Using the news to build knowledge

Shannon Garrison

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.

Newsela text sets

Although Newsela’s news articles and resource library are in high demand with educators struggling to meet the Common Core’s recommended balance of fiction and nonfiction texts, perhaps Newsela’s most distinctive feature is its text sets: collections of articles that focus on a similar topic, theme, or standard. This can be an effective way to build students’ background knowledge and vocabulary, which are both linked to increased reading comprehension (for more on text sets and their use, see here).

Newsela’s free text sets consist of articles, primary documents, and biographies focused on a specific topic. The site includes featured text sets, text sets for specific subjects, and paired texts, among other resources. The site allows teachers to save text sets, edit text sets by either adding or deleting articles, and create their own text sets by selecting from Newsela’s library of articles, biographies, speeches, and historical documents.

Teachers new to this instructional strategy can find a text set “toolkit” in Newsela’s learning and support center. The toolkit includes an introduction to Newsela’s text sets; lessons on creating and editing them; instructions on how to find, share, and customize them; and a video that reviews all aspects of the toolkit. The toolkit also includes lesson plans that give teachers ideas on how to use text sets in their classrooms.

Featured text sets—created by educators and Newsela staff—are ready made for use as is or can be customized to meet the needs of a specific class. For example, one designed for fourth grade, entitled Math in the Real World, focuses on the applications of math in daily life. It includes articles on how math is used in sports (“Baseball Players Pick up a Bat, Then a Pencil”), science (“Average Height in U.S. Stays the Same, While Others Grow Taller”), and even art (“An Art Mystery is Solved”).

Newsela has also created subject-specific text sets that are focused on science, literature, and social studies. Those for science include articles from different realms of science, technology, and engineering that are aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards’s core ideas. Literature text sets are focused on single novels and include articles on characters and themes related to the book. The social-studies text sets focus on history, civics, and geography but integrate articles from all categories of the Newsela Library.

Newsela has also developed “paired texts,” consisting of two articles related to a single topic or theme, followed by a writing prompt that requires students to use evidence from both sources. As the site notes, “These prompts align nicely with any Common Core–based rubrics that require students to cite and explain evidence in a written response.” For example, in a paired text on drones, one prompt asks, “Each article presents a different perspective on drones. Overall, do you think drones are more helpful or harmful to the world’s population? Use evidence from both articles to support your answer.”

A particularly helpful feature is that Newsela also provides tools for teachers to create their own text sets. This allows teachers to search for and create a set for a specific unit or series of lessons to complement their current instruction.

How can teachers use Newsela in their classrooms?

There are countless ways for teachers to use Newsela in the classroom.

News articles and text sets can provide students with background knowledge in preparation for classroom activities and discussions. For example, if a teacher is introducing the science concept of adaptation, she could create a text set of articles on the subject and assign them to students. It is easy and quick. Thoughtfully assembled text sets can provide students with real-world examples of adaptation while also exposing them to key vocabulary. This background knowledge helps students access the science content and better comprehend the concept of adaptation.

Newsela articles can supplement a novel or other literature by providing additional information on a subject or providing context on a historical period. For example, for students reading I Am Malala, teachers can use Newsela to provide background knowledge on Pakistan and current issues facing the country.

Newsela is also a good resource for integrating current events into the classroom. Whether teachers are focusing on the five w’s (who, what, where, when, and why) of a news article or asking students to identify the main idea, students are learning about events happening in the world around them. Teachers could also ask students to select an article and explain it to the class, which would promote both reading comprehension and speaking skills.

Newsela can also be used to help students doing background research for projects or reports. As highlighted previously, one of the challenges that teachers face is finding nonfiction text written for students. When younger students are conducting research on a topic, they often have difficulties reading the information that they find. With Newsela, the articles are adapted to students’ reading levels.

Newsela also provides articles that discuss both sides of controversial issues. Pro/con articles can be found on topics such as labeling genetically modified food, using nuclear power to combat global warming, and the use of self-driving cars. These provide students with background knowledge and can also be used as a basis for persuasive and opinion writing, discussions and debates, and for students to practice comparing and contrasting.

What are Newsela’s greatest strengths?

A particular strength of Newsela is its selection of high-quality nonfiction texts and text sets for teachers and students. With the transition to the Common Core, finding quality nonfiction texts has been a real challenge for many educators. Newsela offers teachers and students nonfiction text sets designed around a topic, theme, or standard, which can build students’ background knowledge and vocabulary to increase reading comprehension. It also provides news articles from trusted media sources, which helps students to remain current on local and global events.

Another strength is Newsela’s adaptivity. Each article is available at five different reading levels, enabling students with varying reading abilities to access the same content. Finding relevant texts written at various reading levels is a huge challenge for teachers, so this is a big time saver. Newsela also continuously adjusts students’ reading levels based on their performance on each assessment.

Newsela’s assessments for each article include both multiple-choice items and writing prompts. Students receive immediate feedback on their multiple-choice assessments and can review questions that they missed. The assessments appear on the screen next to the article, allowing students to go back to the text to find evidence (an important skill emphasized in the Common Core). The writing prompts are also evidence based and promote higher-order thinking.

A further strength is Newsela’s comprehensive learning and support center, which can be accessed by clicking on the question mark in the corner of the page. The site provides excellent professional development on a variety of topics using short articles, videos, and live webinars. Teachers can find quick-start guides, videos, and articles on everything from signing up students to scoring writing prompts.

Newsela generally provides an engaging, interactive experience for students, who can read online, interact with the text, assess their comprehension, and actively track their progress on quizzes. Students are also able to read any article on Newsela, which allows them to seek out articles of personal interest and expand their knowledge base.

How might Newsela be improved?

Although the free version of Newsela provides teachers and students with many great resources, it does not give teachers access to student-level data. This is a major drawback of the free version, as is the inability of teachers using the free version to see student responses to the writing prompts. Though these assessments are great resources, they are meaningless to teachers if they cannot access them to assess performance, growth, and student needs.

Newsela’s text sets are generally excellent, but some revisions would make them even stronger. For example, there are general lesson plans and writing prompts available for a few text sets, but most lack such plans and suggested classroom activities. The text sets are also not presented in any particular order, so teachers must read each article and consider text complexity, vocabulary, and students’ prior knowledge to determine the most suitable order themselves. This can be challenging and time consuming. In addition, the text sets are not accompanied by assessments. Each article has its own assessment, but there is no assessment requiring students to integrate knowledge from multiple sources, although that’s an important requirement of the Common Core.

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Overall, Newsela is an excellent resource for classroom teachers. Its articles are interesting, gathered from trusted media sources, and presented at multiple levels of complexity so that students with varying reading skills can access the text. The site is easy to use, and (in my experience) students find it engaging. The articles also cover myriad topics, so no matter what subject you teach, you are apt to find something relevant to your class. I hope the resources work as well for others as they have for me.

Shannon Garrison is a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher in California with two decades of teaching experience. She holds a National Board Certification, serves on the National Assessment Governing Board, and was also recently selected as a Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year.