Education tech startup Newsela helps Cincy students boost reading skills, keep up with current news

NORWOOD, Ohio -- Two Norwood students sit next to each other, reading the same news article but with slightly different wording. This type of reading lesson has become increasingly common over the past couple years, thanks to Newsela.

Created in 2013, Newsela is an education technology startup in the form of a news website for students in second through 12th grades. Through partners such as the Associated Press, The Washington Post and The Guardian, it keeps kids abreast of current events while also providing individualized reading lessons.

“I think by using current events in the classroom, those are appealing to students,” said Kristina Chesson, curriculum director for Norwood City Schools.

Articles are written in five different levels of complexity that can be altered with a click of a button. The varied levels allow students in the same class to read the same information tailored to their abilities.

“It can kind of help differentiate for that student and get them the things that they need personally to succeed,” said Stacey Jones, who teaches English and journalism at Ross High School.

Designed to align with Common Core, Newsela provides students not only non-fiction reading assignments, but quizzes and writing prompts to test their comprehension.

“According to Ohio curriculum I need to get students not only reading but critically thinking about a text, talking about a text, analyzing a text and then writing about that,” Jones said. “It really offers a lot of test prep as well as meeting those ninth-grade, or whatever-grade standards.”

Giving students a Newsela assignment also allows teachers to take time to work with students one-on-one, without sacrificing learning time for the rest of the class.

“These online digital tools help to ensure productive learning is going on when teachers are working more with a small group of students,” said Natasha Adams, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Forest Hills Schools.

While students and teachers can use the website for free, a subscription-based version also is available. In some districts, such as Norwood, teachers independently use the free version. In Mason and Forest Hills, there’s more of a blended approach, with some teachers using the free website and others subscribing. Some districts also have subscriptions for certain buildings or grade levels.

District officials for Hamilton City Schools are considering purchasing a Newsela subscription for secondary students.

Whichever version of Newsela teachers are using, they generally use it as a supplement to regular instruction.

“They weave it in as they go,” Chesson said.

“It’s not a main resource,” Adams added. “It’s supplemental for us.”

Jones used the free version of the website during the 2015-16 school year, but she now takes advantage of the subscription purchased by Ross High School. One benefit to having the subscription is that she now can share assignments with students through accounts that they each have.

Students also can highlight and annotate text on their screens, to identify specific details, like the main idea of an article, she said.

One of the biggest benefits, though, is how it helps students connected with events and information from presidential elections to space exploration and archaeology.

“Getting them thinking them about the real world just beyond an English classroom has been great,” Jones said.

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