Editor’s note: This article is part of the series The Right Tool for the Job: Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom, which provides in-depth reviews of promising digital tools for English language arts classrooms.

All curricula and supplemental tools have their pros and cons. In ThinkCERCA’s case, there are far more of the former than the latter (see my first post here for a description of ThinkCERCA).

Advantages

One of the greatest strengths of this tool is the power it gives teachers to customize a student’s learning based on her abilities. All students are administered an initial leveling assessment to confirm their reading level (below, at grade, or above grade level). The program then generates custom reading passages for each student, based on his or her abilities, for use in the applied reading and writing tasks. This is a huge help to teachers because it saves them hours of time in administering reading-placement assessments and finding authentic leveled-reading material for each student. In addition to establishing a reading baseline, ThinkCERCA provides students with a baseline writing assessment, too—the results of which can be used to customize the ThinkCERCA rubrics used to grade all written work.

Another advantage of ThinkCERCA is that students can access their accounts to work on their assignments from their home computers. The ThinkCERCA site works on iPads, Chromebooks, desktops, and tablets (though Chrome is the recommended browser). Students can log in from their home computers once they have set up their student account using the classroom code provided by their teacher.

At first glance, logging in to ThinkCERCA can be overwhelming due to the sheer volume of available materials, but there’s a helpful “getting started” webinar. This twenty-minute session provides all the information needed to navigate the site and set up your class. The search options are also helpful: teachers can search the site by using the filter options such as lesson type, subject, grade level, standard, and theme. The standard filter is particularly useful, allowing teachers to select the particular Common Core standard that they want to target. If history, science, or math teachers are using ThinkCERCA to incorporate writing into their classrooms, the subject filter may be useful to find reading and writing assignments in their content area. These various search filters work well for finding lessons and assignments. However, if a more specific search is required, the teacher can click the “?” button, which opens another tab linked to the program’s support page where keywords can be typed into the search box.

Areas for improvement

The biggest disadvantage of ThinkCERCA is its price. At $40 per student for an annual license, it is quite expensive; plus, for it to be effectively utilized in a classroom, students need their own computers and headphones so that they can work independently (even the reading passages are online). Schools must have the funds not only to purchase the $40 subscription per student but also for a classroom set of computers and headphones. Although additional reading lessons can be accessed through the free version, a user must pay the license fee to have access to the writing portions of ThinkCERCA. Basic calculations would put a class of twenty-five students at a yearly cost of $1,000. If a middle school or high school teacher taught five sections, it would cost a pretty penny to implement (roughly $5,000). Unfortunately, that high cost makes ThinkCERCA a deal breaker for most teachers. A school would have to use this as its core English language arts (ELA) curriculum in order to make it cost effective. To avoid the cost of a classroom set of computers, though, teachers could get creative with their grouping and rotate students on computers.

Final thoughts

ThinkCERCA addresses the Common Core State Standards for ELA with cross-curricular ties to texts in mathematics, social studies, and science. I’m impressed with the resources in the premium lessons, and the CERCA writing steps are an excellent tool for teaching argumentative writing. If a teacher works in a school that can offer every student daily access to a computer (and can afford the tool’s cost), then the ThinkCERCA premium plan is a terrific option.

Besides use in a traditional brick-and-mortar school, ThinkCERCA would be a fine option for blended or hybrid schools that utilize a combination of face-to-face and online instruction, as the lessons can be completed independently by the student. If a classroom doesn’t have the budget to pay $40 per student to utilize the premium plan, the additional reading lessons (which comprise the entirety of the free version) could be used as independent practice for close reading and reading comprehension. Those lessons could also be used as an activity for students who finish classwork early, as a learning station in classroom rotations, or as homework if the students accessed the ThinkCERCA site from their home computer. The additional reading lessons use credible texts with standards-aligned follow-up comprehension questions.

That said, free online reading tools are a dime a dozen. Free online writing tools, however, are especially difficult to come by and are in demand by teachers. ThinkCERCA unfortunately does not fill that cost-free writing void.

Tabitha Pacheco is a ten-year teaching veteran who holds a National Board Certification. She is a 2015 National Teaching Fellow for the Hope Street Group and serves on the Practitioners Advisory Group for the Center on Great Teachers.