Newsela adds “paired texts”

Newsela has not been around for long, but the company has become quite popular as a way for educators to meet the literacy needs of classrooms serving a wide range of reading levels. The service offers the same “news” stories written at multiple reading levels.

Newsela  now offers an additional approach that meets the challenges of what some have described as a “new literacy”. Most of us increasing turn to online resources to meet our information needs and we locate this information using search. What search returns are multiple hits and we tend to fashion an understanding from a review of several of these sources. In keeping with this notion that we build a personal understanding by combining information from multiple sources, Newsela now provides a resource called Paired Texts. Two articles that address a common theme are provided. Students are provided a writing prompt that is best addressed by combining information from the two resources.

As far as I can tell, the articles are selected to provide different information and not contradictory perspectives. This would seem to be the next step – what do you do when a search provides information that is not consistent and you are asked to take a position?

Individualizing literacy instruction with Newsela

The individualization of learning experiences is one of those educational goals that sounds so logical, but ends up being difficult to implement in a practical way. Finding or generating learning materials suited to individual needs can be quite time consuming. What could be ideal in many situations is combining individualization with group discussion. Discussion and sharing can be an important social and learning activity, but learners must share at least some background in order to have something to offer.

Newsela is an online service suited to these circumstances. The benefits of the service have been described in several different ways depending on the reviewer. Newsela offers news articles within several topical areas ranging from science to world events. Each article offered on multiple reading levels – the claim is from 3rd grade through high school. To be clear – this means students reading at different levels can be reading about the same specific topic. Each article connects to a writing prompt and comprehension questions.

It seems that Newsela could be used to completely individualize the learning experience. One strategy would be to differentiate the experience for each level based on interest and reading level. I like the alternative of having students read a similar article suited to their level of functioning and then having the opportunity to discuss the article in a group context.

Newsela comes in a free and a pro version. Newsela requests that educators or administrators contact the company for a bid. EdSurge suggests the cost for the pro version is approximately $2000 per classroom. The pro version offers features such as an annotation tool for teachers allowing teachers to highlight content within articles to guide students and advanced data tracking features. It seems that the free version might be a great way to supplement/diversify literacy instruction and the pro version would appropriate if one wanted to make these resources a core part of instruction.

As the year winds down and educators are seeking a few new things to spice things up, it might be an ideal time to explore Newsela.


Comparison of free and pro versions

Setting up an account for your classroom



Web content evaluation – data for a change

I sometimes complain that pundits and keynoters receive too much blog attention and researchers too little. Since the researchers I follow seldom seem to blog, perhaps I should post in support of their activity.

So much attention has been focused on the quality of online resources and the skills necessary to critically evaluate these resources as a literacy component of 21st Century functioning that one might think this area would have generated considerable research activity. There seem to be plenty of recommendations for practice, but little formal assessment of skill or of the success of interventions.

The recent AERJ article by Wiley and colleagues (citation at end of post) describes an interesting study I feel both evaluates the value of commonly suggested practices for evaluating web sites (e.g., identify the page author and possible motive for offering the information) in terms of whether students (college students in this case) learn to apply such skills and whether the development of such skills influence how students then go about completing an online inquiry task. I thought the procedure used in the study was creative – basically offer students a fabricated Google results page based on a given search phrase and have participants evaluate the various links. Social psychologists and other researchers often employ deception in their research. The research demonstrated that more specific guidance and a more active evaluation task resulted in improved performance on a second site evaluation task AND the use of higher quality information in an inquiry task.

This study needs to be replicated with younger learners.

BTW – the methodology is similar (evaluate a set of sites addressing a given topic) to that proposed on the Beck “Good, bad and ugly” site.

Wiley, J., Goldman, S.R., Graesser, A.C., Sanchez, C.A., Ash, I.K. & Hemmerich, J.A. (2009). Source evaluation, comprehension, and learning in Internet science inquiry tasks. American Educational Research Journal, 46, 1060-1106.

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Dumbest Generation – Same data, different story

Those of us who train undergraduate psychology major give several reasons for teaching all majors about research methodology. Most majors will never do research. We know this and argue that learning the research process is a good way to develop critical thinking skills. We suggest that in thinking carefully about the methodology used in research it is sometimes possible to offer a different interpretation of the outcome than that given by the researcher. This is one reason researches are required to carefully describe their methodology and to outline their results before offering an interpretation for what was observed.

It is so easy to get taken in by the story told by authors even when very possible alternatives are there for the taking. I use the following example in my undergraduate educational psychology class.

Imagine a researcher hypothesizes that the optimism and generally positive attitude of teachers represent an important factor in motivating students. One way to test this proposal might be to observe classroom behavior and count the frequency of smiling behavior (I call this variable smiles per hour – SPH) and then determine if variability in SPH correlates with the average class achievement level. Assume that such research demonstrates a positive relationship. Would administrators then be justified in attempting to use optimism/positiveness (personally observed or commented on in letters of references) as an important marker in hiring decisions? Should we be looking for teacher characteristics associated with higher levels of student performance?

It makes a good story and I can usually convince the class that this would make sense. I then ask one question that immediately brings to light a very different way of understanding the story. Imagine you are a teacher and for whatever reason you are working with a class of very difficult students. They have bad attitudes, are terrible to each other, and in general just do not care about learning. How much fun will you be having this year?

Those who write books as advocates for positions are basically story tellers. They martial what evidence they can to support the story they tell. Hopefully, they have thought carefully about the arguments they make and are reporting a complete description of the data available. Still, the job they take on is to tell a convincing story. It is your job as a reader to critically evaluate what you have been told.

Consider the Bauerlein story line (Dumbest Generatation) at least as I interpret it. Bauerlein essentially argues that tweens and adolescents have been taken in by the potential of the participatory web and have to some extent isolated themselves from adult influences because of the desire of adolescents to socialize with peers and explore topics of interest to adolescents. In other words, participatory technologies are both enabling and motivating, but the focus for adolescents is not on issues or skills of substance. Worse yet, such experiences encourage adolescents to be less tolerant of traditional school experiences because they seem dull in comparison. Juxtaposed with this observation of adolescent behavior the author describes international differences in academic achievement noting that despite advantages in wealth students from the U.S. do not score well. The argument assumes rejection of adult values and experiences and a self-indulgent focus on peers and peer values results in lower achievement outcomes.

It makes a convincing story. However, sometimes when interpreting nonmanipulative research or stories, it is a good exercise to consider other models of how variables might be related.

There is always it is not A causes B, but B causes A. What would this mean here – perhaps nonrewarding or nonstimulating learning experiences causes students to seek out stimulating experiences elsewhere.

There is also the third variable argument – perhaps C influences both A and B resulting in the impression that A is the cause of B. How about school time as a possible C. Differences in the time devoted to education in other countries might impact levels of achievement. In those countries of means spending less time in school settings, learners might have more time to explore online experiences they find interesting.

So, pick your own story line here. There are multiple ways to tie observations together. However, note that meaningful intervention requires that we pick the story line describing causality for the most students.

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Reading books vs. reading online

In a book, “they go through a lot of details that aren’t really needed,” Hunter said. “Online just gives you what you need, nothing more or less.” (comment of Hunter Gaudet)

The New York Times intends to offer a series of articles examining how the Internet is changing the way people read. The first offering in this series examines whether online reading is a positive or negative influence on the development of reading skills.

The facts are that children are spending less time reading traditional content, i.e., books, and scores on tests of reading proficiency are stagnant. My interpretation is that researchers have yet to relate these two trends in a way that would argue for a causal relationship, but some early data and the opinions of some are leaning toward pointing to the Internet as a negative influence. A potentially independent and much more optimistic observation notes that online literacy (locating and processing online information) may represent a different and valuable form of literacy. Some organizations are urging that this proficiency be developed and also evaluation. Perhaps both sustained reading and online scanning are valuable.

At present, positions range from the nature of online reading is rewiring the brain to process information in a different fashion, to the nature of online searching rather than thinking has resulted in the loss or failure to develop sustained thinking/reasoning strategies (see earlier post – Has Google made us stupid?), to the opportunity to explore and search has resulted in the development of additional strategies.

The Times article offers a nice overview of the alternative positions.

As an aside – I hate the way the Times makes use of linking. Rather than linking to a related article, the link is to a themed collection (articles about the Organization for Economic Development, articles about the University of Michigan, etc.). Perhaps I am missing the point – the link is to the organization and there is no article on the specific issue – but what would be the point of making such a link?

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