Critical Thinking and Web Literacy

Evaluation of any text, whether it is paper-based or online, is a critical skill for all readers. You need to be able to actively engage with the text, carefully considering the validity of the information (taking into account the reliability of the source, possible writer biases, etc.) and the extent the facts presented align with the available evidence.

The following is a summary of Pilgrim et al.’s (2019) article which explores the ability of first through to fifth graders’ ability to critically analyze information on online websites.

Scroll down to the bottom for suggested activities and resources to develop students’ critical thinking and web literacy skills.

Twenty years ago Zapato designed a fake website: https://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/ with the heading ‘Help Save the Endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus from Extinction’. The website was used to assess seventh grade students’ ability to determine the credibility of the website. Even the most proficient online readers believed the website was authentic and lacked the skills to determine the credibility of the website.

Fast forward to 2019. Pilgram et al. used the same website to conduct research on the web literacy skills of students from grades 1 to 5.  The table below shows the percentage of students in each year level who trusted the accuracy of the website.

Grade Percentage of students who trusted the website
1 80%
2 50%
3 80%
4 79%
5 42%
Total 65%

The researches further analyzed the strategies used by the students to determine the credibility of the content and this is summarized below.

Application of prior knowledge

Most students who were able to determine that the website was a hoax drew on prior knowledge of the octopus.

First graders: Most first graders believed that because it was on the internet it must be true.

Second graders: Students at this level struggled with information that conflicted with prior knowledge. Since they perceived some information as true (e.g., an octopus can squeeze into a tight place) it was difficult for them to reject the whole site as a hoax.

Third graders: Students at this level were starting to express concern about the website by linking the content to prior knowledge. (e.g., octopus live in water, so it can’t be real).

Fourth graders: Similar to third grader, students were beginning to question the website’s credibility. Students were not sure if the website was fake because they didn’t know if the fact that they personally had never heard about a tree octopus meant that such creatures didn’t exist.

Fifth graders: These students were the most critical and in general were better able to apply prior knowledge in their critique of the website.

Use of textual features

Students in this study generally attended to a range of text features (e.g., captions, icons, pictures, subheadings). Interestingly, a number of students referred to social media features (e.g., Twitter icon) as an indicator that the website might not be valid as “people on Twitter aren’t always the safest to follow”. However, another student perceived the site as trustworthy because it didn’t ask for personal information. Fifth graders in particular were more likely to consider non-print text features (e.g., URLs and hyperlinks) and the copyright dates in making a decision as to the site’s validity.

Knowledge about facts

All students, irrespective of grade, referred to information on the website as facts and were hesitant to ‘argue with facts’. Only some of the fifth graders were able to use the ‘facts’ on the website to evaluate the site’s authenticity.

Discussion

Compared to the original study in 2006, more participants reflected stronger web literacy evaluation skills (65% in this study versus 100% in the original study trusted the tree octopus site). These current participants were also able to articulate strategies to determine the credibility of a site.

The researchers suggested that the students in the current study may have had similar responses to the text even if it had been presented on paper (i.e., the underlying problem is critical thinking and being able to evaluate text).

Take Action

  1. Provide authentic opportunities for students from an early age to evaluate online sources as a part of classroom practice.
  2. Use online sites such as the tree octopus site as ‘mentor’ texts to model thinking about text features and facts. For example, teachers can model how to alter the URL to reveal the homepage. For example by deleting everything after .net in the URL https://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/ you can see prominently displayed slogans such as ‘Your source for conspiracies and other diversions’ plus information about the author. Clicking on links and the menu tabs also provides clues about the website’s reliability.
  3. Demonstrate how to analyze URLs. For example, URLs ending with .edu or .gov are likely to be more reliable than .net.
  4. Cross check information with two or three other unrelated websites to see if the same information is presented. However, this may not always confirm the validity of the site. For example, if you write ‘tree octopus’ into a search engine, you are presented with multiple sites that appear unrelated to the original site.
  5. Show students how to find copyright dates to determine the currency of the information.
  6. Question an author’s credibility and show students how to cross-reference information about authors.
  7. Demonstrate the process of photoshopping and examine a range of photos to determine which ones are likely to have been altered.
  8. With students, develop a list of questions they can ask:
  • Does the URL seem official?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • Is there an author identified with the site and what credibility does he/she have?
  • Is there similar information in other books or websites?
  • Does the information seem to be logical or trustworthy?
  • Does this information fit with what I already know

More Resources

Conclusion

Analyzing and evaluating any text (both online and on paper) is difficult for many people, not just children. However, it is a skill that is increasingly important due to the growing reliance on the web, the volume of information posted and the fact that anyone can post just about anything with no real checks on the validity of the information.

Reference

Pilgrim, J., Vasinda, S., Bledsoe, C., & Martinez, E. (2019). Critical thinking is critical: Octopuses, online sources and reliability reasoning. The Reading Teacher, 73(1), 85-93.

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