Reading: An Ill-Defined Problem
Teaching reading is no longer just within the purview of English teachers. The Common Core standards place a great emphasis on literacy across the content areas, so teachers of science, social studies, and other disciplines find themselves looking for ways to help students develop literacy skills. Many middle school and high school teachers feel ill-equipped for teaching literacy skills, assessing reading comprehension, and selecting appropriate readings for their students.
English Language Learners
At the same time, schools across America are increasingly seeing a need to support students who are identified as English Language Learners (ELLs). In my district, the percentage of students identified as ELL has almost doubled since I started working here 8 years ago. As more students who need ELL support start taking general education classes at my school, many teachers feel a need to find new strategies to meet the unique challenges these students face.
One of the greatest challenges is the diversity of backgrounds of ELLs. Not only is there variation in their English language proficiency, but also in their educational backgrounds, native languages, life situations, and academic skills (Spinelli, 2008). Even a high school student who has met the criteria for exiting out of ELL support can still struggle with reading because of the intense academic and content-specific vocabulary used in articles, textbooks, and historical documents. Studies show that it can take 7 to 10 years for students to master the skills needed to be fully academically proficient in a new language (Bowman-Perrott, 2010).
At my school, many teachers are looking to technology to meet the deman
ds of teaching reading and meeting the needs of ELL students. One of my favorite technology tools is called Newsela.
Newsela curates a collection of current events articles on a variety of topics, including science, war, money, law, and health. Teachers can assign a specific article to students, or have students search for an article that interests them. Students who find reading to be a challenge often benefit from having a choice in what they read (Bowman-Perrott, 2010). Bringing individual interests into the classroom enriches the experiences of all learners, not just ELL students.
Perhaps the best feature for ELL students is that the reading level of every article can be modified to fit the needs of the students. Articles can be adjusted from a 2nd grade reading level up to a 12th grade reading level. A teacher could assign the same article to all students, but could differentiate the reading level. Students have the option to toggle between the 5 reading levels for each article, so they can find a version that is understandable. This is particularly helpful for ELL students who struggle to comprehend complex sentences and content-specific vocabulary (Bowman-Perrott, 2010). By adjusting the reading level, teachers can appropriately scaffold all of their students, including their ELL students, without drawing attention to the fact that students are at different levels.
Additionally, many articles are available in Spanish as well as English, so students who are literate in Spanish can read in their native language. A student can toggle between the English and Spanish versions of the article to facilitate their comprehension. As Bowman-Perrott acknowledges, it is important to assess students’ language and literacy skills in both languages as they work toward comprehensive literacy (2010). Spanish is the most commonly spoken language among ELL students at my school, but we also have 53 other languages spoken in the homes of our students. Hopefully over time, Newsela will offer articles in other languages as well.
Another great feature is the built-in assessment feature that Newsela offers. Each article comes with a set of 5 multiple choice questions and a writing prompt. The questions are specifically written to match the reading level selected on the article, and they are aligned with the Common Core standards. With a subscription to Newsela Pro, which my district has purchased, teachers can view a dashboard of student data. This allows them to see data for individual articles, individual students, and longitudinal data over the course of the year. Teachers can use these features to track the progress of each student, including ELL students, and adjust their instruction in response to the growth they see.
Newsela provides many additional tools such as annotations, customizable questions, and suggestions for classroom activities and literacy strategies that teachers may find useful in their own classrooms.
Check out this video if you want to get a glimpse of the features offered by Newsela:
(This video was created with WeVideo)
Bowman-Perrott., L.J, Herrera, S. & Murry, K. (2010) Reading Difficulties and Grade Retention: What’s the Connection for English Language Learners?, Reading & Writing Quarterly, 26:1, 91-107.
Spinelli, C. G. (2008). Addressing the issue of cultural and linguistic diversity and assessment: Informal evaluation measures for English language learners. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 24(1), 101-118.