Editor’s note: This article is part of the series The Right Tool for the Job: Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom that provides in-depth reviews of several promising digital tools for English language arts classrooms.
With the transition to the Common Core, one of the biggest challenges teachers face is finding high-quality, relevant, nonfiction texts. Many of the traditional reading programs do not have the balance of fiction and nonfiction for which the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) call, and as a result, a lot of teachers struggle to find the resources they need to effectively prepare students.
As a teacher, I have spent countless hours trying to find appropriate nonfiction texts that I can use with a classroom of diverse learners. I have struggled to find engaging articles that could be read by my English-language learners and still challenge those students who are reading above grade level. Thankfully, last year, I found Newsela.
Newsela.com is an education website focused on building student reading comprehension by providing high-quality news articles and real-time assessments for students in grades 2–12. The site offers both a free version and a more extensive paid version called Newsela PRO. As many educators and schools are working with limited budgets, this overview focuses on the free version, but it also discusses Newsela PRO briefly. (Due to concerns about mature subjects and the content of some news articles, Newsela has created Newsela Elementary. Its content and organization mirror the original Newsela site, but it contains only articles appropriate for elementary-aged students.)
The free site content includes current news articles, historical documents and texts, and student-assessment features, all detailed below.
The news articles span a wide array of content, including science, money, law, health, arts, sports, and opinion. The site provides high-quality nonfiction texts from well-regarded media sources, such as the Washington Post, the Scientific American, the Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press. An added benefit of using the site is that students not only practice reading nonfiction but also stay current with what is happening locally and globally.
Along with a library of articles, Newsela provides real-time assessments of student comprehension through multiple-choice quizzes and writing prompts. Each article is accompanied by a four-item quiz that probes the following areas: what the text says; central ideas; people, events, and ideas; word meaning and choice; text structure; point of view or purpose; multimedia; or arguments and claims. These categories are aligned to the first eight Common Core Anchor Standards for Reading, but they are also written generally enough to be aligned to reading-comprehension standards in states not using the CCSS. Teachers also have the option of assigning a short writing prompt related to the article the students read.
Students and teachers can also use Newsela’s built-in “annotation tool” as they read. They can highlight passages in articles, mark them with symbols, ask questions, jot notes, and write short summaries of important ideas. This is a great way for students to purposely interact with text, to promote their active reading, and to further their comprehension.
Newsela is adaptive, with each article accessible at five reading (Lexile) levels. The original article is used as the highest Lexile level. It’s then rewritten by Newsela staff for different grade levels, using a Lexile conversion chart available on their website. Teachers initially set the grade level for all students in their class; after a student has taken eight to ten quizzes, the site adjusts the articles to that student’s appropriate reading level—a continuous process based on pupil performance. This adaptive feature allows for an entire class to read and discuss the same content, while permitting individual students to access material at their individual reading level. To make its content accessible to more students, Newsela has also translated many of its articles into Spanish—again available at five reading levels.
Though nonfiction news articles make up the bulk of Newsela’s resources, the site also has a “library” that includes primary-source documents, biographies, famous speeches, and historical “Time Machine” articles. Resources available in the library include fascinating documents such as Howard Carter’s diary written during the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb; engaging articles, such as a 1900’s account of children working in the coal mines of Pennsylvania; and inspiring speeches, such as Cesar Chavez’s “Lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” Like the news articles, each document contains a multiple-choice quiz and a writing prompt to assess comprehension.
Along with its online library of news articles and historical documents, Newsela provides both students and teachers with “binders” where assignments and assessment-related information can be stored. Teachers are able to view classroom-level data, including the number of students who have completed an assignment and the class average on a quiz, but cannot review individual student data or writing responses unless they subscribe to Newsela PRO. Assignments can be filtered by academic standard so that teachers can see how their class is performing on quizzes that address a specific standard. Students are able to view their assignments and individual assessment data in their binders.
The Newsela website can be accessed on a variety of digital platforms, and Newsela apps have been designed for both iPads and iPhones. The website is intuitively organized and easy to navigate.
Unsurprisingly, Newsela has proven popular with educators: as of July 2016, it had been used by over 6.1 million students and 800,000 teachers in all fifty states and internationally. Students have read nearly 100 million articles since Newsela was created!
Newsela’s fee-based version, Newsela PRO, offers enhanced tools and experiences. Newsela does not publish prices on its website but shared in a recent tweet that the Pro version costs about $6,000 per school, $2,000 per grade level, and $18 per student per year. (Newsela has worked with DonorsChoose in the past, so that may be an option for teachers who wish to subscribe to Newsela PRO on their own. They can also request a free thirty-day trial to see whether Newsela PRO works well for their purposes).
The biggest benefit of the PRO version is that it allows teachers to go beyond classroom-level data to view individual student progress and to track student progress against the CCSS. It allows teachers to see individual quiz results and read, score, and provide feedback on student responses to the writing prompts. Teachers are also able to sort and filter student-performance data and print reports, enabling them to track data, identify trends, and adjust instruction accordingly.
The PRO version also has several added features. Teachers can edit writing prompts so that they align more closely with what they’re doing in the classroom. This allows teachers to more easily link Newsela articles with topics they are discussing in class.
Newsela PRO also provides options for both students and teachers to annotate text—and allows them to view and respond to each other’s annotations. Teachers can use this to call attention to specific points in the text, to prompt students to reflect about something said in the text, or to add more notes to aid with comprehension. For their part, students can respond to teacher questions, ask their own questions, or just type in thoughts and reflections. This definitely makes the reading more interactive and helps teachers to promote close reading.
Although Newsela’s articles and resources are valuable instructional tools in their own right, the site also includes text sets: sets of news articles, biographies, speeches, and historical documents organized around a central theme or topic (see this post for more). For a closer look at Newsela’s text set capabilities and how they can be used in the classroom, please see part two of this review.
Shannon Garrison is a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher in California with two decades of teaching experience. She holds a National Board Certification, serves on the National Assessment Governing Board, and was also recently selected as a Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year.