What Tree Octopi Can and Cannot Teach Us about Reading Comprehension

  • 04 February, 2011

Blast from the Past:  Originally published Feb 4, 2011; re-posted Oct 12, 2017. This week I read a paper by my friend Sam Wineburg and his colleague Sarah McGrew http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/column-students-cant-google-way-truth/. They are trying to figure out what the best way to make sense of the reliability and veracity of websites so that we can teach readers to be appropriately critical. Past reading studies--like the one discussed here--have promoted strategies that don't help very much. The Wineburg & McGrew approach is more promising.

Are American kids such poor readers that they'll believe anything they read? I don't think so, but a recent news report based on the work of Donald Leu at the University of Connecticut is suggesting just that.

  Don studies the so-called "new literacies," like reading through technology. He conducted an interesting investigation in which he turned kids loose on an Internet website that had information about the tree octopus--yes, an octopus that lives in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, complete with pictures of the 8-legged rascal in a pine tree.

  Kids were overwhelmingly fooled by the site and afterward even argued when told the animal was a hoax. Is this a reading comprehension problem and would better literacy instruction help? Or is the problem of another species altogether (neither literacy nor tree octopus)?

  I actually think the kids could have bought into the idea of a tree climbing octopus without being poor comprehenders, dumb, or even too gullible. It was a pretty convincing hoax (I've included a link to the website at the end of this blog). In fact, I'd be more surprised if kids had not been tripped up by this.

  This year, in fact, a new species of octopus was discovered in that part of the world (this one a purple octopus--the pictures of which are no less implausible than the ones on Don's website).

Gullibility is an issue of age and experience, and so kids are usually a pretty gullible audience (that's probably why they find it so easy to suspend disbelief for cartoons, puppet shows, and the like).

  However, it is also an issue of relevance/importance. I hear news reports all the time about new species being found (or other species disappearing) and I don't question those reports very much--there is just no reason for me to bother (the cost of believing them seems pretty low). Kids might feel the same way. If the info was connected to a request to donate money or to vote for a candidate, it might be worth my time to consider it more critically. Maybe some naturalist or environmentalist wants to manipulate opinion with such information, but that seems pretty unlikely and the cost of believing is so low, why bother trying to challenge it?

  This is further complicated by the underlying source of the information: if your teacher or some university professor tells you to go to this website, that alone may be enough to lower your "crap detectors." That's why many scientists do not want science instruction time wasted on teaching kids to think critically about the textbook (because those books should be close enough to authoritative that kids should be able to trust them--so such teaching would be out of place).

  So, I don't think the kids' lack of critical response to this material in this situation is any big deal. But that doesn't mean that it has no implications for reading instruction.

  It does highlight the value of teaching kids to consider sources of information when evaluating a text (or a website). The pictures of the purple octopus were on the National Geographic website, Don's amazing creature was documented on a site that I'd never heard of and couldn't find any info on. However, what if Don had used his university website to house the errant info? That would have made me more susceptible to the hoax. (Of course, if I were going to school and someone put me onto a website, I might assume it to be authoritative simply because of the underlying source--the school or the teacher. You have to trust someone, ultimately.

  Corroboration matters in this kind of analysis as well, and there were other scientific notes to be found on the purple octopus (though admittedly I had to dig on this one, because being a new research finding, there wasn't much out there yet--so limited info could just be due to the recentness of the discovery, not because it is a hoax). Perhaps Don could have set up multiple sites so that I would have been tripped up here as well.

  In any event, kids will develop a more suspicious nature as they get older (and as the stakes get higher). Sourcing and corroboration would be good tools for them to have so that they could exercise their suspicions.

  But maturity, wisdom, and even a well developed critical sense will not make them impervious to hoaxes and misinformation. Remember when Pierre Salinger was tripped up, a man who had been an award-winning investigative reporter, press secretary to two presidents, a U.S. Senator, and at the time he fell prey to an Internet hoax, a major world correspondent for ABC News. His failure to figure out the misinformation ended his long career on an embarrassing note.

  I don't see the kids' gullibility as a big reading comprehension problem, but I do think that we should teach kids some critical reading tools for interpreting such info (to be used when they believe that it matters).



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What Tree Octopi Can and Cannot Teach Us about Reading Comprehension


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