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.

We know the importance of students developing strong reading comprehension skills. Students need to be able to read and understand a variety of complex texts in order to be successful – in school, in their careers, and in life.

As a teacher, I am always looking for new and better ways to engage my students in reading. One recent find worth sharing is ReadWorks. This site provides teachers with passages, paired texts, text sets, lessons, comprehension units, and novel study units, all at no charge to the user. The materials are research-based, come from reputable sources, and are classroom ready.

ReadWorks Overview

ReadWorks is an education website that provides teachers with online, research-based units, lessons, and nonfiction and literary passages to help develop and strengthen student reading comprehension. As its website says, “ReadWorks is committed to solving the nation's reading comprehension crisis by giving teachers the research-proven tools and support they need to improve the academic achievement of their students.”


New York has become the latest Common Core state to issue rewritten learning guidelines aimed at mollifying critics of the standards. The state’s move seems to follow a familiar pattern: officials promise a “major departure” from the controversial standards while actually changing very little. Like marketers re-launching an unpopular laundry detergent with the words, “New and Improved!” the underlying standards remain largely intact, get rebranded with the state’s name (and without the words “common” or “core”), and voila!

At first glance, this would appear to be precisely the case with the “New York State P-12 English Language Arts and Mathematics Learning Standards,” which were unveiled for public comment last week. Many of the changes in the “new and improved” learning standards were “tweaks to language, or clarifying examples,” noted The New York Times, wise to the game. “But the broad concepts that students were expected to master in math and English from prekindergarten through the twelfth grade were left unchanged.”

But the devil is in the details. On closer examination, what New York has done is roughly akin to leaving a bathtub intact with all the water inside, but subtly dislodging the drain plug—a minor shift...

In May, a new organization called Learning Heroes released a survey with a startling finding: 90 percent of parents believe that their children are performing at “grade level” or higher in their schoolwork. Setting aside the debate over what “grade level” even means, by any reasonable definition many of these parents, if they are being frank with the pollsters and themselves, are sorely misinformed. In fact, only about a third of U.S. teenagers leave high school ready for credit-bearing college courses.

Providing a more honest assessment of student performance was one of the goals of the Common Core initiative and the new tests created and adopted by states meant to align to the new, higher standards. Those tests are much tougher than they used to be, with failure rates in many states approaching those reported on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Yet on the heels of their first administration in most states in the spring of 2015, and the reporting of results in the months following, parents seem to be as ill-informed as ever. (The 2016 Education Next poll indicates that lower proficiency rates haven’t shaken parents’ view that their schools deserve As and Bs, either.) Why...

A new NBER paper examines whether student coaching can be implemented just as effectively through technology as it can be in person. Specifically, it looks at helping coaches foster students’ motivation, effort, good study habits, and time management skills—and whether all of this can be done just as effectively through automated texts and emails as it can be done through real people. How might this affect grades and credit accumulation?

This study utilizes a sample of over four thousand undergraduate students from a large Canadian university who registered for first-year economics classes in the fall of 2015. Analysts randomly assigned them into a control group or into three treatments meant to help promote the aforementioned skills (management, study habits, etc.): (1) a one-time online exercise where they explored their values and goals for the current year and for their future and how they intend to meet them; (2) a text-messaging campaign that provided them with mostly automated advice about academics and that motivated them to do their best (contact was not initiated with individual students nor were emails presented as coming from a real person—just from a program); and (3) a personal coaching service in which students were matched with...

Joy Lawson Davis

When discussing the traits of gifted learners, most experts would agree that gifted learners are usually very socially conscious individuals who express compassion and deep concern for their fellow human beings. No characteristics chart describing gifted learners is complete without the use of such terms as compassionate, heightened sense of justice, lack of tolerance for hypocrisy, and/or unusually sensitive to the needs of others.

Our nation has just emerged from one of the most socially volatile, emotional, and visible civil protest periods since the 1960s. Last year, communities across the nation rallied behind causes to defend and support the humane treatment of all citizens. One issue that has received a great deal of attention nationwide is the purported racial discrimination and maltreatment of African American males, in particular. As a result of a series of incidents involving the deaths of three young African American males, protests emerged across the nation.

Over the past few years, racism has become one of the most controversial topics discussed across news forums in the nation. For the first time in my adult experience, RACE IS OUT IN THE OPEN! In schools across the nation, students from all different ethnic backgrounds gathered to support some...

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...

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.

With the transition to the Common Core, one of the biggest challenges teachers face is finding high-quality, relevant, nonfiction texts. Many of the traditional reading programs do not have the balance of fiction and nonfiction for which the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) call, and as a result, a lot of teachers struggle to find the resources they need to effectively prepare students.

As a teacher, I have spent countless hours trying to find appropriate nonfiction texts that I can use with a classroom of diverse learners. I have struggled to find engaging articles that could be read by my English-language learners and still challenge those students who are reading above grade level. Thankfully, last year, I found Newsela.

Newsela overview is an education website focused on building student reading comprehension by providing high-quality news articles and real-time assessments for students in grades 2–12. The site offers both a free version and a more extensive paid version called Newsela PRO. As many...

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.

The shift to the Common Core State Standards has ushered in a renewed focus on effective instructional techniques for reading instruction. As Common Core’s reading standards state, “To build a foundation for college and career readiness, students must read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts.” In this vein, teachers are seeking how best to engage their students in text analysis, ways to develop and utilize text-dependent questions and methods for integrating more complex texts, and for other effective strategies to strengthen students’ reading comprehension.

One promising instructional strategy, developed based on reading-comprehension research showing the importance of background knowledge and vocabulary, is text sets. Text sets are collections of texts tightly focused on a specific topic. They may include varied genres (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and so forth) and media (such as blogs, maps, photographs, art, primary-source documents, and audio recordings).

Text sets can be organized in many different ways. Although all high-quality text...

Three recent experiences have served to remind me how much I miss—and how much the country and the cause of better education were diminished by the loss of—the late Albert Shanker, who passed away in 1997.

While writing our new book on charter schooling, Bruno Manno and Brandon Wright and I were urged by our expert editor at Harvard Education Press to recall the origins of this reform and explain what its founders had in mind. Which drew us back not only to Ray Budde and Ted Kolderie and Ember Reichgott and the other Minnesotans but also to Al’s seminal National Press Club speech on March 31, 1988, and the New York Times column that followed a few months later. Titled “A Charter for Change,” it set forth a vision of new teacher-created schools or schools-within-schools with many of the characteristics that mark today’s charter sector. Although Al was never able—on this issue as on many other reforms that he knew were needed—to get the AFT’s state and local affiliates to embrace his visionary thinking, his restlessness with the status quo, his boundless creativity, and his statesman-stature in the education field cause him legitimately to be viewed...

As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been a long-time, energetic, enthusiastic defender of the Common Core standards. That’s because those of us at the Fordham Institute believe these academic standards to be much stronger, in a variety of ways, than what preceded them in most states. They aren’t perfect, but they represent an ambitious, good-faith effort to identify the knowledge and skills kids need in order to be on track—from kindergarten through high school—for college and/or a remunerative career. And when it comes to math, the standards in the early grades are particularly strong, focused as they are on basic arithmetic and “math facts.”

That said, certain elements of the standards have been driving parents crazy.

So it was probably only a matter of time until my karma caught up with me. And so it happened the other day: My third-grader came home from his (Common Core-teaching) public school and asked, with eight-year-old exasperation, “Why do I have to explain my answer in math class? I just know it.”

I decided to turn to the Google gods for an answer—a suggestion of a script I might use to help him understand why it’s important to...