A team of journalists is fighting media illiteracy by translating news for kids

Trust but verify.
Trust but verify.
Image: AP/Jay Pickthorn
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Imagine you are nine. You read something in class. You don’t understand it. Do you raise you hand and announce you are lost? Or do you pretend that you’ve got it, and move along?

Most do the latter, which is one reason 64% of US fourth-graders—nine-year-olds—were not reading at or above proficiency levels in 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“Kids are drowning,” said Matt Gross, founder and CEO of Newsela, a digital reading platform that publishes news stories aimed at schoolkids. “Because they feel stigmatized, they never say they don’t understand it.”

Newsela, which was started in 2013, takes stories published by respected news organizations, and rewrites them at five different reading levels. It also creates quizzes kids can take, which give teachers an instant assessment of what their pupils are understanding and what they are not.

Gross likens it to Spotify for kids—they get to pick what they read—and Salesforce for teachers, who get valuable, timely information about kids’ abilities.

He says schools are spending about $10,000 per child in the US (much more in some states) and more than $37 billion a year on instructional materials, many of which are outdated textbooks. “A lot of it is spent on things that are not helpful to driving quality instruction,” he said.  

Filling a need

As well as improving reading skills in general, Newsela aims to provide something that the recent election showed to be in scant supply among Americans: media literacy. In the quizzes they take, kids are asked questions like “How is this claim justified?” and “What is the source?” They are also asked to consider things like how word choice might affect the article’s tone.

“By pairing news consumption with reading comprehension practice, we’re helping students develop the higher-order critical thinking skills they need to vet information on their own,” said Jenny Coogan, chief content officer at the company. 

Researchers at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education recently found that most kids do not understand the difference between real news and content paid for by an advertiser. They surveyed 7,804 students in middle school, high school and college with a range of age-appropriate tests. “In every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation,” the authors wrote, according to this release.

One of the Stanford tests asked middle-school students to look at the homepage of Slate and distinguish news stories from advertisements. Most could not: of the 203 students surveyed in that group, more than 80% believed a native ad (i.e., an ad in the format of a news story), labeled as ”sponsored content,” was real news.

“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there,” Sam Wineburg, the lead author of the report, said in the release. “Our work shows the opposite to be true.”

Another good reason to use news stories in the classroom is that, for teachers, finding interesting, relevant, and current material for the classroom is always hard work. Research has shown that kids’ grades and attendance can both be improved by introducing content that has more meaning for them, and using news is a smart way to do this and help time-starved teachers.

Moreover, because kids are reading and discussing the news in the classroom, there is also more of a shared experience. Those of us over a certain age remember a time when the evening news, or the morning newspaper, offered a collective family experience, useful for conversation and debate. On the internet people choose and consume news by themselves, with fewer opportunities for discussion, even among the most news-savvy of families.

One antidote

Newsela offers two products: a free one, with content for teachers, parents or students, and a paid one (about $4,000-$11,000 per school) for the quizzes and real-time dashboard, which lets teachers track students’ reading comprehension and progress. It has 25 licensing agreements with organizations such as the Associated Press, Washington Post, McClatchy, and Bloomberg.

About 150 freelance writers around the world—most of whom are journalists—have produced more than 4,000 articles (including Spanish-language versions of the stories) for the site, ranging in topic from arts and culture to science and math and government and economics. They use natural-language processing (NLP) technology to guide them in their writing, which helps them with things like what vocabulary different reading levels will understand, and how to simplify texts. (The University of Pennsylvania produced this research paper on the NLP technology, comparing it to Simple English Wikipedia.) “We also employ current and former teachers and curriculum specialists to produce our quizzes and open-ended questions,” says Gross.  

The company is growing fast. Gross says it has 11 million registered users: 10 million students, 1 million teachers and about 250,000 parents and administrators. He would not provide figures on the number of regular active users, but says 50,000 new users register every day.

Gross says Newsela helps kids improve their reading, though the only research he has to back that up, for now, is the company’s own. It shows that the more they use Newsela—i.e., the more stories read and quizzes taken—the more kids improve. (The company’s blog post about the research is here). Independent research is forthcoming.

Tara Cox, who teaches 5th grade at PS3 in New York City, said she liked it, especially for homework. “I love that it is leveled, which makes it speak to a wider range of students,” she said. As to whether it improves reading ability or media literacy, she was less sure. “I cannot pinpoint if what we learn in class is the reason students succeed, or whether it is in part due to the use of this website or even any other strategy.” And since Newsela is presented to kids as a reputable source, they just believe it, rather than pushing back, she said.

There are still plenty of obstacles. Some classrooms don’t have enough computers or laptops, while others have the hardware but the teachers haven’t been given enough training. And the news sources Newsela has picked may provide, by dint of the mainstream media’s general left-wing bias, a narrow view of the world. Its price tag for the more valuable dashboard and quizzes will inevitably discourage many schools and educators.

But the opportunities are enormous. Gross recalled being in a classroom recently and watching a teacher give a young boy a piece of writing to read. He stared at it intently, his eyes not moving over the text. He was faking it, likely afraid to ‘fess up that he did not understand what he was looking at. The teacher should pick up on this, but the teacher has 25 kids in the class and increasingly tough standards to meet for student performance. “If there was a tool to give the teacher one iota of insight into whether that student was engaged, and whether that student understood it, everything that followed would have been a different experience,” Gross said.