When Michelle Brown, a former teacher in rural Mississippi, lacked the books she needed in her high-poverty middle school three years ago, she decided to create a resource of her own. CommonLit, the nonprofit website Brown founded in 2013, has since attracted thousands of 5th-to-12th grade teachers and readers with its free online library.
The tool’s success caught the eye of officials at the U.S. Department of Education. Last week, CommonLit received $3.89 million through the department’s innovative literacy initiative to aid two years of development, the Herald-Zeitung reported.
CommonLit.org allows schools, teachers, and families to access an online research library that includes both fiction and nonfiction works, including authors such as Shel Silverstein, Margaret Atwood, Amy Tan, and poet Billy Collins, and media outlets like NPR. The texts are donated by publishers, and users can search the site’s repository by reading level, lesson, theme, genre, grade, and common-core standard.
There are also tools to track reading progress and skills, both for individual students and entire classes, including interactive quizzes and assignments. The site, which currently has a little more than 500 texts in the library, also has features to help teachers to grade students’ work, see where they might need more attention, and differentiate reading instruction. (Watch a video on how CommonLit works.)
Brown, who is a Teach for America alum, won $100,000 for the website through the Teach For America Social Innovation Award in 2015. At that point, she brought on more staff to help grow CommonLit’s curriculum. With the new grant, she plans develop an online-teacher-training component, additional free-library resources, a mobile app, and a better platform for student assessment. At the end of September, there were 22,689 registered non-student users—most of them teachers—using CommonLit in over 12,000 schools.
According to a small study that Brown herself conducted in 2013, the tool has had a positive effect on students’ reading levels and interest. For the study, five classes within the Boston school district used CommonLit and had one hour of professional development for teachers, while four classes carried on normally. The classrooms that worked with CommonLit had a slight increase in students’ engagement and enjoyment levels with reading.
A key aspect of CommonLit is its accessibility, Brown told the Herald-Zeitung. All content on the site is free to every, user with the goal of increasing literacy in schools with the greatest need. She hopes that, as internet access continues to grow—the number of students without school Internet has been cut in half in the past two years—the service can help schools with limited resources provide engaging literary content without having to shell out more money.
“It’s so important to me that CommonLit remains free for teachers, because I was a teacher that didn’t have anything—no books, no support, nothing,” Brown told the Herald-Zeitung. “My hope is that in the long run, CommonLit will help level the playing field for students in our nation’s poorest schools.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.