Finding the right tool for the job: Improving reading and writing in the classroom

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.

Many years after the adoption of new academic standards in most states, frustrated teachers and administrators across the country still decry the dearth of Common Core-aligned curricular materials. One survey conducted by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) in 2014 found that 90 percent of surveyed districts reported having major or minor problems finding such resources. More recent studies conducted by Morgan Polikoff and Bill Schmidt also conclude that the majority of textbooks marketed as being aligned with Common Core actually have “substantial alignment problems.”

In response to this persistent lack of high-quality, standards-aligned materials, organizations such as EdReports and agencies like the Louisiana Department of Education have begun providing educators with free, independent reviews of curricular resources. Other groups have developed rubrics and evaluation tools intended to help state, district, and school leaders vet the quality and alignment of textbooks, units, and lesson plans (including EQuIPIMET, and Student Achievement Partners’ “Publishers’ Criteria”). Even Amazon has entered the curricular stage, recently announcing the launch of a new platform for educators that will feature free curricular resources and teacher ratings and reviews.

To date, however, very little information exists on the quality and content of digital learning tools intended to supplement a full curriculum. What does exist isn’t as user-friendly as it could be. One site, EdSurge, aims to provide educators with information on digital curricula and tools for teaching and learning. The site includes hundreds of overviews of various resources (including basic pricing and usage information), which are accompanied by individual educator ratings and feedback on each tool. While the voluminous site includes resources for a wide range of subjects—from language arts to social studies and even engineering—the program and product overviews themselves are fairly brief, and it’s difficult to sort through the (sometimes hundreds!) of educator reflections on each tool. Learning List is a similar site that provides brief reviews of publishers’ instructional materials (both comprehensive and supplemental), including standards alignment.

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: CurriculetICivics Drafting BoardLexia Reading Core5NewselaQuillReadWorks, Student Achievement Partners’ (SAP) “Text Sets,” ThinkCERCA, and WriteLike. (We focused on ELA resources specifically, as educators stressed to us that those are especially difficult to come by; online math resources are often easier to identify because teachers can search for tools or lessons around a specific math standard.) We also intentionally evaluated a range of reading, writing, and content-building tools, as well as those recommended to us by practitioners and other curriculum experts.

Collectively, these digital tools focus on reading and/or writing instruction across all grades. Most are free or low-cost, and while some resources (such as Newsela) are already in demand, we also aimed to highlight newer and lesser-known resources for the field. We also intentionally included several interactive, student-facing tools; these remain relatively rare in the ELA curricular landscape, which tends to include tools designed mostly for the use of teachers rather than students.

For each resource, we asked reviewers to assess:

  • What is the tool or product designed to do?
  • Is it intended to be aligned to college- and career-ready standards (including Common Core)?
  • Does it include student assessments or data reporting for teachers?
  • How is it intended to be used, and how might the resource be better used by educators?
  • Is it organized logically and easy for teachers (and/or students) to use?
  • Does the tool include beneficial suggestions for how it might be integrated into a larger curriculum?
  • What are the tool’s overall strengths and weaknesses?

For reading, we also evaluated whether the tools included high-quality texts that are grade-appropriate and sequenced to build content knowledge and vocabulary, and whether they included a balance of text types and text-dependent questions and tasks (as called for by Common Core).

For writing, we assessed whether the tools included instruction on specific writing skills and a balance of writing text types, as called for by Common Core.

The reviews were conducted by four top-notch, experienced educators:

  • Melody Arabo is a third-grade teacher in Michigan, a National Education Association (NEA) Master Teacher, a Michigan Educator Voice Fellow, and the 2015 Michigan Teacher of the Year.
  • Jonathan Budd is a K–12 director of curriculum, instruction, and assessments in Connecticut with nineteen years of prior teaching experience. His particular expertise is literacy, with a focus on text complexity.
  • Shannon Garrison is a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher in California with two decades of teaching experience. She holds a National Board Certification and serves on the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
  • 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 and Leaders.

Our plan is to release the reviews on a rolling basis over the next 6–8 weeks.

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Six years into Common Core implementation, procuring CCSS-aligned instructional materials continues to be a time-consuming challenge for many educators. We hope that this series provides ELA teachers with information on nine particularly promising low- or no-cost reading and writing tools that are accessible online.

Stay tuned for the release of our first review next week!