Let Me Introduce Caitlin Nelson – This Week’s Guest Author

This month I am proud to showcase the work of one of my graduate candidates, Caitlin Nelson, who did a fine job of reviewing the writing websites I outlined in a previous blog.  She looked at the websites using an evaluation guide provided by the Master of Science in Teaching Literacy (PreK-12) Program.  Here are excerpts from her assignment.

Touro Graduate School of Education, Master of Science in Teaching Literacy (PreK-12)

Writing Website Review by Caitlin Nelson, Graduate Candidate

Any person reviewing a teaching website must identify, evaluate, and recognize that all websites have their own perspective, bias, or agenda. The person must also evaluate the author of the website in order to determine if and what the author’s bias may be. The second factor to use when evaluating a website is determining how reliable the website is. This is done by asking yourself several questions when looking at a website. Those questions may consist of: “Is this a commercial site?” “Is the author an authoritative source or one with expertise on the subject?” “Does the website have any links that are broken?” “Does the author include links to other reliable websites?” “Does the information make sense?” “Does the URL provide any clues as to whether the website is reliable?”

To determine reliability, a person should also investigate multiple sources on the topic in order to compare and contrast the information in order to determine if it is reliable. The third factor used to evaluate an online source is to determine the accuracy of information on the website. This is done by looking at other previously established reliable sources to consult the accuracy of the website being evaluated. Finally, the fourth factor in evaluating websites is synthesizing the information on the website in a meaningful way. This is done by understanding the connection between the relevant information related to the task and the broader context in which the information is located. Additionally, one should seek to understand the information on the website even more by further researching the topic through multimedia sources such as written work, audio, visuals, videos, and data. Through these strategies and tools, one should be able to evaluate whether or not a website is trustworthy and should be used.

After looking through the websites provided in “27 Awesome Free (or Low-Cost) Websites for Practicing Reading,” the first website I chose to evaluate is ReadTheory. I never heard of this website before, but once I looked around the website, I found it very useful for elementary-aged students. According to their home page, ReadingTheory aims to improve students’ reading comprehension through personalized exercises for children in grades K-12, for both native English speakers and ESL students. ReadTheory’s URL includes a “.org.” A “.org.” stands for organization and in most cases refers to a nonprofit organization. Nonprofit organizations are usually used for charities or educational sites. In this case, it is used as an educational site. Considering it is non-profit, the website is not meant to accrue money, instead it is to help others, which makes this website reliable and lacking certain biases. This website is not created by one person, instead it is created by a “team” or an organization whose purpose is to educate students. Therefore, their agenda is to educate, not to persuade somebody or make money.

There is no one author of the website, instead there is a “ReadTheory team,” which consists of professional writers and educators, some of which acquired advanced degrees, are published authors, or award-winning teachers (ReadTheory). According to the “About Us” page, some of those team members consist of Tanner Hock. Tanner writes and edits passages for ReadTheory. He also founded ReadTheory due to his studying of philosophy at UNC, where he found an interest in the “the mode of critical thought,” and wanted to give students an opportunity to focus on critical thinking skills, thus the creation of ReadTheory. Another ReadTheory team member is Sean Mournighan and he has a Bachelor’s in English and a Masters in Teaching. He was also a behavioral therapist for children with autism, a manager of a group home for adults with disabilities, a high school English teacher, and a mentor teacher for elementary ELA teachers. Therefore, he has a lot of experience in the field of literacy learning.

I found this site to be very useful for elementary-aged students. According to their home page, ReadingTheory aims to improve students’ reading comprehension through personalized exercises for children in grades K-12, for both native English speakers and ESL students. ReadTheory’s URL includes a “.org.” A “.org.” stands for organization and in most cases refers to a nonprofit organization. Nonprofit organizations are usually used for charities or educational sites. In this case, it is used for an educational site. Considering it is non-profit, the website is not meant to accrue money, instead it is to help others, which makes this website reliable and lacking certain biases. Therefore, their agenda is to educate, not to persuade somebody or make money.

The fact that several, if not all of the team members of ReadTheory authors, are also considered authoritative sources because they are educated and experts in the topic, the website is focused, comprehensive, and reliable.

The website conducted a data collection study in 2016 based on feedback from 1,100 teachers that used the program. Of the teachers that used the program long enough to see a change in their students’ standardized test scores, 80% reported an increase in the scores due to ReadTheory. 70% reported that ReadTheory led to an increase in student grades too. Also, approximately 70% of the respondents stated that ReadTheory led to an increase in their students’ confidence when taking reading comprehension tests. In addition, results showed that the majority of both teachers and students were satisfied with ReadTheory’s program, overall (Romeo, Hock, & Plante-Kropp, 2016). This shows that the website and its program is reliable because the majority of users have succeeded from using the program. ReadTheory also uses the data-based approach, Metametrics, to assign the text/ lexile levels for students. They also use Fountas and Pinnell to help assign leveled texts to students. The fact that the website uses other reliable sources such as Metametrics and Fountas and Pinnell to drive their program and website, adds to their reliability. The website is not a commercial site, nor does it contain any typos or broken links, which further strengthens my argument that it is a reliable website. As for the accuracy of the website, the fact that ReadTheory uses other reliable sources shows that they are accurate. For example, ReadTheory relies on Metametrics and Fountas and Pinnell to help them assign lexile levels to students in order to make their program more accurate and useful.

Finally, the website provides information that can easily be synthesized or understood. The information is provided in mostly layman’s terms and there is a teacher side of the website and a student side of the website. Furthermore, there is a parent flyer for information on the program and an FAQ page for dozens of the most popular questions. Additionally, there is a “Contact Us” page in case a website visitor has more questions or needs assistance in regards to the website or program. According to the website and all that it offers, I would determine this website to be a reliable, trustworthy, and useful website for students in grades K-12. Additionally, it is free and culturally-relevant in the fact that it offers reading passages and worksheets for ESL students and is used on at least four different continents (ReadTheory). The only components lacking on the website that could have added to their trustworthiness is a date on when it was created or updated, so the visitors know it is relevant in today’s world and more links to other reliable, similar sources on the same topic.

The second website I decided to evaluate is Storyline Online. I have used this website before by showing students videos of celebrities reading books aloud. In my opinion, it is such a cute and interesting way to get students to listen to various stories. It is also a culturally relevant website because on the homepage there are videos under a category titled, “Celebrate Black Stories and Black Voices.” These videos are either stories about Black people or Black characters, they are being read by Black people, or a combination of the two! Based on the fact that the website offers videos of celebrities or well-known people reading books, I would say the purpose of the website is partially to entertain, but also to educate due to the fact that the videos are of read a-louds. On the bottom of the homepage of Storyline Online, it states that the website is sponsored by EIF or Entertainment Industry Foundation. According to the EIF website, it is an organization that uses “the powerful voice and creative talents of the entertainment industry,” as well as certain organizations and philanthropists to develop programs that “facilitate positive social change,” (The Entertainment Industry Foundation: About). Considering Storyline Online is sponsored by EIF, one can presume that Storyline Online is a nonprofit website because it was developed partially by philanthropists, according to EIF’s website (The Entertainment Industry Foundation: About). That being said, the purpose of the website is not to gain money, but instead to entertain and educate students. Another thing mentioned on the bottom of Storyline Online website is “SAG-AFTRA Foundation.” When clicking on their logo, it led me to their own website. Their website describes themselves as a “nonprofit organization dedicated to providing the most comprehensive, educational, and state-of-the-art resources to SAG-AFTRA members,” (Who We Are: SAG-AFTRA Foundation). The website then explains how they offer opportunities for their members to make a difference in their children’s literacy program, Storyline Online (Who We Are: SAG-AFTRA Foundation). This further proves that the website is a nonprofit organization whose main purpose is to use performers to enhance children’s literacy programs and skills. Taking all of this into consideration, I would consider Storyline Online to be lacking certain biases that would be present in commercial or profitable websites. Furthermore, the website is not advocating for any controversial topics or opinions. Instead, the website is merely providing videos of performers or celebrities reading stories, in order to strengthen children’s literacy and education. As for Storyline Online reliability, I would consider it to be a very reliable source, because they are endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers and the American Library Association. This shows that reliable programs with an expertise on education and literacy, support Storyline Online, proving it is a reliable source. Furthermore, each book that is available on the site comes with a “supplemental curriculum developed by a credentialed elementary educator,” which again, shows that the website is supported by and developed by those with an expertise in the area of education. Each supplemental activity is created to strengthen comprehension and written skills for both native English speakers and English-language learners.

The videos are also produced by the SAG-AFTRA Foundation Production Team, who specialize in the area of video production. The team is made up of a graphic designer, IT and production manager, director of communications, national director of performers programs, and an executive director. Therefore, not only is the educational portion of the website supported and managed by educational experts, but the video and production area of the website is managed by production experts (Storyline Online). This also shows that the website is reliable. Additionally, the website is not a commercial site, it has links to other reliable sources that work, and there are no typos. I would also consider the website to be accurate based on the fact that it is supported by several reliable institutions or programs. For example, it is funded by SAG-AFTRA Foundation, is sponsored by EIF, and is endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers and the American Library Association (Storyline Online). A website can be deemed accurate based on whether or not it consults with or is supported by other reliable sources, which Storyline Online is.  Finally, the last factor to evaluate a source, synthesizing information, is not very relevant for this website. The website does not include a lot of information on the topic of literacy or education, instead, it simply provides videos that children enjoy and learn from. The videos of read alouds of different stories, they are not informational or overly factual. Instead, they are entertaining and educational because they allow for students to practice their listening comprehension, and then strengthen their comprehension and written responses by completing a supplemental activity.

Therefore, this website is solely for the benefit of students and does not provide a lot of information on the topic of literacy, so there is not much information to synthesize. However, based on the first three factors I used to evaluate this website, I would consider this website to be a trustworthy and reliable website. I know that the website is up to date, as well, because the website is constantly updating their homepage for relevant videos such as “December Featured Videos,” (Storyline Online). I will definitely continue to use this in my classroom and in all of my future classrooms, especially now that I know just how reliable it is.

The last website I chose to evaluate is “ReadWorks.” According to their “About Us” page, their mission is to solve “America’s reading comprehension crisis and student achievement gap,” (ReadWorks). It is a nonprofit website that uses cognitive science research and works with educators that teach grades K-12. The website’s URL contains a “.org,” which I stated previously usually coincides with a nonprofit organization. With that being said, I can assume that this website’s purpose is not to make money, but instead to educate students. This proves that there is little to no bias in what the website is offering, because they use research and are nonprofit, so they have nothing to gain except offering educational opportunities. As for the website’s reliability, several reliable institutions have partnered with them, to support them and also “integrate their content into ReadWorks.” Some of those institutions include the Museum of Modern Art, the American Museum of Natural History, The Wall Street Journal, History.com, Teaching Matters, Readability Matters, amongst many more (ReadWorks).  In addition to all of these partners supporting them and strengthening their reliability, ReadWorks has also won several awards which adds to their reliability and proves their effectiveness. It was a finalist for the “Cool Tool Award” three times, the “Revere Awards” twice, the winner of the “Revere Award,” the “EdSurge Award,” the “Charity Navigator Award” and was “The Common Sense Graphite” Top Pick. ReadWorks’ team also makes them very reliable.

Instead of having only one author of the website, Readworks is made up of a team of workers. Their executive director, Terry G. Bowman spent his career working in at-risk and low-income populations in leadership roles, including being the Vice-President for Education and Workforce and the Executive Director at the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (ReadWorks). Kathy Bloomfield is the Chief Operating Officer and also had leadership roles in marketing services such as Digitas, Warner Music, Time Inc., Book of the Month Club, and Time Life Books. She also was a founding partner for Educate Inc. and received a B.A. in English. This shows that the ReadWorks’ team is made up of experts in the field of education, literacy, leadership, and marketing. There are several other team members that are also very qualified in the areas relevant to the website and its reliability. Moreover, ReadWorks is not a commercial website, does not include any typos, and has working links to different areas of the website and further sources, such as research used to inform and support their website. All of these factors attribute to the fact that this is a reliable website.

I would also consider it an accurate website because the entire website and program is based on scientific evidence and research, therefore their program is verified with research and data. Additionally, ReadWorks is partnered with several other reliable sources and has been the finalist or winner for several awards, thus proving its accuracy. Finally, the website also allows a visitor to synthesize information easily. The information is organized easily by their menu and certain links or tabs. Additionally, it offers information in different multimedia sources, such as in data, visuals, videos or webinars, and in written text. Therefore, based on the four factors used to evaluate a website, I would consider this website to be another trustworthy and useful website.  Additionally, the website is culturally relevant because it offers content based on certain topics such as, “Hispanic Heritage Month,” “Native American Heritage,” “Black History Month,” and “Collections for ELLs,” (ReadWorks). Going forward, I will use the four factors of evaluating a website in order to determine whether or not a website is trustworthy and if I should introduce it to my students. Anybody can publish on the Internet, therefore we must be skeptics when it comes to what we find there. I will teach my students to use these tools as well, so they can critically evaluate websites on their own to determine if they are trustworthy.

 

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