4 Uses for Newsela to Help Struggling Readers in Special Education

There is a divide between teachers and administrators when it comes to addressing the needs of lower performing readers.  Administrators want data in the form of charts, graphs, and test scores to show parents how the school is raising the reading level of their child while teachers want time for reading, choice books in hands, and discussions about personal connections, intertext connections and world connections.  The battle plays out year after year and when there is a new administrator, teachers think, for a moment, this time things will be different.

But it’s always the same-the results are felt by students in classrooms all over America.  The school buys a “Magic Program” that if used with fidelity, Lexile scores will increase and the charts will look pretty.  The discussion is not about the students or tapping into engagement strategies such as student interest, and this results in frustrated teachers and even more frustrated students who learn only that reading is boring, and a chore.

I’ve been through so many different professional developments on various reading programs such as: Language! and LindaMood Bell and Achieve 3000. While each program sells administrators with data, I’m not sure if administrators question the efficacy of the data–Which student population produced this result?-How many hours a day did students use the program?-How many students was each teacher/facilitator working with for the duration of the program?  As a high school teacher, I have found most programs to be extremely limiting in regards to student interest and choice.

This year, I have a new administrator. And I think things will be different.  Over a portion of the summer, I get to work with two other amazing educators and develop a curriculum for struggling readers.  Yes, it will include a program; however, it is a program that contains interesting material and it allows teachers to control how the lessons are taught and it allows for plenty of student choice.

Upon my suggestions and pleadings, my administrator purchased a three year subscription to the Pro Newsela for our students. I’ve used the unpaid version for various purposes with students, but the advantage to the paid version is that I can write my own directions for what I want students to do while reading, and also create my own writing prompts. The program also contains comprehension questions to allow teachers to give data to their administrators and also know which Lexile level will best challenge each student while reading.

I’ve brainstormed very simple uses for the program that I believe will benefit the students.  Please note that not *all* activities should be done each day–and furthermore, I don’t believe the program should be used everyday.  Most teachers understand that students need variety. While proficient readers internally monitor and adjust their reading strategies to match the challenges of a text, struggling readers have not learned these skills.  Listed below are four ways I believe that Newsela can be combined with other strategies to address struggling readers.

Annotating

Annotating is probably the most important skill to teach all readers.  I tell students this is the way you have a conversation with the text.  Unfortunately, if you do not teach *how* to annotate, and provide examples or sentence frames, students write summaries or small phrases such as: “I like this,” or “This is important.”  My go-to tool for teaching annotation skills for nonfiction texts is Reading Nonfiction: Notice and Note: Stances, Signposts, and Strategies by @KyleneBeers and Robert E. Probst @BobProbst. Annotating texts keeps students focused and helps them check understanding as they read.

Writing

Obviously, if a student struggles with reading, writing is even more problematic.  Sometimes struggling readers can be good with creative writing and poetry, but when it comes to more formal academic style writing, they often don’t know where to start, or what details to include. For the last few years, my school has focused on how to promote critical thinking across the curriculum.  One teacher shared a strategy that I have used ever since.  The technique is SEE-I response which is detailed in Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum  by Gerald. M. Nosich.

Comprehension

In my Methods of Teaching Special Education class with Sally Spencer, she introduced The Simple View of Reading originally posited by Gough and Tunmer in 1986:

Reading = Decoding + Comprehension

As teachers, we understand that comprehension can be shown through the annotations, through the SEE-I writing response-and various other projects and methods.  Alternately, administrators want data-driven comprehension measurements that are derived from multiple choice questions from programs that measure Lexile levels.  Newsela does have the data component and the best aspect (from the student perspective) is that after each article there are ONLY FOUR QUESTIONS!  While teachers can go about their business of introducing engaging texts and making reading strategies visible, they can simultaneously collect data for administrators and parents in a less painful manner.

Research

Finally, because texts do not exist in isolation, I want to utilize Newsela as a pairing with Poetry 180, a poetry website hosted by Billy Collins who is an amazing poet, and he was also U.S. PoetLaureate from 2001 to 2003. Students will read a poem from the website and then research an article that connects to ideas within the poem.

These are just my initial thought on Newsela–and I’m sure many more will tumble out at unexpected times.  What are some ways you’ve used Newsela to cultivate readers in your classroom?

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2 thoughts on “4 Uses for Newsela to Help Struggling Readers in Special Education”

  1. I’ve been using Newsela quite a bit this year – certainly more than ever before. I only use the free version, however, so I do not have access to any of the data tracking that you mention, although I do have the grades that students earn after taking the quizzes. I use it primarily for complementary resources for field trips that we are taking, although it has also been useful for enhancing day-to-day curriculum. I print out the articles so students can practice annotating the text, as our current language arts curriculum does not provide resources for this necessary skill.

    I love how Newsela promotes student choice; I encourage parents to have their child use it at home to practice reading comprehension, and students like that they can choose the topics that they find most interesting.

    The only complaint that I have about Newsela is that their quiz questions are sometimes more difficult than they need to be for fifth graders.

    1. I think there is some summer reading program that Newsela is promoting and you could possibly put that on your class website.

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