Students are spending an increasingly amount of time online. Aside from the ubiquitous online chatting, the revolution of Web 2.0 has expanded the possibilities for social interaction through blogging, wikis and podcasts - applications that the younger generation has swiftly got used to.

But with so many attractions - or distractions - which entice students to spend more time online, has the internet numbed the students' interest in reading?

"Internet is a fascinating tool and nothing beats it for simple research. It has rendered our encyclopaedias museum pieces," says Trevor Zahra, well-known writer of children's books.

"But it can be extremely abused. Children, for whom internet is as familiar as the refrigerator, who sit passively for hours in front of a dazzling monitor and are rewarded with attractive and immediate results through the click of the keyboard, might regard traditional reading as a dull and boring exercise."

On the one hand, Mr Zahra describes books as functioning in silence, expecting the readers' full attention and concentration.

"The internet offers video-clips, animations, images and sounds. Some might feel that the quietude and stillness of reading go against their grain. The pleasures that I acquire from reading a book, can never be gained through internet. But that works vice-versa as well," he says.

Doreen Deguara, a Maltese teacher who has been teaching in Canada for the past nine years, says that since the World Wide Web became available to the public in the early 1990's, an information revolution has taken place which has changed the way people access and process the written word.

"The demographic group which has arguably been impacted the most by this shift beyond library walls is our younger generation of school-age children, the majority of whom have probably never known a world without web surfing, downloading, file sharing and Facebook."

Ms Deguara says students are still reading books, but they are also reading texts in formats other than the traditional hardbound or paperback book. "The difference with the internet is that, in addition to being recipients of the written word, students now have the option of being immediate participants by posting opinions and feedback about the topic of choice."

A report in the New York Times last week stated while 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, others say the internet has created a new kind of reading, one that schools and society should not discount.

"At least since the invention of television, critics have warned that electronic media would destroy reading. What is different now, some literacy experts say, is that spending time on the web, whether it is looking up something on Google or even britneyspears.org, entails some engagement with text."

In fact, every online interaction, whether it's chatting or browsing, entails a form of engagement with text. Just like what goes on in daily life, such as reading a newspaper or magazine, following the instructions in a manual, or reading textbooks at school.

However, Ms Deguara said that the question of whether or not the popularity of the internet has risen to the detriment of students' interest in reading books is debatable: "While one might argue that children are spending too much time online chatting in short-form texts using abbreviated versions of standard spelling and perusing web pages of questionable literary value and grammatical accuracy, on the other hand, how do you explain the record number of advance sales of the Harry Potter books on Amazon.com or the eager teenage girls waiting for the recent release of the latest Stephanie Meyer novel?" she asks.

What is evident is that the impact of internet over books and reading is widespread and far-reaching. Ms Deguara explained: "Here in Canada, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) which provides province-wide testing to evaluate and report the quality of education in Ontario schools, announced in May that 84 per cent of first-time eligible students in secondary school successfully met the literacy standard for reading and writing. For the 2006-2007 EQAO assessment year, 62 per cent and 64 per cent of all Grade 3 and Grade 6 students respectively scored at or above the provincial standard, numbers which have been slowly on the rise over the past four years. Whether or not the internet has had an influence - positive or negative - on theses results is a matter for further research.

"Our role as parents and educators is to guide our children to make informed decisions as they navigate the web. One of the language strands in the Ontario Curriculum document is Media Literacy which looks to teach and assess students' 'critical thinking skills as they apply to media products and messages' , among which websites are included.

"Skills related to high-tech media such as the internet... are particularly important because of the power and pervasive influence these media wield in our lives and in society. Becoming conversant with these and other media can greatly expand the range of information sources available to students, their expressive and communicative capabilities, and their career opportunities'," she says.

For Mr Zahra, internet is just another tool. "If used appropriately and with adequate guidance, it could improve reading abilities. But it could also be addictive and frivolous, transforming potential readers into passive spectators."

The benefits can be taken advantage of only through the right tools. "If our students are equipped with the right analytical tools to critically interpret online texts by learning to distinguish the features of reliable sites, the internet can become a great source for finding quality reading material and information for research and study purposes," Ms Deguara concluded.

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