The Right Tool for the Job

Editor’s note: This article concludes our 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.

As described in our prior post, iCivics Drafting Board is an online essay-building tool for teachers seeking to help their pupils learn to write argumentative essays while exposing them to core civics and social-studies content. As with any online resource, however, it has both strengths and shortcomings.

What are iCivics Drafting Board’s greatest strengths?

Drafting Board is a unique online resource for improving students’ core literacy skills—namely, teaching them how to construct effective argumentative essays that are supported by evidence and reasoning. A major strength is its clear and simple breakdown of the writing process. The site’s use of user-friendly “game-like” graphics and instructions helps students at all levels to formulate ideas, organize arguments, and defend conclusions, while making the multistep writing process interactive and approachable (for example, text is supported through a glossary of potentially unfamiliar terms, such as “candidate,” “campaigns,” and “special interest groups”). Such embedded supports may be especially helpful for struggling students who are intimidated by long essays. Differentiating the level of...

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.

We are keenly aware of the challenge in encouraging teachers to work on writing instruction in subject areas other than English language arts (after all, one of us is curriculum director for a midsized K–12 school district). First, teachers need to appreciate that writing well is essential to the study of any subject. Then we must help teachers recognize that their pupils need strategies for learning how to write well within specific subject areas. Absent such strategies, students may be assigned writing yet not know how to get better at it.

Fortunately, tools such as iCivics Drafting Board can help with writing instruction across subjects, particularly when it comes to the important “argumentative essay.” If you teach social studies at the secondary level, we find Drafting Board well worth a look.

What is iCivics Drafting Board?

Founded by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to enhance civics education across the nation, iCivics is a website that has grown from...

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.

As described in our prior post, Liquid Interactive’s Writelike is designed to strengthen a writer’s craft through analysis, writing exercises, and emulation of master authors. How does this design translate into strengths and weaknesses for the user?

What are Writelike’s most notable strengths?

Writelike’s greatest strength is the creative way in which it exposes students to numerous authentic literary excerpts and strong texts that they can read and emulate. The interactive exercises are fun and will likely keep students engaged, while helping to improve important writing skills such as writing in different styles, rearranging sentences into the correct order, and proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar (grammatical elements notably get more sophisticated treatment than in typical grammar texts: fragments are handled in a category amusingly entitled “four and a half types of sentences,” for example).

The activities themselves are also user-friendly. Exercises and drills allow users to check their answers instantly as they progress, and the site also offers ongoing assistance for students...

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.

It may not be a word in Webster’s, but Writelike ought to be, at least according to those of us who have an interest in helping our students become excellent writers. Many lament the decline of writing from “the good ole’ days” and claim that our students can’t write the way that Americans used to write. Fortunately, Writelike—which aims to improve higher-order literacy—offers an excellent solution through careful analysis of the masters and re-creation of their stylistic traits. Best of all, much of what Writelike accomplishes is so user-friendly and game-like that students could be trapped into learning before they even realize it.

What is Writelike?

Developed by Liquid Interactive with a target audience of middle school students and their teachers, Writelike meets a modern need to challenge writers into new ways of developing their craft, in this case by emulating great writers of centuries past and current. The site includes exercises, drills, lessons, and courses that are all graduated in...

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.

All curricula and supplemental tools have their pros and cons. In ThinkCERCA’s case, there are far more of the former than the latter (see my first post here for a description of ThinkCERCA).

Advantages

One of the greatest strengths of this tool is the power it gives teachers to customize a student’s learning based on her abilities. All students are administered an initial leveling assessment to confirm their reading level (below, at grade, or above grade level). The program then generates custom reading passages for each student, based on his or her abilities, for use in the applied reading and writing tasks. This is a huge help to teachers because it saves them hours of time in administering reading-placement assessments and finding authentic leveled-reading material for each student. In addition to establishing a reading baseline, ThinkCERCA provides students with a baseline writing assessment, too—the results of which can be used to customize the ThinkCERCA rubrics used to grade all written work.

Another advantage...

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...

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.

If you are in the market for online writing worksheets, check out Quill. The site is essentially an online database of digital worksheets aligned to the Common Core English language arts (ELA) writing standards. This tool offers many advantages but also raises several concerns.

The positives

Teachers will find Quill very easy to use. They can sort activities based on grade level, type of activity (writing or editing), or writing and grammatical concepts (such as adjectives and adverbs, comma usage, commonly confused words, prepositions, and punctuation). They can assign students an individual activity, a premade pack—put together by the site—that bundles several activities keyed to a single grammar concept, or a custom pack devised by the teacher that tailors activities to the needs of the class or individual students. These activities are simple to assign to one student or the whole class. Plus, assigning them as homework means that teachers don’t need to worry about worksheets being lost in backpacks.

Teachers can sign...

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.

As an educator, I’m always looking for new tools to enhance my teaching and engage my students. In my search for online supplemental curricula, I found a plethora of online resources for reading and math but struggled to find online writing tools. One welcome exception—and a particularly promising writing tool—is Quill.

Quill is a free online website that provides learning activities for students in grammar, vocabulary, and writing skills. It’s essentially a database of digital worksheets aligned to the Common Core writing standards. According to its customer-service representative, over 21,000 teachers and 285,000 students use Quill. The site includes a basic package, which is free, and a teacher premium package, which costs eighty dollars per year. The main difference is the level of detail provided in the student reports available to teachers (more on that later).

The site includes (in the free version) over 150 writing activities designed for grades 1–12. The activities are said to align with forty-two of the English language...

Melody Arabo

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.

For teachers looking for high-quality online reading resources, Lexia Reading Core5 (Core5) is one promising—yet pricey—option. Let us examine the site’s key features, strengths, and weaknesses and how it might be useful to classroom teachers.

Usability, features, and functions

Core5 can be accessed on a web browser, an iPad or Android tablet, or installed locally on a computer. It offers clear and sufficient guidance for teachers on how to set up and implement the program and then gather data on student performance. The site is well organized and easy for both teachers and pupils to use because it moves students through the activities step by step (and cleverly adapts based on their performance). It is also likely to keep kids engaged, thanks to its colorful background, pictures, and music.

In the free-trial version of Core5, I had limited access to four levels of the student program: beginning mid-Kindergarten, beginning second grade, beginning fourth grade, and beginning fifth grade (though, as described previously,...

Melody Arabo

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.

Many educators struggle with finding resources that can help educators teach reading skills in a comprehensive yet individualized way. In a typical elementary classroom of thirty or more students, children can range in ability so much that instruction must be drastically differentiated to meet each pupil’s needs. As a third-grade teacher, I am constantly on the hunt for tools that can minimize my preparation time and maximize instructional time with kids. Lexia Reading Core5 is a promising reading program that can help teachers meet those goals.

Overview

According to its website, Lexia Reading Core5 “supports educators in providing differentiated literacy instruction for students of all abilities in grades pre-K–5” (as defined by Carol Tomlinson, differentiated instruction is “an approach to teaching that advocates active planning for student differences in classrooms”). The site also includes embedded assessments that deliver “norm-referenced performance data and analysis without interrupting the flow of instruction to administer a test” (norm referenced is a type of test that reveals whether...

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