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Reading & Writing Quarterly, 20: 3317335, 2004 Copyright # Taylor & Francis Inc. ISSN: 1057-3569 print DOI: 10.1080/10573560490446330


My weak readers are not using [the Internet]. What a statement to make, but it is correct. Their reading abilities make it so difficult to complete a task that they run out of time. The children need to be able to go to the computer and do what they have to do without my assistance since I am teaching the rest of the class.

—4th grade teacher Missed opportunities to engage in meaningful Internet use have quickly been added to the many ways struggling students are left behind in classrooms. With access rarely an issue (NCES, 2002), reading difficulties, limited keyboarding capabilities, and poor navigational skills seem to be reasons some students do not use the Internet in school. While these are real concerns, we cannot deny the importance of preparing all students to use the technology, as it is clear students will need to be proficient in its use to be successful in the work place (Mikulecky & Kirkley, 1998). Furthermore, because school may be the only place many students have access to the Internet, it is crucial they are given rich opportunities during the academic year to interact with it. Address correspondence to Rachel A. Karchmer, University of Delaware, Willard Hall 132E, School of Education, Newark, DE 19716. E-mail:

Issues in Technology is edited by Ernest Balajthy, Prospective contributions, should be 3 to 5 double-Spaced pages prepared according to the guidelines set forth in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (4th ed., 1994). Contributors should submit a paper copy, accompanied by a PC Mac disk copy, to Ernest Balajthy, School of Education, SUNY at Geneseo, Geneseso, NY 14454, USA (phone: 716-245-5254; Fax: 716-245-5220; e-mail:



R. A. Karchmer

USING THE INTERNET TO SUPPORT BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE Background knowledge plays an important role in one’s ability to learn. We learn new knowledge by relating it to our prior knowledge, which in turn provides concrete understanding (Piaget, 1969). Rosenblatt (1996) explained, ‘‘The reader brings to the work personality traits, memories of past events, present needs and preoccupations, a particular mood of the moment, and a particular physical condition’’ (p. 30). As a result, students who lack relevant knowledge will struggle to comprehend text. Leo Lionni’s beloved picture book, Fish Is Fish (1987), illustrates this problem. The fish in the story hears of the world above the water’s surface, but lacking sufficient understanding, imagines birds as fish with wings, people as fish with legs wearing clothes, and cows as fish with horns. Similarly, the struggling reader who lacks background knowledge comprehends text through a distorted lens, unable to grasp an understanding of different people, places, and things. The Internet may be the most powerful classroom tool for exposing students to the world around them. Consider first the unlimited resources available through the World Wide Web. Instead of being limited to classroom libraries, teachers can easily introduce students to the most up-to-date information on practically any topic. For example, Lisa Nielsen, a fourth-grade teacher in Florida, works with students labeled ‘‘at-risk.’’ Not only do her students struggle with academics, but they also struggle for a purpose to learn. They very rarely relate to the topics covered in school; therefore, their motivation to learn is minimal. Ms. Nielsen integrates the Internet into her lessons because she feels the technology helps provide concrete connections between her students and the school curriculum. Moreover, the current nature of the information found on the Internet seems to motivate her students to examine topics about which they might not have initially been interested (Karchmer, Leu, & Hinchman, 2003). A second consideration is the ease in which communication can take place over the Internet with people in different places. Teachers are currently taking advantage of this as they participate in several types of instructional activities that connect their students to other people. For example, e-mail correspondence between students in different classrooms is a frequent instructional activity that allows students to learn first-hand about different people, cultures, and places (Garner and Gillingham, 1998; Tao & Boulware, 2002). There are web sites available to help teachers locate partner classrooms (for example, Teachers can choose classrooms located in areas their students will be learning about in school as a way of providing further connections.

Background Knowledge


Leu and Leu (1999) described the collaborative Internet project, an instructional activity that connects classrooms around the world. These projects involve two or more classrooms studying a particular topic that is typically related to curriculum standards. The students conclude the projects by sharing their findings over the Internet through essays, book reviews, poems, charts, diagrams, and other types of written or graphic expressions. Students who participate in these projects are exposed to people and places in ways that are very different than before the Internet was used in school. These new opportunities build students’ abilities to relate and be sensitive to the world around them. An extensive list of collaborative Internet projects can be found at the Community Learning Network’s website (

HOW DO WE PROVIDE STUDENTS WITH INTERNET OPPORTUNITIES? When thinking about how to include all students in classroom Internet use, it is critical to look at the current educational climate. With the enactment of legislation such as the No Child Left Behind of 2001 (, there has been an even greater push for accountability and high-stakes testing at the state and local levels. Since the Internet is not currently used for the administration of statewide tests, many teachers believe its use is not valuable in preparing students to pass the test (Karchmer, Leu, & Hinchman, 2003). Instead, in many instances, technology is considered a separate curriculum area that is only covered once the important topics are taught. Unfortunately, when technology is used, it does not always seem to be very meaningful. Several school divisions in Virginia, for example, have put great emphasis on computer programs such as Lightspan’s Edutest ( to prepare students for the state standards test. This program requires students to answer multiple-choice curriculum-based questions in practice test exercises. The technology supplants teacher interaction and provides an easier means of assessing student achievement, but it fails to stimulate student thinking or support background knowledge (Patterson, Henry, O’Quin, Ceprano, & Blue, 2003). Moreover, it does not provide an exciting model of interactive computer use for teachers. Only when the Internet is viewed as a tool for achieving higher-level thinking and a means of supporting background knowledge will teachers understand how it can seamlessly be integrated into their curriculum. When thinking about how to effectively engage struggling readers with the Internet at the classroom level, it is important to recognize the concerns stated earlier in this column such as reading difficulties, limited keyboarding capabilities, and poor navigational skills. These concerns need


R. A. Karchmer

to be supported if we want Internet use to be worthwhile. Possibly the most important place to start is teacher preparation (Karchmer, 2001). As teachers become more aware of the many aspects of technology, their comfort level and their ability to create modifications will increase. Just as with the implementation of any new tool or instructional strategy, it is critical for teachers to understand its purpose, the procedure for implementing it, and to have many opportunities to practice it. The Internet is no different. Teachers who regularly use the Internet purposefully take the time to identify websites for classroom use that are written at their students’ instructional level and incorporate a variety of electronic textual aids (e.g., video, hyperlinks) to support students’ reading (Karchmer, 2001). As a result, they know their students will be able to manage the websites and interact effectively with the text. For instance, the Exploratorium’s Cow’s Eye website ( teaches about the parts of the cow’s eye and includes text, an electronic glossary, and explicit audio and video to take the reader through the dissection of the eye. These textual aids resonate with all types of learners as they encompass visual and audio supports in addition to the written text. However, to effectively prepare students to use sites like those found at the Exploratorium, teachers must first become familiar with aspects of the Internet, including navigational skills and how to use electronic textual aids to support reading. Then it will be clearer as to how to modify Internet activities so that students with specific needs are able to participate.

CONCLUSION There are hundreds of teachers across the United States and throughout the rest of the world who provide models of meaningful Internet opportunities for all of their students. Susan Silverman, an instructional technology coordinator in New York (, Mary Kreul, a fourth-grade teacher in Wisconsin (, and Marci McGowan, a first-grade teacher in New Jersey (, are just three examples of educators who seamlessly incorporate Internet use into their classrooms. Their work, among others, can provide a starting place for teachers as they realize the Internet’s potential in supporting all students’ learning.

REFERENCES Garner, R. & Gillingham, M. G. (1998). The Internet in the classroom: Is it the end of transmission-oriented pedagogy? In D. Reinking, M. McKenna, L. Labbo, & R. Keiffer (Eds.), Handbook of literacy and technology: Transformations in a post-typographic world. pp. 2217233, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Background Knowledge


Karchmer, R. A. (2001). Teacher on a journey: Thirteen teachers report how the Internet influences literacy and literacy instruction in their K712 classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 36(4), 4427467. Karchmer, R. A., Leu, D. J., & Hinchman, K. A. (2003). Bumps and smooth passages: Teachers’ journeys to Internet use in their classrooms. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Chicago, IL. April 2003. Leu, D. J. & Leu, D. D. (1999). Teaching with the Internet: Lessons from the classroom. (2nd ed.) Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon. Lionni, L. (1987). Fish is fish. New York: Knopf. Mikulecky, L. & Kirkley, J. R. (1998). Changing workplaces, changing classes: The new role of technology in workplace literacy. In D. Reinking, M. McKenna, L. D. Labbo, & R. Kieffer (Eds.), Handbook of literacy and technology: Transformations in a post-typographic world (pp. 3037320). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). Technology in schools: Suggestions, tools and guidelines for assessing technology in elementary and secondary education. NCES Publication No. 20037313. Washington, DC: US Department of Education. Patterson, W. A., Henry, J. J., O’Quin, K., Ceprano, M. A., & Blue, E. V. (2003). Investigating the effectiveness of an integrated learning system on early emergent readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 38, 1727207. Piaget, J. (1969). The psychology of intelligence. Paterson, NJ: Littlefield, Adams. Rosenblatt, L. (1996). Literature as thought. (5th ed). New York: Modern Language Association of America. Tao, L. & Boulware, B. (2002). E-mail: Instructional potentials and learning opportunities. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 18, 2857288.

Creating Connections Using The Internet  

Struggling readers and background knowledge