Two percent. Just 2% of code separates us from our Chimpanzee brethren. Yet that small difference has lead to humanities’ migration, the rise and fall of civilizations, and the creation of vast works of art.

Small differences matter.

Much like our genetic code online reading and traditional reading share many similarities. The differences, however, create a layer of complexity that mirror the vast chasm found in the cognitive abilities of chimpanzees and humans. Yes those students who have the prerequisite social practices to succeed in traditional academic reading tasks do outperform peers in online reading environments. Yet these shared cognitive skills and social practices do not explain all the differences in performance when we measure online reading comprehension.

via Pixabay

New and more complex skills and practices are required to read in online environments. This 2% (an analogy not actual data) represents the set of skills and practice that allow some learners to take online texts and reshape the meaning for future learning.

Michio Kaku in his book The Future of the Mind describes the difference between primate and human consciousness in terms of simulating the future. Kaku wrote (2014, chapter 7, 24:26):

Human consciousness involves the ability to create a model of the world and then simulate the model of the world in order to obtain a goal.

For Kaku intelligence should be a mark of how divergent thinking allows some to create more complex models and more frequent simulations of the future.

I see many parallels with definitions of online reading comprehension. When reading online more successful students do not simply assimilate information as traditional definitions comprehension would have us believe. Skilled online readers “manipulate and mold information to achieve a higher goal” (Kaku, 2014, chapter 7, 24:26). Based on my dissertation research and classroom observations I see three critical shifts: strategic text assembly, socially complex texts, and multimodal design.

Strategic Text Assembly

For the brief amount of time that book reigned in human history the reader did not have to build her own texts. An editor, publisher or author had the power of creating and shaping the texts we read. No more. Skilled online readers engage in strategic text assembly which I define as the ability to read for meaning while flexibly applying both navigation strategies and comprehension monitoring strategies.

Navigational Strategies

In my research navigational skills was a key difference between successful online readers and those who could not accomplish an inquiry task. The students who could manage multiple tabs, navigate search engines, and move between multiple sources did better. These are the easily quantifiable and teachable differences as we shift to reading online.

Comprehension Monitoring

Comprehension monitoring, or checking your own levels of understanding has always been recognized as an important skill for meaning making. Here online reading and traditional comprehension share much of the same DNA. Students who succeed in online environments skimmed more websites and spent more time engaged with sources when they judged them to be relevant.

I also noticed an intersection of background knowledge and working memory.A lack of background knolwedge did not phase skilled readers. This I documented in my work as very few students knew much about the domain of my inquiry tasks (American Revolution). I also noticed but did not have the data to fully support the thesis in my dissertation, that these skilled readers seemed to have a more robust working memory. They seemed to hold more information in their working memories that they could later mold into new meanings. They could quickly use the information they read and check it against their understanding of texts they visit in three or four clicks.

Socially Complex Texts

A believe the participatory nature of online texts requires a fundamental shift in how we define texts. Socially complex texts, concurrent arguments that unfold in print and social media with varying degrees of authority and amplification, now dominate our online reading environments. Basically socially complex texts are authored by opposing forces discussing an issue with equal passion and often mutual disdain. This requires a new set of reading skills to detect bait-clicking, astro turfing, and real grass root efforts. Accomplishing these goals requires readers to put a much larger emphasis on not only sourcing skills but also analytics.

Sourcing Skills

In my work, and in the research of those much smarter, we have established adolescent and adult readers do not attend to sources. I found very little evidence of readers evaluating websites. I asked students to identify authors, evaluate an author’s expertise, evaluate a publisher, evaluate bias, and evaluate sources within a source. Few students could identify an author let alone evaluate other markers of credibility.

We must teach students greater sourcing skills. We need them to engage in multiple source readings. More importantly we cannot decontextualize sourcing skills. A checklist approach, or a third step in some inquiry cycle will not work. Credibility judgements interweave through out the meaning making process and change based on the reading of tasks.


I have argued that analytics is the most important literacy skill that no one is teaching. At least not in the field of literacy. Definitely not at the K-12 level. Analytics involves so much more than click counting. By examining how an idea travels, the frequency of times readers and authors mention an idea, and tracing it back to its source all require analytics. These skills are even more critical when we begin to think about writing in multimodal spaces.

Multimodal Design

Design matters. Readers must understand how multimodal choices affect the meaning process. As part of our Teaching Internet Comprehension to Adolescents grant I worked with a seventh grade urban classroom in the Northeast. We discussed how design affects meaning making. We looked at three websites about Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Philadelphia man who contests his death row conviction of killing a police officer. The first text used an informational text structure and tried to inform the audience. The second two, one from Abu-Jamal supporters and one published by the police union took argumentative stances. We discussed and examined how the font and color choices impacted meaning and tone.

I can teach students to write argumentative essays in online environments but I could never account for the impact of design using pencil and paper.


Small differences in code matters. I have not done a full analysis but if I examined the wizard behind most webpages I am sure the majority of text is copy. The HTML and CSS probably account for a smllaer percentage. Yet just as our intelligence and consciousness is contained in just 2% of our DNA code, this small amount of code has changed reading and writing forever.

In last nights #edchat much of the focus was on students’ ability to evaluate online information. This is a critical media literacy skill.

It is also a critical comprehension skill as more and more students turn to the Internet as their primary source of information.

I tried to make the point that students do not have the ability, at least the seventh graders I worked with, to evaluate and integrate multiple sources of information.

I promised a few folks I would share a few insights from my dissertation work. What follows is a brief glimpse into a much bigger project.


Part of my dissertation involved doing think-alouds with 10 students selected from high, medium, and low SES schools. They completed one of four internet inquiry tasks:

-What was the turning point of the American Revolution?

-What was the role of women during the American Revolution?

-Is the painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River historically accurate?

-What was the turning point of the American Revolution?

Three questions focuses on the evaluation of sources:

-Who is the author? Is the author an expert?

-Does the author use convincing evidence?

-How does the author’s point of view influence words and images used on the website?

The Responses:

Author Expertise
Credible Evidence
Author POV
Could not identify the author.
-yes because he knew what he was talking about and he used
the right words for what he was writing on the blog.
to inform readers that George Washington did really cross
the Delaware.

Identified Author

-Yes because he used specific details and great puncuation.

yes because he used great facts and easy to follow words and

He infuenced us to read more about the battle of
Identified author.
Identified author.
– no he is not because he doesn’t know as much as some
other people may
yes he did he got me to believe what he wrote.
Identified author.
yes because it tells you facts
it tells you the details of the painting
Could not identify author.
– I think he is because it is a .org and those are pretty
helpful. Also of what I know this all sounds right. Another reason is that
they have a lot of information that the other websites didn’t.
Yes because he talks about every part of the battle. For
example during it before it and after it.
– Yes, he shows many pictures and he is not defending one
side he is telling it like it is.
Identified author.
– No, because he did have some facts but not all nor the Main
facts on the American Revolution. It was very little writing and didn’t say
anything about the turning points.
No. The class barely gave information. The didn’t say
anything really important.
The author i think is trying to give us information on the
topic, and showing us what his class can do and Learn.
Identified author.
– i Don’t know .
Yes, Because s|he give facts. And the other websites say
the same thing. so He must have his Facts Correct.
I don’t know the point of view, but the way he puts her
facts makes it convincing that what he says is true.
Could not identify author. Put in names of historical
In my opinion the autho seems to know about the American
Revolution so I think they use convincing evidence.
Could not identify author.
– no because he wasnt born there
he uses convincing speech
Could not identify author. Uses cited source as author.
– Yes, because Phebe put a lot of information in the
paragraphs about each woman who served in the American Revolution also she
uses specific dates of when something major happened.
Yes, because she uses specific details, dates, etc,
Phebe takes the point of view she took because she’s
sticking up for the women to show they can do way more than people think they
can do.
Identified the author.
– I think the author, Jeremy Jones is an expert on the
American Revolution because he knows a lot about the 3 major events that
started the American Revolution and he gives examples like when each of the
events took place and where they took place. That’s why I think that the
author, Jeremy Jones is an expert on the American Revolution.
Yes, Jeremy Jones uses convincing evidence because since I
said in the answer above he uses exact dates when the events took place like
some other people don’t use dates they just say the year and not the month or
day of the year.
The author’s point of view does influence the words and
images used on the website because his point of view seems to go along the
same path as his words and images because you can tell he’s against what the
3 major events did to the United States of America and other countries
involved in the war by his word choice and by the last sentence or two when
he says that he hopes that the world will never see another American
Revolution ever again.
Could not identify author. Used political figures.
– they are the owners of a historical park, so, yes
they are experts because they have a whole park full of
historical information.
i dont know
Identified the autor.
– hes an education profesional with a passion for social
David holds a BA in history and a BS in journalism from
the University of Kansas.
i dont know
Identified author but also included author’s title, park
ranger, as a n additional author.
– The author is because he wrote a lot and it seams he did
a lot of research.
yes and no, the author uses convincing evidence because it
looks like he knows what he is talking about and he did not write a lot he
could have wrote about the tea party or the the Boston massacre.
Could not identify author.
– yes because the page he is on it covers geography,
history and much more.
the author does use convincing evidence because he is on a
website that covers geography, language, history, current events and much
Identified the author.
– The author is a history teacher. He is an expert.
Yes he uses convincing evidence. He stated that there is
not just one turning point that there was many.
He thinks that the war went  not so good at first but then it changed.
The authors point is that the war was not easy.
Identified the author.
Yes he says that it was a cold night. Also how the
crossing was a sneak attack.
The authors point of view is he wants to have everyone
know about this.
Identifies the author.
– It seems like there was alot of people involved in this
buisness supplying information on this topic. i think that they have reliabel
information and arent quite experts, but are good on this subject
i think it using convincing evidence because the points
that they raise about to many people in the boat to keep the boat afloat is
good evidence.
the authors point of view is third person because he uses
word like they, or he, she, etc. if it were 1st person, he would use words
like I
Identifies the author.
– I don think the author is an expert but i’m sure he
knows alot about it if he knew 3 causes and could support them.
I thnk he does us convincing evidence because he writes a
full paragraph backing up what he thinks the causes are.
His point of view inluenced the words and images because
it kin of shows that he knew what was going on with those pictures and words

Video Examples:

In this example the student mistakes the author’s title as an additional author. Michael then does not use the author’s title, occupation, institutional affiliation to judge the author expertise. He uses the overall quantity of information to judge the author expertise.

In this example the student uses the content to judge the author expertise. Olivia does exhibit the ability to navigate multiple windows, in other words, “read with mouse in hand.” She also has some understanding of author point of view.

In this example Ava successfully navigates a page looking for an author. While she does mistake the Governor of Pennsylvania as an author of the website she atleast uses author affiliation to judge author expertise.

In this example Ethan uses syntactic clues to evaluate the source. He comments on the use of punctuation and sentences. I think he is making what Rand Spiro calls “errors of oversimplification.” At some point Ethan learned that credible websites are free of grammatical errors. He now applies this to the sources he reads.

Another example of a student using content to judge a website.