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A Consumer Reports-Type Review of Online Literacy Resources

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

06/20/2018

Article: “The Right Tool for the Job: Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom” by Melody Arabo, Jonathan Budd, Shannon Garrison, and Tabitha Pacheco, edited by Victoria McDougald, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, March 2017, https://bit.ly/2M0namr
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In this Thomas B. Fordham Institute white paper, Melody Arabo, Jonathan Budd, Shannon Garrison, and Tabitha Pacheco (all frontline K-12 educators) analyzed online tools for improving K-12 reading and writing skills:

• Newsela https://newsela.com – This website provides high-quality news articles, historical documents, and other texts for students in grades 2-12, covering science, law, health, arts, sports, opinion, and economics. Users can toggle between five levels of reading difficulty (on the Lexile scale). There are also real-time assessments testing comprehension with multiple-choice questions and writing prompts. Teachers can get free access, with content suitable for elementary and secondary students, or pay for Newsela PRO with additional features. The Newsela website also has an annotation tool and text sets of news articles, biographies, speeches, and historical documents organized around central themes or topics.

“Overall, Newsela is an excellent resource for classroom teachers,” concluded the Fordham review. “Its articles are interesting, gathered from trusted media sources, and presented at multiple levels of complexity so that students with varying reading skills can access the text. The site is easy to use, and.. students find it engaging.”

• Readworks https://www.readworks.org – This free site has more than 2,600 classroom-ready K-12 informational and literary passages, paired texts, text sets, lessons, comprehension units, and novel study units, all accompanied by question sets. All passages are searchable by keyword, grade, Lexile level, topic, text type, and skill or strategy. Topics include civics and government, technology and engineering, and world history; skills include author’s purpose, cause and effect, drawing conclusions, and vocabulary in context. Many of the paired passages have “StepReads” – slightly more accessible versions of the original passages.

The Fordham review was critical of the accessibility of some material on the ReadWorks site, but said it was “a valuable resource that provides teachers with a wealth of reading comprehension resources at no cost.”

• Achieve the Core https://achievethecore.org – This free website has resources to help implement Common Core and other college-and-career standards, including PD modules, classroom lessons with annotations, videos, planning tools, student writing samples, math tasks, and assessments. “Achieve the Core is well organized,” said the Fordham review. “Though its sheer number of resources can be overwhelming at first, once familiar with it, the site is easy to navigate.” The review gave special praise to the site’s “expert pack” text sets.

The Fordham review compared Newsela, Readworks, and Achieve the Core on six key features:

- Provides high-quality texts aligned to Common Core: All three

- Texts are intentionally ordered: Achieve the Core only

- Assessments are available for each passage: Newsela and Readworks

- Assessments are available for the text sets: ReadWorks only

- Classroom activities are provided for each text within a text set: Achieve the Core only

- Texts are available at multiple reading levels: Newsela and ReadWorks

• Curriculet https://www.waterford.org/curriculet/ – This online grade 3-12 digital library (with free and paid versions) has books and news articles for students’ independent reading, and to supplement a standard curriculum. Texts contain periodic “checkpoints” to assess student engagement and comprehension. “One significant weakness,” said the Fordham review, “is the store’s search feature, which does not allow users to select texts based on Lexile level or interest outside of basic categories such as new releases, poetry, children’s literature, and historical fiction. Despite this limitation, however, Curriculet is a helpful resource for teachers looking for reputable reading texts and accompanying assessments that can be used for either individual students or small groups, depending on reading level and need.”

• Lexia Reading Core5 https://www.lexialearning.com/products/core5 – This paid PreK-5 literacy site, aligned to Common Core standards, is adaptive and operates like a game: students begin with on-grade-level texts, activities, and assessments, and the program adapts to become more or less challenging based on their performance. The site also has a scope and sequence, lesson scripts, and suggestions for students who are struggling with an online activity. The Fordham review said this site was “well-organized, thorough, and easy to follow, covering many components of reading instruction… engaging for students, aligned to the Common Core State Standards, and provides real-time actionable performance data for teachers…” However, the “biggest weakness is its cost. Teachers looking to enhance their classrooms may need to look for something more affordable – or free.”

• Quill https://www.quill.org – This free website has grade 1-12 Common Core-aligned digital worksheets in grammar, vocabulary, and writing skills (there’s also an $80-a-year teacher premium package (as of 2017) that provides more detailed student reports). The site has a variety of materials and genres, including fiction, mythology, and historical documents. This site has no multiple-choice questions; students have to respond to reading passages by writing complete sentences, and if their response is incorrect or incomplete, they have to try again. Quill also has a diagnostic assessment that can place students at appropriate lessons.

“After poring over this site and exploring its activities,” concluded the Fordham review, “I definitely recommend Quill to elementary language arts teachers. The most significant advantage is that the tool measures proficiency on the grammar-specific skills that students are expected to acquire under the Common Core standards. It also reduces the amount of grading, so it will save teachers time…” The site specializes in grammar, editing, and sentence-writing skills, so it’s not the place for writing lengthy essays. It’s not a game-based site, so it’s not ideal for students who need the motivation of earning points or having a cartoon avatar to keep them engaged. In addition, it’s necessary to get the paid version of Quill to have access to more-detailed reporting on student progress.

• Writelike http://writelike.org – This free, game-like middle-grade site aims to improve students’ writing craft through analysis, writing exercises, and emulation of master authors. The site has self-guided lessons that scaffold learning on key writing topics like semicolons, similes, and metaphors and ask students to mimic a particular writer’s language and style.

The site also has exercises, including:

- Reading a sentence, clearing it from the screen, then attempting to reproduce it verbatim from memory;

- Reordering sentences to get them in the proper narrative sequence;

- Rewriting the content of a text into a different style – such as a fable or book review.
Drills are grouped by different challenges, e.g., spelling and punctuation practice that can be accessed by students or teachers.

“Writelike’s greatest strength,” concluded the Fordham review, “is the creative way in which it exposes students to numerous authentic literary excerpts and strong texts that they can read and emulate. The interactive exercises are fun and will likely keep students engaged, while helping to improve important writing skills such as writing in different styles, rearranging sentences into the correct order, and proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar…” Among the site’s downsides: it may initially be overwhelming to a teacher; it’s not explicit enough about the Common Core standards it covers; certain literary texts may be too sophisticated for typical middle-school students; some of the directions are cryptic and informal; and students aren’t required to write a particular number of words before progressing to the next level (they could proceed by typing a single character).

• iCivics Drafting Board https://www.icivics.org/products/drafting-board – This free online tool is part of the middle- and high-school civics education site, founded by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The iCivics site has curriculum units, lesson plans, games, and other resources on the Constitution, civil rights, and the three branches of government, as well as mini-lessons and brief readings and activities on historical figures, events, and court cases.

iCivics Drafting Board is an interactive writing tool designed to help students develop strong argumentative writing skills while exposing them to important social studies content. Each unit introduces a contemporary civics topic (for example, the electoral college, voting age, military intervention) with brief readings that summarize diverse viewpoints from real and/or fictional people. Students then select evidence to complete a fictional news story summarizing the issue, then choose one side of the issue and make their claim in an argumentative essay. As they draft their essays, students can get one of five levels of support – such as having evidence within the text highlighted or being given a topic sentence. As students draft their essays, a helpful bar tracks progress on their introduction, multiple claims, evidence, a counter paragraph, and the conclusion.

“Overall,” concluded the Fordham review, “iCivics Drafting Board is interactive, easy to use, engaging, and real-world relevant… It is also clear about what it intends – and does not intend – to do.” Drawbacks include the time required to complete each segment (two hours), the need for more clarity on what constitutes mediocre and effective evidence, and insufficient emphasis on judging the quality and quantity of students’ responses.

• ThinkCERCA https://thinkcerca.com – This grade 3-12 site focuses on close reading and writing argumentative essays in history, current events, science, and math (CERCA is an acronym for making claims, supporting claims with evidence, reasoning, counterarguments, and using audience-appropriate language). After an initial assessment of students’ reading levels, texts can be customized by Lexile level and students’ prior knowledge. ThinkCERCA can be used as a complete ELA curriculum covering Common Core standards, as a supplementary tool, and as a writing program to cultivate cross-curricular ties between ELA and content areas. Lessons are organized in three formats: direct instruction, applied reading and writing, and additional reading practice. ThinkCERCA recommends teaching lessons to the whole class at first until students understand the program.

“Whichever method the teacher chooses,” said the Fordham review, “the paid premium subscription is a must to access the writing portions of the site.” The price as of 2017 was $40 per student. The site does give students access to their accounts so they can work on assignments from a home computer. Logging into the website can be overwhelming at first because of the “sheer volume of available materials,” but there’s support in a 20-minute introductory webinar. Teachers can also explore the website using a filter to find grade level, subject, Common Core standard, theme, or lesson type.




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