Learning to Read Online

In introductory writing classes with a research based project, most of us spend time teaching students how to read academic journal articles. We understand how to read a journal article because we know why it’s written the way it is, why there are always certain parts such as abstracts, introductions, and headings, and how to navigate those parts alone or as part of the whole. We teach students how to read these journal articles because, especially during the research phase, those dense, jargon filled texts can seem intimidating, confounding, and downright discouraging.

But just as we assume that students are unfamiliar with reading academic journal articles, we risk assuming that, as digital natives, they are adept at reading web pages. However, we repeatedly see in both subtle and overt ways that this is not the case. So why don’t we teach students how to read webpages as we do academic articles? Or to use Google the way we teach them to use our institutions’ library databases?

My research into how the web works gave me some useful information in two specific areas that I found beneficial to students’ understanding on online research: how and why individual pages look the way they do, and how search engines generate their results.

Reading Webpages

Why do we sometimes have to search for the author of an article when we’re creating citations? Or scroll to the bottom of the page to find the publisher? Because we’re often distracted by the placement of information which is structured hierarchically on the importance of each piece of information. I’ve found it useful to talk to my students about how we read online and how designers and developers create websites.

There’s a lot going on in a single webpage (images, banners, text, links, etc.) and developers take advantage of basic principles of our behaviors. For example, on average we spend a few seconds on a webpage to assess its worth, few of us read ‘below the fold,’ when we share an article few of us have read more than 70% of it, and we love to scroll but can be stingy with our link clicking within a site. For these reasons, simple tactics such as showing students the ‘f-pattern’ results from eye tracking studies helps them understand what their eyes are drawn to on individual pages:


digital literacy

Image Credit

And in search results:

information literacy

Image Credit

And when they begin to understand why and how they read the way they do, it can help them slow down and analyze the content of their sources. It also helps us teachers better understand why some students insist on using the first Google result in their search whether or not it fits in their paper. 

The two images above are simple, but on their own they can initiate whole discussions that help students reflect on their habits and best practices for both online research and their day to day internet usage.

If you’re interested in this topic or are looking for more information to share with your students, take a look at the following articles:

Search Engine Results

First off, if you haven’t read James Vincent’s article “Teens Can’t Tell the Difference between Google Ads and Search Results” I encourage you to take a look. It addresses the false assumption that our students are adept digital natives and helps explain their difficulties finding credible sources.

Second, it’s time to accept that gone are the days of search engines returning results based on keywords alone. There are thousands of factors that go into basic search algorithms including domains, links, trust, and authority to name a few. And that’s just on the side of the actual sites. On the user’s end, search engine results include behavioral, social, geographic, demographic, and temporal factors specific to individual users. In short, this is how your search engine makes suggestions based on what city you’re or how Facebook gives you an advertisement for that product you just search for on Amazon.

As a whole, this is a lot to explain to students and would involve far more time than I could or am willing to dedicate to my courses, but again, I believe that helping students understand the basic principles is beneficial to students. I recommend David Harry’s “How Search Engines Rank Web Pages” as a starting point. In fact, I use an abbreviated version of this article to help initiate discussions with my students on how exactly that first web page made it to the top of Google’s several millions results.

I will warn that during this research I found myself drifting into web developer and SEO territory so don’t worry too much but trying to understand the finer details. I believe that even a basic understanding of the the underlying principles behind search engine results helps students get a better handle on navigating their research on the web.


Featured image courtesy of https://unsplash.com/@petritzdesigns


Teaching Assistant at University of Illinois at Chicago |

Hannah Green is a PhD student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. While a creative writer by nature, she’s a teacher at heart and enjoys teaching writing in all its forms including composition, professional, technical, and creative writing. Her research interests include the place of the asylum in narratives of mental illness, the literature of Southern Africa, and oral storytelling. Her creative writing appears both in print and online in places such as The Rumpus, PANK, and McSweeney's. Hannah is also the Editor-in-Chief of During Office Hours.


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