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CommonLit CEO Discusses First-of-Its-Kind Literacy Tool That Supports Students of All Reading Levels

Inspired and committed to doing her part to close the “digital divide” that affects so many underprivileged children in the U.S., CommonLit founder Michelle Brown is providing her first-of-its-kind tool at no cost to teachers and parents. This innovative literacy tool helps students access a diverse collection of texts—regardless of their reading level or zip code. 

CommonLit is based on research that differentiating texts by reading levels and prompting students to form and discuss opinions after reading is the best way to turn them into readers for life. Also operating under the knowledge that economic and spatial barriers cause many students to lack access to quality digital resources, CommonLit attempts to overcome these obstacles and offer its benefits to all.

Since adding new features in September, CommonLit was the recipient of a $3.9M grant from the U.S. Department of Education for innovation in education, an opportunity that will help it continue to grow and reach more students in need.

Brown provided some insight for Education World readers about how CommonLit will be using the funding to grow—and what educators interested in using the tool should know.

Education World: How does CommonLit plan to use this new funding opportunity to grow? I read that you’re, in part, planning to expand what resources are available to learners with special needs. Are English Language Learners part of this targeted student group?

Michelle Brown:Under the IAL (Innovative Approaches to Literacy) grant, we will be expanding CommonLit's digital library and developing technology that will make it easier for teachers to reach struggling readers, including English Language Learners and students with disabilities. Most recently, we launched a toolbar in partnership with TextHelp that allows students to hear text read aloud and translate text into twelve different languages, including Spanish. We'll be adding more exciting support features like these throughout the two-year grant period for the goal of helping all students access complex texts.

EW: You conceptualized CommonLit as a teacher in a rural school with restricted access to quality resources, especially digital ones. Do you have anecdotal stories you’d like to share about what inspired you to create this unique literacy tool?

Brown: CommonLit was born out of my experience teaching reading in a very underserved school in rural Mississippi. When I think about CommonLit, a specific student comes to mind. This 7th grader was very far behind in reading, and understandably, just wasn’t very excited about school in general.

One day, this student was wandering down the hall during his lunch hour. He stopped and peered into my classroom where I was teaching an advanced high school-level reading class. Instead of telling him to go back to lunch, I invited him to join the class discussion. We were talking about the way that the theme of fear develops in The Diary of Anne Frank.

The big question for the day was, “How does fear drive action?” I figured this student would soon lose interest and go back to lunch. Boy, was I wrong. Over the course of the next hour, he became more engaged in this advanced class than he had ever been in his remedial reading class.

After class, he asked me if I could give him a book so that he could better understand the Holocaust so that he could come back next week—it was a complete turning point. The whole experience made me realize that we need to rethink the way we treat “low-skilled readers” in school. A low-skilled reader is not a low-skilled thinker.

Everyone deserves the chance be challenged in school and discuss big ideas with their peers. My vision was to build a literacy product that doesn't lower the expectations for struggling readers by artificially lowering the level of an authentic text, for example. Rather, my goal was to help teachers support struggling readers so that those students can still participate in the same discussions, read the same novels, and answer the same essential questions as their peers. It's important to me that CommonLit remains free so that even teachers in high-poverty schools can adopt it.

EW: How is CommonLit designed to improve the average educator’s day-to-day classroom instruction? Can any educator teaching a middle school grade level benefit from use?

Brown: CommonLit is designed to help 5th-12th grade teachers use best practices in secondary reading instruction: exposing students to quality grade-appropriate texts, differentiating instruction to support struggling readers, asking text-dependent questions, and using data to create instructional next steps. We did a ton of research during the development phase, and these are a few instructional practices that are consistent in the research. The idea is to hold students accountable for high-level analytical thinking, which is the cornerstone of college and career readiness. My coach, Dinah Shepherd, used to say that I should "stop the teacher talk" and let students "do the heavy lifting." CommonLit makes this much easier to do.

CommonLit is great for English and social studies teachers in grades 5-12. At CommonLit.org, teachers can browse a leveled library of hundreds of news articles, short stories, poems, and historical documents. Teachers can assign these reading passages to students through the platform (or print them out), and as students submit their assignments digitally, teachers can see data reports that show how students are progressing on the set of standards-aligned text-dependent questions. The entire library is curated so that teachers can plan coherent long-term units around a theme, topic, or anchor text.

EW: What words of advice, if any, do you have for educators interested in signing up for and using CommonLit?

Brown: First, go to www.commonlit.org and create a free account. Next, I recommend watching this short video tutorial. After you watch the video, browse the CommonLit library, and use the "favorites" function to save the reading passages you like best. We love getting feedback, and our users tell us that we are incredibly responsive. So, we encourage teachers to contact us with questions or suggestions.

EW: How have teachers who have been using CommonLit been responding to using it in their classrooms so far?

Brown: Every day, we get unsolicited emails from teachers telling us how grateful they are for our free product. They tell us that it makes it easier to find paired passages, send feedback to students, and grade written responses. For teachers, time is arguably the most valuable resource. Our goal is to save teachers time so that they can reinvest it in things that really make a difference, like building relationships with students or contacting parents.

English, history, and social studies teachers are using CommonLit flexibly for whole-class, small-group, or individualized instruction, to plan long-term units, or even just to find a quick homework assignment that will help students practice skills they learned that day. Some teachers choose to print the articles out so that students can read a paper copy in class and take notes, and then students complete the quiz on a device. In the coming year, CommonLit will become more optimized for 1:1 classrooms where students have consistent access to a computer or device. But the goal is to keep CommonLit flexible so that it can work in many different classroom environments.

EW: Anything else you’d like Education World readers to know?

Brown: Over the next year, we will be developing a suite of advanced tools and functionality, and we're trying to recruit the best and brightest in the field to join our team. For more information about current job openings, visit www.commonlit.org/careers.

In addition, we are developing tools and professional development resources for schools and districts. I encourage school and district leaders to get in touch with us to learn more.

 

Nicole Gorman, Senior Education World Contributor

10/12/2016

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