Teachers Review ‘Promising’ Digital Tools for English/Language Arts Instruction

By Liana Loewus — October 06, 2016 2 min read
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There’s been a lot of talk recently about efforts to distinguish good classroom instructional materials from the not so good.

This has bubbled up in part because, seven years since the Common Core State Standards were first published, the majority of states are now well into implementing the benchmarks. Some of the political controversies around the standards have subsided (though certainly not all), and many teachers and administrators are now focused intently on making sure they have the tools they need to teach the standards well.

One of the more high-profile efforts for reviewing curricula has come from the nonprofit The group began by analyzing K-12 math textbooks for common-core alignment, and has now moved onto English/language arts materials. Individual states, researchers, and the company Learning List have been reviewing textbooks, too.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank, has decided to jump into the material-review game as well, though with a slightly different focus.

“To date ... very little information exists on the quality and content of digital learning tools intended to supplement a full curriculum,” wrote research manager Victoria McDougald in a blog post last month introducing the effort. “We thought we might be able to do a little better, at least in terms of providing in-depth reviews of several promising digital tools. To this end, we recruited a team of all-star teachers to evaluate the alignment, quality, and usefulness of nine K-12 English/language arts (ELA)/literacy instructional tools.”

The group is looking at tools that are free or low-cost, some of which are newer to the field than others. They are:

The teacher-reviewers analyze what a tool is designed to do, whether it can be used to meet the common core, how easy it is for teachers to implement, and its overall strengths and weaknesses, among other things. Their assessments, written in narrative form rather than with actual ratings, are being published as a series of blog posts on the Fordham site.

The reviews, which will continue to be rolled out over the next few weeks, are relayed with a teacher-to-teacher tone.

In a recent post about Newsela, 4th and 5th grade teacher Shannon Garrison of California writes:

“Overall, Newsela is an excellent resource for classroom teachers. 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 (in my experience) students find it engaging. The articles also cover myriad topics, so no matter what subject you teach, you are apt to find something relevant to your class.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.