Five Cool Online Reading Tools

UPDATE: After writing this, my suspicions that readability tests were flawed have been confirmed. Take the data I present regarding reading levels with a tiny grain of salt!

Reading instruction has been a slowly blossoming interest for me. In particular, reading news and current events, as these articles seem to be more pertinent, interesting and up-to-date than what is usually found in most coursebooks. I teach a reading course once per term and am always trying some new ideas, source, technique or website. I have also written about reading online before (using Flipboard – something I still haven’t tried) and throughout the terms I have been collecting useful websites and tools that I have used or played with to varying degrees. Below, I detail five interesting and useful websites that I think all teachers should know about: Breaking News English, News in Levels, Newsela, Actively Learn, and Social Book.

The first three websites in this list feature graded articles – articles written at varying levels of difficulty but still on the same core story (typically, current events). For each website, I have provided some example readability scores of their articles. Readability scores are based on a formula which analyzes the number of sentences, words, and syllables in a text to determine how difficult it is to read. Of course, these scores don’t look at lexical complexity per se, but multisyllabic words tend to be more lexically complex than monosyllabic words. In addition, these tests seem to have stood the test of time, so I’ll use them as a general guide for judging what texts might be appropriate for your students.

Below, I use three different scores. First, I use the McAlpine EFLAW score, which is meant to judge readability on a scale from “very easy” to “very confusing” (note: I used this VBS script to analyze the texts for this score). Then, I used the wonderfully simple Readability Score website to determine the Flesch-Kincaid reading ease score (the lower the score, the easier it is out of 100) and the average grade level this text would be suitable for (for native speakers of English; this is an average of several different readability tests).

The scores I report below are a simple web analysis of single texts, but I think they do give you some good insight into what may be suitable for your students. However, be careful. Some scores came back as “very easy” while my pre-university students (intermediate and above) would have struggled with them.

Happy reading!


 

1. Breaking News English

breakingnewsstories

Summary: Breaking News English is an excellent source for graded current events. It is updated several times per week and offers a range of reading and listening input and activities. News from popular sites such as CNN, BBC, etc are aggregated and rewritten into two paragraphs at differing levels of difficulty, from Level 0 (roughly beginner) to Level 6 (roughly upper intermediate). Most news stories offer levels 1-3 or 4-6 while some offer all the levels. Each news article often comes with an audio version of the story which can be listened to at varying speeds (slow, fast, fastest) and accents (RP, GA).

In addition to the news stories themselves, there are a range of activities that are produced to coincide with the story. These include gap-fills, fill in the blanks, comprehension questions, etc. What’s amazing about this site is the sheer number of activities, which, unless the creator of BreakingNewsEnglish never sleeps, must be computer generated; yet, they look like they were actually made by humans, including the audio!

breakingnewsstories-activities

Readability

Article Level EFLAW Readability Score Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease Average Grade Level
“Babies Make Husbands Lazier” 0 16 (very easy) 76.6 6.0
“Babies Make Husbands Lazier” 1 20.1 (very easy) 73.8 7.1
“Babies Make Husbands Lazier” 2 21.1 (quite easy) 75.3 7.4
“Babies Make Husbands Lazier” 3 26.3 (a little difficult) 69.1 8.8
“Aid Struggling to Reach Needy in Nepal” 4 12.0 (very easy) 69.8 7.1
“Aid Struggling to Reach Needy in Nepal” 5  15.3 (very easy) 64.6 8.5
“Aid Struggling to Reach Needy in Nepal” 6 22.9 (quite easy) 56.7 10.5

Practicality: The stories are always current and always interesting, but they may pose a challenge for beginners and may not pose a challenge for upper level students. Thankfully, sources of the stories are always given, so you can easily find the original articles and adapt them to your needs. The activities that come along with these stories seem to be computer generated and are almost the same for each story. Each story starts with the same type of “walk around and talk” warm-up and follows through with a similar format. Online activities include filling in missing letters, and reading the news as it scrolls at a set speed. Lots of activities are offered, but don’t seem to be that meaningful, bordering on useless. Any teacher who follows these activities to the T risks boring their students to death.

breakingnewsstories-activities-warmup

Bottom Line: This site is very useful for finding graded content about current events, but it will probably serve the teacher well to make their own activities.


2. News in Levels

newsinlevels

Summary: News in Levels is similar to Breaking News English in that it offers the same news story in several different levels, here ranging from 1 (high beginner) to 3 (intermediate). Each text is quite short – no more than a few paragraphs. The site also offers audio for each news article, with Level 3 audio/video being taken mostly from On Demand News, formerly ITN News. The sources for the texts also come from here, with Level 3 being the original text. News in Levels includes an extra paragraph at the end of each story to define difficult vocabulary. Some articles offer comprehension questions or further activities, though not all of them do so.

newsinlevels-diffwords

Readability

Article Level EFLAW Readability Score Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease Average Grade Level
“Old Bombs in Germany” 1 7.4 (very easy) 86.7 3.8
“Old Bombs in Germany” 2 19.4 (very easy) 83.4 5.7
“Old Bombs in Germany” 3 26.5 (a little difficult) 65.7 9.3

 

Practicality: While News in Levels offers a range newsinlevels-vidof news articles, the range of difficulty is quite limited. In addition, while Level 3 is authentic in that it is the original article, it is quite short. Likewise, while Level 3 audio is authentic, Level 1 and 2 are spoken at such a slow speed that it is only useful for beginners and lower proficiency students.

Bottom Line: News in Levels is useful at the lower-levels of reading and listening, but does not pose a challenge for higher levels, and it may not be suited for those wishing to have a more academic focus.


3. Newsela

Newsela

Newsela-levels-activitiesSummary: Newsela offers graded news events at more advanced levels. Unlike Breaking News English and News in Levels, this website was not designed for English language learners; rather, it was designed for native English speaking students. Articles are considerably longer, each being broken into five levels, from 6th to 12th grade (US). Many of the articles often come with quiz questions and writing prompts, both of which are supposed to be Common Core alligned . Newsela requires users to sign-up (free) and log-in to access its articles and services. Teachers can assign and mark these with a Newsela PRO account (not free). Newsela PRO users have a range of tools to manage classes, give assignments, highlight and leave notes on articles, and so on.

Readability

Article Level EFLAW Readability Score Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease Average Grade Level
“Thousands of Myanmar refugees stranded at sea with nowhere to go” 650L 12.8 (very easy) 77.6 6.2
“Thousands of Myanmar refugees stranded at sea with nowhere to go” 930L 17.6 (very easy) 69.4 8.1
“Thousands of Myanmar refugees stranded at sea with nowhere to go” 1040L  10.4 (very easy)  61.1  9.5
“Thousands of Myanmar refugees stranded at sea with nowhere to go” 1220L  25.3 (quite easy)  54.9  10.9
“Thousands of Myanmar refugees stranded at sea with nowhere to go” MAX  29.5 (very confusing)  51.3  12.3

Practicality: Newsela’s articles seem suitable for intermediate upper-level students or students with a more academic focus. They seem to work great as a graded source of materials that still pose a challenge. However, the great power of Newsela is in its teacher’s tools, which are, unfortunately, quite expensive.

newsela-offers

Bottom Line: Unless you work in a school that can afford the price and will heavily utilize Newsela for all students, this website is only useful as a source of graded current events for which the teacher can adapt offline.


4. Actively Learn

active  

active-teacher menuSummary: Actively Learn offers a different experience when compared to the other websites. One function of Actively Learn is content curation: you can select text from their catalog or upload any text (e.g. an article from CNN, Newsela, Breaking News, or the Journal of Hyperbolic Topography – or even books) and then distribute this article to a class (or individual students) along with directions, teacher notes, and quiz questions (multiple choice and short answer). In addition, from the student’s point of view, double clicking on any word will bring up a definition or highlighting text will allow them to write notes which can be shared with the class. They can also highlight a sentence and choose “I don’t understand it”, which notifies the teacher that a student needs help. Any quiz questions students answer can be seen, graded and commented on by the teacher. Students and teachers have the ability to track progress as well. All of this is with the free account. The paid account offers more collaboration and the ability to use Google Docs. This is now free, too!

active-teacher-tool active-ss-tool
Teacher View Student View

Practicality: Because you can choose any content (graded or not), annotate the text for students, and then draft comprehension questions, this seems like an excellent site for students who will be reading longer, more advanced texts. The free version should suffice for most teacher’s needs.

Bottom Line: I admittedly have limited experience with Actively Learn, but so far it seems to be an excellent website for getting students to work with longer texts outside of class.


5. Socialbook

sb

Summary: And now time for something different: Live Margin’s Socialbook. The first time I heard about Socialbook was from the Professor Hacker blog detailing using this website for film analysis with its video annotation tool. Radically different from the websites listed above, Socialbook allows you to upload a locally saved text (or video) which can then be distributed to classes in the form of Groups. Inside these groups, all have access to the text and may underline and add notes as they wish. The social aspect comes when you start replying to the notes, having active conversations in the margins and hence the name “Live Margin” and “Social Book”. If one wishes, notes can also be kept private.

sb-intext

Practicality: This website seems useful if you are doing a lot of reading outside of class (perhaps a book or a long article) and want to get students to discuss the reading before class (maybe you only meet two or three times a week). Any article or video would suffice, though it may be suitable for longer texts.

sb-book

Bottom Line: Probably not very useful for your average ELT class, keep this website in mind for larger projects in the future.