One stop writing shop

Tabitha Pacheco

Editor’s note: This article is part of the series The Right Tool for the Job: Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom, which provides in-depth reviews of promising digital tools for English language arts classrooms

Helping students become effective writers is a challenging task; teaching students to write persuasive argumentative essays can be downright daunting. ThinkCERCA is an English language arts (ELA) curriculum designed to meet the ELA Common Core State Standards, specifically those pertaining to language, listening and speaking, reading, and writing. It is described as a “personalized literacy platform” that emphasizes close reading and writing argumentative essays. For the uninitiated, close reading is defined as follows:

Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details. It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole (see PARCC, 2012).

ThinkCERCA teaches students to engage in this close-reading process and in academic writing through instruction structured around five areas: making claims, supporting claims with evidence, reasoning, counterarguments, and using audience-appropriate language (in fact, CERCA stands for claim, evidence, reasoning, counter-argument, and audience). Reading and writing lessons span grades three through twelve and integrate content in math, science and social studies. Texts are leveled based on quantitative measurements (such as Lexile levels) and qualitative measures (such as required student background knowledge). Since ten different grade levels of reading are offered, lessons can be personalized to meet a student’s current reading grade level.

For example, an eighth-grade teacher could assign her entire class an argumentative essay on artificial intelligence. Each of her students would be assigned texts customized to his or her reading level based on the results of beginning, midyear, and end-of-year benchmark assessments. One student may be reading a tenth-grade-level passage on advancements in technology while another is reading a fifth-grade-level article on robots. So while students may be reading different texts, they share the same underlying theme, which enables all students to develop arguments on the same topic and facilitates classroom discussion around an issue, rather than on a single book that has been assigned to the class.

There are three ways ThinkCERCA is typically implemented in a classroom or school setting. One is as a writing program to cultivate cross-curricular ties between ELA and history, science, and math. Since close-reading and academic-writing skills are needed in all core subjects, ThinkCERCA can support core teachers by allowing them to search for content-related themes from the vast array of ELA lessons.

A second option for incorporating ThinkCERCA is using it as a supplemental tool to enhance a teacher’s existing curriculum. For example, if a class is reading a novel with an underlying theme of personal identity, the teacher could assign additional readings on this theme using ThinkCERCA’s voluminous digital library of authentic texts. The teacher could then assign an applied reading and writing assignment (more below), in which students would follow the ThinkCERCA process to produce an argumentative essay.

The third way ThinkCERCA can be used is as a complete ELA curriculum, as the lessons include all of the third to twelfth grade Common Core ELA writing and reading standards. A teacher could follow the provided ThinkCERCA scope and sequence to ensure that all of the standards are taught during the school year. However, ThinkCERCA does not provide any full-length books or novels, so the teacher (or her school or district) would need to provide those (ThinkCERCA uses previously published articles and short passages, up to 75 percent of which are informational in nature).

Whichever method the teacher chooses; the paid premium subscription is a must to access the writing portions of the site. The lessons are organized into three formats: direct instruction, applied reading and writing, and additional reading practice. The lessons each target different areas of learning and are not designed to be completed together, meaning a teacher could utilize the applied reading and writing portion without first using the direct instruction lessons. Let’s look at each format in more detail.

There are over eighty direct instruction lessons available with a full subscription to ThinkCERCA. These lessons are used to introduce concepts in the Common Core standards (such as “making arguments about literature” and “writing explanatory texts”) in less than ten minutes. Some of the targeted skills covered within these larger concepts include figurative language and connotation, context clues, point of view, and citing and documenting sources. In direct instruction, new concepts are presented using the teaching cycle of modeling, guided practice, and independent practice. Students can listen individually to the lesson, or the teacher can present the lesson to the class as a whole (ideally by projecting the online content onto a smartboard). Every lesson has the option for the text to be read aloud by a human reader (this is an excellent feature because many programs offer computer-generated screen readers but hearing a human voice is far more user friendly). ThinkCERCA recommends teaching lessons to the whole class initially until students understand the program, and then students should be equipped to complete the lessons independently on computers at their own pace (using headphones so they can listen to the audio option).

After introducing key skills and concepts via direct instruction, the material can be reinforced in another lesson type called applied reading and writing. These lessons require students to use close-reading skills and then develop an argument around the text. In my opinion, this is the most powerful aspect of ThinkCERCA, as quality online writing tools are so difficult to come by. The lessons are organized into six steps that are designed to be completed in two forty-five-minute classes or one ninety-minute ELA block. Let’s run through the steps.

The lesson starts at Step 1, which is called “connect.” The student is provided a prompt to help her form a personal connection to the topic, such as, “Have you, or someone you know, had to make a moral decision?” Step 2 is “read.” The student is assigned an authentic text from a credible source (such as a published article in a magazine). She can read it on her own or, as indicated above, use the optional audio support. After the student reads the passage, she answers several multiple-choice questions based on the Common Core reading comprehension standards. After an initial reading, she moves to Step 3, “engage with the text,” which is to interact with the text through close reading. This step requires the student to reread the text and complete certain tasks such as highlighting phrases that support the argument. Students can also type notes directly into the text.

The highlighted text and student notes are used to complete Step 4, “summarize.” The program requires the student to type a basic summary of the text, which she can refer to as she moves into the final steps of writing. Step 5, “build an argument,” walks her through a graphic organizer to start developing an argumentative essay. The graphic organizer includes online index cards for the student to state her claim, cite evidence, explain her reasoning, and devise counterarguments. Built-in sentence starters (or “frames”) offer the student fill-in-the-blank sentences to help her find evidence from the text. When a student is ready, she moves to Step 6, “create your CERCA” (or write your formal argument). For this task, the screen is split so the student can see her notes and graphic organizer on one side and type her argument on the other side. The end product is an argumentative essay with claims and evidence based on close reading of authentic texts.

The third lesson format offered by ThinkCERCA is additional reading. These are the only lessons available on the free basic plan. Students engage in close reading and then complete a five-question multiple-choice assessment to gauge comprehension. The ThinkCERCA developers recommend that additional reading lessons be used as independent practice or homework assignments (though assigning them as small-group work is also an option). The reading passages for all lessons are a mix of literary and informational texts. After students review and submit their responses, they are immediately scored and shown the percent correct and incorrect.

Now you know what ThinkCERCA does. In my next post, I’ll discuss its overall strengths and areas of improvement.

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.