Does the Internet Mark a New Chapter in Human Literacy?

Dennis Faas's picture

Reading, at least in the conventional way of leafing page by page through a book, is at risk and the blame is being placed squarely on the shoulders of the Internet and (of course) television. The decline of reading has fueled a massive national debate not only about 'if' we read but 'how' we read.

The debate began in 2002 when the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that the number of non-reading adults had increased by 17 million to 89 million adults, roughly one out of three adults. According to the NEA, only 47% of American adults read 'literature', including poems, plays, narrative fiction. That's a drop of 7 points from 10 years ago.

What's worse, the number of adults that regularly read books fell 4 percentage points to a mere 57% of the adult population. The NEA blames television, movies, and the Internet. The decline occurred even as Oprah Winfrey introduced her book club, and the Harry Potter phenomena found traction among both children and adults. (Source:

Two years later, in 2006, a study by Scholastic (publishers of education texts) found that a large majority of children (92%) aged 5-17 did like to read but that by ages 15-17 only 16% were 'high-frequency readers' (those that read every day). The Scholastic report did not blame electronics, it blamed parents (only 21% were frequent readers). But, they also noted that 41% of the children surveyed used a technology device such as a computer or an iPod to read a book. This, it suggests, means book reading is falling off but electronic reading is gaining momentum. (Source:

In 2007, the NEA did it again. They published a new report focused on correlating reading skills with academic performance. They found that elementary school reading scores were improving, but middle school scores were flat and high school scores declining. When the study looked at math scores of twelfth graders for example, it found that math scores of those that lived in homes with fewer than 10 books were much worse than those living in homes with 100 books or more. To support their claim, the NEA cited that book sales in the past year have been flat and are predicted to stay that way. Again, they laid the blame on television, movies, and the Internet. The NEA chairman was quoted as saying "Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media, they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading."

Also in 2007, a poll by the Associated Press and Ipsos market research found that the typical American read only 4 books a year and only 1 in 4 read any books whatsoever. On the other hand, they found that women read almost twice as much as men in all categories except history and biography. (Source:

Fast forward to the summer of 2008 and the debate is becoming more focused on what really happens over the Internet. Children are clearly spending more of their waking hours on the Internet. And while some argue that the Internet decreases attention spans and thereby lessens literacy, others suggest that the Internet has created a new type of reading, one that is more interactive and stimulating than other electronic media.

Is reading online really any worse for us, or our kids?

Researchers have begun to examine both reading and Internet usage in terms of basic cognitive skills. They argue that book readers form questions less frequently and their searches are limited to the table of contents or an index. Online readers are 'answer-driven' and search a larger database. Book readers have high confidence in contents and believe that books contain information already synthesized and organized into meaning. Online readers must evaluate contents and synthesize meaning for themselves. Lastly, book readers interact less with one another whereas online readers often exchange ideas.

Given that you've read this far, you might just be an example of the new type of scholar -- an academic of the Internet age.

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