Literacy in the Digital Age: Five Sites With High-Quality Informational Text

Literacy in the Digital Age

Editor’s Note: Teaching Channel has partnered with Student Achievement Partners on a blog series about digital literacy tools and their effective use by educators.

One of the most exciting shifts in the Common Core State Standards is the increased use of content-rich, informational text.

Let’s think about this. As professionals, how often do we read texts that are outside of our comfort zone? Perhaps it was a legal document, a lengthy contract, or 16th Century prose. A lot of time, no doubt, was spent trying to decode the language used. Our human brain only has a finite amount of working memory available at any given time. And when we’re reading, our brain is either decoding or comprehending. It can’t do both well. The process is uncomfortable. And yet, many of us ask this of our students on a daily basis. It’s no wonder they struggle!

Preparing our students to be college- and career-ready is our priority. We must help students build the skills necessary to unpack informational texts. A key to this is providing engaging texts that are motivating and meaningful. We must remember the task of teaching informational reading skills does not just rest on the shoulders of ELA teachers. ALL educators are teachers of reading.

Below, we share five sites that will help you find these texts with ease and even differentiate the same article for the different learners in your room.

1. Newsela

Newsela is an innovative way to build reading comprehension with nonfiction text that’s relevant. Articles are updated daily with real-world news from major publications. Newsela makes it easy for an entire class to read the same content, but at a level that’s just right for each student.

Newsela supports differentiation through interest and ability level. With its wide array of highly engaging categories, students are very likely to discover content that piques their curiosity. The free version of Newsela also gives teachers access to articles at varying Lexile levels. So hypothetically, educators can take the same piece and present it to students at a 620 Lexile as well as an 1170.

We’ve used Newsela with seventh grade students and saw a drastic improvement in their reading abilities. Articles were given as cold reads to help students apply and practice reading skills to measure mastery. After taking the PARCC test, students shared that Newsela was the closest resource used in our classroom to the assessment.

Text sets are another way to utilize Newsela. The Common Core calls for students to analyze multiple texts on the same topic and/or theme. You can create your own sets by searching the articles. Newsela has even started to create their own text sets that accompany specific novels.

They’ve recently launched an extension of their site that is explicitly designed for elementary students. Articles here have been vetted by the Newsela Elementary editorial team to determine whether emerging readers have the schema and maturity to handle its content and deeper meaning.

And don’t forget, this resource can also be utilized for students to conduct research.

2. TweenTribune

TweenTribune is a news site brought to you by the Smithsonian that provides daily news articles for students. Articles are selected by professional journalists working in collaboration with teachers and students. As a Smithsonian resource, it has a plethora of science and history focused articles. This is a perfect website to find content-specific resources for our history and science teachers.

Like Newsela, TweenTribune offers the same article at different lexile levels, which gives teachers the ability to differentiate with the click of a mouse. Educators can create classes to assign articles and quizzes to their students that are automatically graded and delivered to the teacher’s online gradebook. The site has lesson plans for teachers that can be filtered by topic, grade level, and Common Core standards. It also doesn’t leave our Spanish speaking students out — TweenTribune provides resources in Spanish, too. This is a great resource for ESL/ELL teachers.

3. Wonderopolis

Wonderopolis is a magical place where natural curiosity and imagination lead to exploration and discovery for learners of all ages. Each day, Wonderopolis poses an intriguing question and explores it in a variety of ways. Their approach both informs and encourages new questions, sparking new paths of wonder and discovery in family and classroom settings.

Wonderopolis taps into our inherent love of learning and provides a golden opportunity to capture the interest and engagement of your class. With hundreds of different “wonders” available, teachers can provide choice and have students select something they’d like to learn more about. Each “wonder” includes vocabulary (which is previewed), text (which explains the wonder in kid-friendly terms), and also a video. Additionally, there is supporting material available for children to continue the inquiry — which may serve as a springboard to inform a Genius Hour project if given the opportunity.

4. Google News Archive

Google, the greatest search engine of all time (we are a bit partial), has created a news repository. It’s a searchable archive of newspapers from around the world, dating all the way back to the 1700s.

You can easily search topics or specific time periods to provide students primary sources. Think about the power of this. Students can search a paper from the North about the Civil Rights Movement, and then students can read the Southern perspective by the contemporary news reporters. Students have access to first-hand accounts to analyze and create their own perceptions of events during a particular time. Take it a step farther by examining two different countries during one of the World Wars, or the English perspective on America’s Revolutionary War.

Students are often receiving history from textbooks. “History is written by the victors” is a phrase often attributed to Winston Chruchill. Give students the ability to decipher biases (a skill called for by the Common Core) and interpret and analyze history through differing perspectives.

5. DOGO

DOGO is a robust online network that aims to empower students to engage positively with digital media and a worldwide audience. The website caters to children, embodied in their name “dogo” — which means ‘young’ or ‘small’ in Swahili. DOGO is comprised of several websites that foster both fun and interactive experiences by providing kids the opportunity to earn badges for reading and expressing their opinions. Students can connect with peers from around the world virtually and build their own personal learning network around digital texts in the ELA classroom.

DOGOnews.com is a leading source for current events, news, and non-fiction texts across a variety of categories and grade levels. Students can discover articles of interest and post comments based on their reactions to the content, all within the confines of a kid-friendly ecosystem.

DOGObooks.com houses an extensive catalog of book reviews composed by kids for kids. Students can explore and/or submit reviews. All posts are moderated and vetted, so content is appropriate. As you learned in our last post, we very much value engaging students with authentic experiences. Leveraging this online network to share their thoughts about books and read others’ perspectives, truly cultivates authenticity for our children.

DOGOmovies.com mirrors the concept of DOGObooks by providing a platform for students to discover, watch trailers, and craft reviews of movies. Similar to DOGObooks, all reviews are moderated and vetted to ensure appropriateness. Film is a highly-engaging, multimodal tool to incorporate in the classroom. Teachers can foster both reflection and meaningful writing by encouraging students to express their opinions on the movie; in other words, students can write arguments to support claims using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence, as called for in the Common Core.

We think it’s critical that educators expand the definition of “text” beyond simply words on a page. Film, art, and music are all texts which kids can respond to in written form. Students can take the content of a film, for instance, and craft powerful arguments to support claims regarding symbolism, character development, mood, and theme. The skills being applied by the students are the same even if the source is not traditional.

Some of you may disagree with the idea that the definition of text is more nuanced — and broader — today. We completely understand. However, education is evolving. The norms of today’s classroom practice cannot look like yesterday’s. We encourage you to take risks and re-imagine pedagogy. The teacher doesn’t have to be the smartest person in the room anymore. The world is shrinking — and that’s a good thing. Let’s provide students multiple networks with which to learn, and audiences with which to connect. Let’s get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Let us know how these tools work for you in the comments below.

Continue the Conversation

And don’t forget to join our class on Remind: Digital Tools for TCHrs where we will continue to share one new digital tool per week throughout the school year. Text @4TCHrs to 81010 from your mobile device to continue learning together.

Natalie Franzi is part of the Middletown Township Public School leadership team as an Elementary Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction. She has previously taught middle school reading and special education in an inclusive elementary setting. Natalie is involved in EDCampNJ, EDCamp Jersey Shore, EDCamp Leadership, NJ/PA ECET2, and NJASCD. She is also a Student Achievement Partner Core Advocate and Google Educator. Follow her on Twitter: @NatalieFranzi.

Steve Figurelli serves as a Supervisor of Elementary Education with the Public Schools of Edison Township in New Jersey, overseeing the district’s K-5 Science and Gifted & Talented programs. In addition to his work at the local level, Figurelli also serves on Remind’s Teacher Advisory Board, is a guest contributor for ASCD, is a co-author of StuVoice.org’s Student Voice In A Box, co-organizer of EdTechNJ, and is a member of the steering committee for the NJ/PA Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET2) conference. Follow him on Twitter: @SteveFigurelli.

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