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What Online Tools Work for Teaching Language Arts?

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Erin Scott

When it comes to language arts, the jury's still out on the quality and effectiveness of the available software. Some schools are investing and experimenting with different products, with mixed results, while others are working with free available web 2.0 tools. Here are two case studies examining each approach.


Firstline Schools, a public charter school company in New Orleans operating five schools, has aggressively pursued blended learning with hopes to help students who have fallen behind -- especially after the devastating effects on schooling after Hurricane Katrina.

“We can’t imagine going back to a traditional model,” said Chris Liang-Vergara, director of instructional technology for personalized learning at Firstline. “It seems crazy with the amount of differentiation we need.”


Firstline uses Achieve3000 in some schools, a program that allows students to read a nonfiction

article everyday and answer questions related to it. But the program is dry, according to Liang-Vergara, and it can seem random and disconnected to the rest of what students are doing in class. He says he’s seen it used well, but usually by experienced teachers who are empowered to use it for the best kind of differentiation. If the teacher takes the time to search the Achieve300 database for nonfiction articles that are relevant to other class work, discusses them, and wraps them into the curriculum that works best. And the software does provide differentiation, increasing the difficulty of vocabulary and sentence structure as a reader progresses.

“When you show it to any experienced teacher, they get very excited because they think about how much time they'll save and how much information can be at their fingertips,” said Liang-Vergara. It’s easier for the teacher to see what the student has learned and whether their reading comprehension skills are improving, while saving her grading time.

Overall, Liang-Vergara hasn’t seen the success in language arts blended learning that he’d hoped for and Firstline schools have scaled back the amount of time they use digital tools in English class. Liang-Vergara admitted that some schools have stopped using Achieve3000 partly because kids were quickly bored by it.

[RELATED: To Make Blended Learning Work, Teacher Try Different Tactics]

“The biggest issue I still see is that people are still trying to break it down when
it needs to be combined,” Liang-Vergara said. Learning to read and write requires many complimentary skills working in unison and offering a program that addresses just one skill doesn’t work as well to promote literacy as whole. Vocabulary in a text contributes to understanding meaning, literary structures give it depth, and non-fiction works about the subject matter help deepen understanding. These things can’t be parsed and require frequent back and forth with the teacher.

Still, Liang-Vergara says some software has proven more successful – like Vocab Journey, which puts words in context and uses pictures and gamification to make learning new words fun. Even putting a small portion of assessment online saves teachers time, a big factor in English classes where teachers have to grade writing. “English teachers spend so much time on assessment that it causes them not to assign much work because they know they’ll have to correct all of it,” said Liang-Vergara. Removing some of that burden with programs like Achieve3000 or Vocab Journey allows them more time for one-on-one instruction.

Liang-Vergara says software developers he's spoken to at conferences aren't as interested in working on innovations in language arts software as they are in math. He believes the whole market has a lot of growing to do.


For Catlin Tucker, a high school teacher in Winsor, Calif., her school has not focused on blended learning the way Firstline has, partly because the cost of software and infrastructure has been a barrier. Even if she had the choice, though, she would not use what she refers to as "canned content." Instead, she started integrating technology naturally into her classroom on an experimental basis using free web tools.

Tucker started off by trying to improve her students’ communication skills both online and in-person by using the free online platform Collaborize Classroom, which offers more tools than an average discussion board. The online discussion, debate, and collaboration replaced homework, with assignments like posting a response to the discussion topic and responding to three peers. “It was interesting to see students who don’t engage verbally with their peers be super engaged in the online space,” Tucker said. Once those students found an online voice, she said they participated more in class discussions too.

She also realized that just because students have been exposed to technology at young ages and use it often doesn’t mean they know how to have an appropriate online discussion, a skill Tucker knows they need.

With the success of Collaborize Classroom, Tucker began to slowly integrate her classroom time with online spaces, making the transitions fluid with a clear focus on the learning goal, not the technology. She might start a discussion in class, extend it online, require collaboration through Google docs, deepen an understanding of the topic through a TED-Ed video, then pull it back into the classroom with extension activities.

For example, her vocabulary lessons -- one of the few areas where she still found herself lecturing, and a necessary part of any English class -- have been transformed. She now starts out by having students look at words in context and predict what they mean. Then they go home and watch Tucker’s video lecture. When they come back to class, they use mobile devices to find synonyms and antonyms, then go home and incorporate them into poems or stories. They share their work online, the class votes and the winner gets to read aloud in class. Suddenly vocabulary, a traditionally dull aspect of English class has some spice and students find a personal connection to the words they're using.

[RELATED: How Teachers Mix Online Math With Classroom Instruction]

Tucker doesn’t teach in a wealthy school district where every student has access to a smartphone and a home computer. But if there’s one phone for every three to four students, the activity can still work. And, she doesn’t allow home computer access to become an excuse not to participate – instead she connects her students to free online resources in town.

This blended teaching style has completely changed Tucker’s classroom. “So much of my creative energy was being drained by managing the paper load,” Tucker said. “Now I read their online discussions, I see how they're engaging in that space, but I’m not the only one giving feedback; they're getting it from their peers too.” And while teaching this way doesn’t make her job easier, she's more engaged too. “This is so much more creative, inventive and exciting,” she said. “As a teacher I am so much more energized.”


And she’s assigning more work than ever before. “Everything that happens online requires that they're reading and writing as well as thinking critically, so all these different skills are being developed,” said Tucker. For her, blended learning is a good way to get away from collecting and disseminating information, instead helping students discover it on their own.

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