Nine digital learning tools designed for English language arts teachers

Although it’s been almost seven years since many states took the important step of elevating their academic standards by adopting the Common Core, teachers and administrators across the country still bemoan the lack of reliable information about which instructional materials are high-quality and best aligned to the new standards.

One recent survey found that a whopping 90 percent of districts reported having major or minor problems identifying high quality, well-aligned resources. A second study found that the majority of textbooks had substantial alignment problems. In response to these reports, several entities such as EdReports, the Louisiana Department of Education, and the California Curriculum Collaborative have begun providing educators with impartial reviews of core instructional and curricular materials. Yet next to no information exists on the quality and content of resources intended to supplement a full curriculum.

Our recent series, repackaged this past Tuesday in The Right Tool for the Job, fills that void by providing in-depth reviews of several promising digital learning tools. The authors—four all-star educators—focus on English language arts (ELA) resources, as their fellow teachers stress that those are particularly difficult to come by (especially for writing).

Melody Arabo (a third-grade teacher at Keith Elementary in Michigan), Jonathan Budd (K–12 curriculum director for Trumbull Public Schools in Connecticut), Shannon Garrison (a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Solano Avenue Elementary School in California), and Tabitha Pacheco (an instructional facilitator at a virtual academy in Utah) evaluated the quality and usefulness of nine K–12 ELA/literacy tools:

  • Achieve the Core’s “Text sets,”
  • Curriculet,
  • iCivics Drafting Board,
  • Lexia Reading Core5,
  • Newsela,
  • Quill,
  • ReadWorks,
  • ThinkCERCA, and
  • WriteLike.

In terms of common strengths, we found that content across all nine tools largely reflects many of the instructional shifts called for by Common Core, for instance, including a balance of text types and text-dependent questions and tasks for reading and writing. In addition, many tools—but particularly the writing tools reviewed—were designed with a “game-like” feel and are likely to be quite engaging to students, especially our youngest learners. Our reviewers also stressed that a major benefit of online writing tools in particular (such as Quill’s grammar, vocabulary, and writing exercises) make it significantly easier for teachers to customize activities and assignments to match each student’s current level of learning.

Notably, three of these feature text sets—collections of texts tightly focused on a specific topic, designed to build students' content knowledge, vocabulary, and conceptual understanding. We find them to be a particularly innovative development: They’re customized and customizable, and focus on a particular topic, theme, or standard. These sets ae intentionally sequenced and designed to build students’ background knowledge, vocabulary, and overall reading comprehension. One challenge in accessing these promising resources—noted by our reviewers—is that text sets can often be difficult to locate within broader sites and are largely still limited in terms of their offerings, which perhaps explains why so many teachers are still so unfamiliar with this instructional technique.

Finally, the majority of online reading and writing tools reviewed also include helpful student assessments and/ or data reporting capabilities for teachers, which can save educators huge amounts of time grading student writing or in-class activities, for example.

However, our reviewers also found room for improvement: Usability, for instance, was inconsistent across products. While some sites such as Lexia Reading Core5 provide a wealth of information and instructions for teachers and have excellent search functions, others such as Newsela and Readworks lack recommendations for incorporating text set resources into broader class activities. Several other tools would be greatly strengthened by improving their search functions for locating specific resources (such as by topic, grade or ability level, or by a specific Common Core standard).

In addition, while several of the tools reviewed allow teachers to customize lessons based on an individual student’s ability level, many lack information regarding accessibility and accommodations for students with learning disabilities. And unfortunately, free, high-quality online writing tools are still very hard to come by. Some of the more expansive reading sites reviewed, such as Lexia Reading Core5, are likely cost-prohibitive for many educators.

The good news is that the availability of resources for ELA teachers appears to have improved in the years since Common Core’s adoption (and the rise of low- or no-cost online educational resources in recent years has been particularly dramatic). Yet, in the end, what matters most is not a tool’s content and quality, but whether curricular and instructional resources actually improve student learning. And while a handful of studies are now beginning to explore curriculum effectiveness (see Cory Koedel’s and Morgan Polikoff’s recent study evaluating the impact of elementary mathematics textbook choices on student achievement in California), far less is still known about the effectiveness of instructional tools intended to supplement a full curriculum. Much more work on both of these fronts must be done if educators and policymakers hope to see larger achievement gains for all students.