The Digital Literacy Gap

In an article this week in the New York Times, Motoko Rich focused on a recent study that revealed that not only is there an achievement gap in traditional literacy skills based on family income, there is a similar gap in the skills students need to navigate the web. The study compared the online research and evaluation skills of seventh graders from two schools in Connecticut. One of the schools studied had a median income of around $120,000 and the other had a median income of around $60,000 (Leu et. al., 2014). Students were given two assignments in the sciences. The first asked students to research the health impacts of energy drinks and the other asked students to investigate a claim that Chihuahuas can cure asthma (Leu et. al., 2014). Both assignments involved locating resources, evaluating websites for reliability, synthesizing findings, and presenting them on an online platform.

These web-based skills have become increasingly important as more jobs and daily tasks require sorting through information in a variety of formats (Rich, 2014). Only 16% of the students from the lower income school performed well on the assignments, demonstrating a greater need for digital literacy instruction in the classroom (Rich, 2014). The students from the wealthier school, despite having more access to high speed internet at home and more required online assignments in school, also performed poorly, with around 25% passing the assessment. This research demonstrated not only that there is an income gap for digital literacy skills, but also that these skills are surprisingly lacking, regardless of income.

The researchers in the study suggest that one possible reason for the score disparity between the schools is the pressure to focus on skills that will be directly assessed in standardized testing. They write that “economically challenged districts are often under the greatest pressure to raise test scores and may focus limited resources on…standards and assessments in an attempt to increase student performance” (Leu et. al., 2014). This leads to their argument that “Until and unless online research skills are more visible in both standards and assessments, economically challenged schools may be less likely to incorporate them into their curriculum” (Leu et. al., 2014).

This call to incorporate digital literacy skills into standards and assessments is powerful, and I believe that one step in this direction is to increase collaboration between school librarians and the teachers and students they serve. The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) has four standards for librarians that relate to inquiry, the discovery and creation of knowledge, and the ability to share that knowledge ethically (American Association of School Librarians, 2007). Within this framework, the AASL defines specific skills, dispositions, and responsibilities that students must demonstrate to meet these standards. Embedded within these standards are the digital literacy skills that are missing from broader standards like Common Core. The AASL claims that students must be able not only to “Evaluate information found in selected sources on the basis of accuracy, validity, appropriateness for needs, importance, and social and cultural context” but also to “read, view, and listen for information presented in any format (e.g., textual, visual, media, digital) in order to make inferences and gather meaning” (AASL, 2007). The language of online research that is missing from other documents is ubiquitous in the AASL standards, in which students must “Demonstrate mastery of technology tools for accessing information and pursuing inquiry” (AASL, 2007). Although these skills may not be reflected in end of year assessments, they should be a priority for school librarians. By seeking opportunities for collaboration and partnerships with teachers, librarians can help address the digital literacy gap and advocate for greater emphasis on these skills in the curriculum.


American Association of School Librarians. (2007). Standards for the 21st-Century Learner. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/guidelinesandstandards/learningstandards/AASL_LearningStandards.pdf

Leu, D. J., Forzani, E., Rhoads, C., Maykel, C., Kennedy , C., & Timbrell, N. (2014). The New Literacies of Online Research and Comprehension: Rethinking the Reading Achievement Gap. Reading Research Quarterly. Advance online publication. doi:10.1002/rrq.85

Rich, M. (2014, September 23). Academic Skills on Web Are Tied to Income Level. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/24/us/academic-skills-on-web-are-tied-to-income-level.html

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5 thoughts on “The Digital Literacy Gap

  1. Your posts are so beautifully written.

    I’m wondering if this would look differently with high-school students? Do you get the feeling that seventh-grade seems fairly young for this kind of advanced synthesis? I’m not advocating for lower expectations; I’m just wondering if those researchers were judging seventh graders on skills they are not only still learning, but still learning how to fit all together.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your comment, Julie. That makes sense. It would be interesting to see a similar study done with high schoolers, and maybe another study done with 7th graders testing pieces of these skills.

    I teach information literacy sessions to first-year college students through my job at the library, and I am always surprised by how little how they have been exposed to basic digital literacy skills. I’m not sure if they were never taught the skills or if they don’t remember the information, but they haven’t internalized them yet. They are extremely bright and creative, but are stuck looking at the first ten results in Google and have difficulty deciding when a source is reliable enough to use. I wonder how we can create an information literacy curriculum that builds throughout a student’s academic career, so that these skills are retained and practiced?

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  3. Interesting article! I think that the study does leave open a few questions, though. Did the study control for factors such as reading levels of the students? Did they control for attitudes toward education? (Research shows that there is a positive correlation between social class and emphasis on critical thinking, as opposed to skill development. I think this could have affected the results of a study that required students to research and take a stance based on a research question.)
    Either way, you raise an important point! Digital literacy is largely missing from the middle school curriculum. I guess I also wonder whether or not it is appropriate considering the age, skill level, and needs of younger students, especially since students across the board are not performing well in it. We can possibly push them to develop those skills early, but if it’s taking away from instructional time to teach younger students to be more fluent and thoughtful readers, is it really more beneficial? Thinking about my sixth graders who just entered sixth grade reading on a third grade level, would my time be better spent pushing reading growth that encompasses fluency and critical thinking skills, or teaching them to perform internet searches to research big questions?
    I totally see where you’re coming from. I remember sitting in a freshman English class at the UL, learning to perform searches on Academic Search Elite, feeling a little lost. I don’t think it took particularly long to master, though, especially being at a large research university where we were doing this type of work in every class. For me, being the first in my family to attend college and being a little behind in reading fluency anyway, I appreciated that everyone was learning these skills at the same time and that it wasn’t taken for granted that we already knew how to find credible sources.
    Do you think that pushing these skills on students at an earlier age might widen any achievement or opportunity gaps that exist?
    As a college-level informational literacy instructor, are there any skills or ways of thinking that you believe are really important that kids should be practicing and developing in middle school?

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    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply – you raise a lot of great questions! In response to your first question about the study, the researchers did look at the students’ offline reading scores, writing scores, and prior knowledge of the subject matter. You can look at the research here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/rrq.85/full if you’re interested.

      I agree with you about the importance of focusing on reading skills, rather than taking time away from the curriculum to develop the digital literacy, but I also think that many of the critical thinking skills you already teach are transferable to digital literacy. The skills the study emphasized were the ability to define important questions about the reading, the ability to evaluate the information in the reading, the ability to synthesize multiple sources, and the ability to communicate what one has learned. Although they were looking at these skills online, these are skills that are being taught with traditional reading as well. Maybe the key is making sure students realize these skills aren’t just limited to print reading in the classroom, and can be a part of any reading and searching they do.

      I completely agree with you about the benefits of teaching everyone research and evaluation skills in their first year of undergrad, and not assuming that they come in with these skills. Not only does everyone come from different backgrounds and different high schools, but they also are all transitioning to an extremely large library with resources they would not have had at their public or school library.

      I feel very limited when I teach information literacy sessions to undergrads because I only have 75 minutes to teach the students strategies for a specific project and may never interact with them again. This is one reason I am hoping to be in a high school and have the opportunity to collaborate more with teachers and build relationships with students. In the sessions at my job, I teach search skills and point out appropriate resources for the assignment, but I also try to give the students a framework for thinking about research that can be transferable to other work they do, both in and out of the classroom. I think the critical thinking skills you mentioned in your reply are the main skills to be developing and practicing throughout middle school. The ability to develop questions, evaluate information, synthesize multiple sources, and draw conclusions from this information will be transferable to learning and research further along.

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  4. I loved your post because I think it is a challenge for teachers (all teachers) to hear about studies going on in our own field. Teachers spend so much time focusing on their school and the day to day routines and responsibilites that we all sometimes don’t know what people are discovering about education.

    I wonder if the fact that students had to research those two topics might have also added to the low scores. I think it matters what kids are researching just as much as their skill set for researching. I wonder if they had been able to pick their own topics or from more “7th grade likable” topics if the results would have been different.

    It is interesting to see how access to technology doesn’t always mean success in that area. We sometimes think just because kids have tools they know how to use them. I liked the part about online research skills being part of the curriculum but I also have to argue that just making it a standard doesn’t mean it is going to be taught well. Teachers have to rethink what work and time in the classroom looks like. We have to start valuing the time spent on online skills the same way we value phonics or reading comprehension. We have to add value to it!

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