Learning Resources

Report Assesses ELA Programs In-Depth

Last year, four "all-star" educators sat down to examine nine popular digital resources specifically intended for improving reading and writing in the classroom. The goal, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, was to evaluate the "quality and usefulness" of the programs in an in-depth way. Fordham, which recruited the review team made up of long-time teachers, said it selected English language arts as the subject because educators have emphasized that those are "especially difficult to come by."

Those reviews ran as blog articles on the Fordham site. Now they've been compiled into a freestanding report. According to the recently released, "The Right Tool for the Job: Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom," the tools also had a few other characteristics in common:

  • Many are "free or low cost";
  • All provide instructional aids for all grade levels, K-12; and
  • Several are "interactive" and "student-facing," which tend to be rare in the ELA space, according to the institute.

The nine tools reviewed were:

For each resource, the reviewers examined the product for:

  • Its alignment with college- and career-ready standards;
  • Its inclusion of student assessments or data reporting for teachers;
  • Its intended use versus how educators might use it;
  • Its ease of use;
  • How well it might be integrated into a larger curriculum; and
  • Its overall strengths and weaknesses.

For the reading tools, the teachers also looked at the quality of the texts included, whether they were grade-appropriate and sequenced to build content knowledge and vocabulary, and how well they balanced text types and text-dependent questions and tasks (as called for by the Common Core State Standards. For writing, the experts examined the caliber of instructions for working on specific writing skills and the balance of writing text types, as called for by the standards.

Each review included two parts: a description of the online program and a more detailed description of how the software works and its pros and cons. While all of the products found favor among the reviewers, some of the writing tools received higher marks for their "'game-like' feel" and the ease with which teachers can customize the activities and assignments for each student. For the reading tools, what especially struck the reviewers were those programs that offer "text sets," customizable collections of text that focus on a theme or topic and are sequences to help students build their subject knowledge, vocabulary and reading comprehension.

The "good news," the report concluded, "is that the availability of ELA resources appears to have improved since Common Core's arrival." What's next, it noted was to look at how effective they are for improving student learning: "While a handful of studies are now beginning to explore curriculum effectiveness, far less is known about the effectiveness of instructional tools intended to supplement a full curriculum. Much more work on both of these fronts is needed if we hope to see large gains for all students as a result of using these products."

The project was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The report was made freely available by the Fordham Institute here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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