technology. Plus they love how I interact with them when we read books—and they don’t like that I have to pause the iPad so many times when I try to do that with digital ones,” she says.
Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a Manhattan-based reporter and the former research editor of Parenting.