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Use the news to teach reading comprehension

Teachers leverage students’ interest in current events to build higher-level reading and writing skills
  • VETTING FOR VICTORY—Research skills gained by analyzing news articles are critical, particularly when it comes to debate teams, such as this award-winning group from Norman High School in Oklahoma, says Principal Scott Beck.
  • GOOD REASONS TO READ—Current news events give  students, such as these two from New York City, an extra incentive to read regularly because they are more captivated by the content, educators say.
  • ACTIVE ANALYSIS—Butterfield Trail Middle School students in Arkansas explore the world from their laptops. Reading the news builds higher-order skills such as critical thinking and teaches students to organize their writing.

Allowing students to explore news articles that spark their curiosity can provide a bigger literacy boost than having them read nonfiction texts about random topics far removed from a youngster’s interests.

At Lancaster Middle School near Buffalo, New York, students read news articles to help write stories for a classroom magazine and to prepare for debates in social studies.

The articles are a highly effective tool to teach students how to summarize and organize information in their writing and their arguments, says Christine Stockslader, a librarian at the school, which is part of the Lancaster Central School District.

“When students read and understand current events, they are extremely interested and form strong opinions,” Stockslader says. “This interest is an excellent tool for teachers to instruct on comprehension, skill-building and fluency.”

This engagement also allows Stockslader and classroom teachers to build students’ abilities to make valid inferences, and to compare and contrast content and how it is presented. Students are further captivated when they spot links between today’s news and historical events they’re studying in other classes.

“Understanding the connection between current events and past history is a higher-level critical thinking skill that is extremely important,” she says. “When students are able to make those connections on their own it is very powerful.”

The same emphasis on critical thinking and nonfiction has led many more educators to use news to teach literacy, says Susan Gertler, co-founder and chief academic officer of the Achieve3000 literacy platform.

“These sources of informational text can move students from the basics of reading comprehension to the higher-order, evaluative skills,” Gertler says. “The beauty of using news is that it crosses multiple disciplines—for this reason, engagement is virtually assured by the wide variety of topics from which to choose.”

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‘Controversy happens’

At Middle School 322 in New York City, sixth-graders read news articles to build general fluency and also to develop deeper levels of comprehension, says ELA teacher Becky Camhi.

“We’re teaching them how to be good readers but also to be thinkers,” says Camhi, who uses LightSail's online library to connect students with news. “If they’re reading a news article that makes them wonder what it’s like to be a scientist working in Antarctica, it sparks more inquisitive types of questions—news articles lend themselves to that.”

Camhi doesn’t block her students from reading controversial stories. She wants them to consider all sides of an issue, and learn to delve into the gray areas that exist in many situations. News articles also link different academic subjects:

When students study environmental issues in science, for instance, they can read the latest reporting on pollution and endangered species in language arts. Reading also helps students develop a healthy skepticism, she says.

“We read nonfiction to make comparisons to our own lives, to figure out what the author is trying to teach us and what their bias is,” she says. “Once we start teaching those skills, the students look at everything with this sideways glance.”

On a more basic level, the daily nature of news helps students develop the critical habit of reading every day, says Todd Brekhus, president of the myON literacy platform. Readers of myON’s digital books now have access to student-oriented news articles written and reported by a company called News-O-Matic.

The new service is called myON News. “Lessons are so much more interesting if you have daily information,” Brekhus says. “Your textbook could be seven years old.”

News-O-Matic writes articles at different reading levels but students aren’t shielded from controversial issues or potentially anxiety-inducing events such as terrorist attacks. In fact, by discussing these topics, teachers can help students process their emotions—particularly if that support isn’t provided at home, Brekhus says.

“The TV may be blaring at home but the parents are not necessarily engaging with their children,” he says. “Controversy happens—it’s about how you deal with it. Kids can learn more and not be afraid.”

Learning to navigate

Scott Beck, principal at Norman High School, part of Norman Public Schools in Oklahoma, says his students read the news to develop research skills. This is particularly relevant for members of the school debate team who have to ensure the accuracy of facts they glean.

“We’ve never had more information and knowledge at our fingerprints, so our need to be able to navigate it has never been more important to learning to think critically—particularly about bias and intent,” Beck says.

Around the country, and often in English classes, more educators focus on media literacy. Students analyze news to develop their ability to evaluate information—whether it comes from CNN, a friend in the cafeteria or Twitter.

“Educators have to remember that teens, as impressive as some of their digital skill sets might be, are facing what is easily the most complex and largest information landscape in human history,” says Peter Adams, senior vice president of educational programs at the News Literacy Project, a national nonprofit.

“Students—and most adults—have no chance of finding their footing in this landscape without resources and guidance.”

The News Literacy Project’s lessons, designed for middle and high school classes, encourage students to explore news judgment by picking five stories from a list of 20 to post on the homepage of a mock news organization.

They will consider whether a story is timely, important or unusual. Such activities provide insight into how news organizations operate in an information landscape where many outlets optimize for sensationalism, Adams says. “News outlets are striking a balance between maintaining credibility and not being ignored,” he says.

Fake news sideshow

In the Concord School District in New Hampshire, 11th-graders study news and media literacy throughout English. They learn, among other skills, to look deeper into the motives behind information presented to them, says Tom Sica, principal of Concord High School.

“Kids are asking questions about what techniques are being used to attract their attention—what lifestyle values or points of views are being represented, and how might different people interpret them?” Sica says. “These questions are habits of mind that transcend a high school education.”

And as for all that “fake news?” The recent furor amounts to little more than “a small sideshow” when it comes to teaching students how to judge the credibility of information, says Sam Wineburg, a professor who studies student media behavior as director of the History Education Group at Stanford University.

Google, Facebook and other tech companies are already blocking phony sites that pretend to be actual news outlets. The bigger challenge is teaching students to vet information they find on sites that aren’t fake, but that masquerade as disinterested sources while pushing content with a political or economic agenda.

Simply clicking on an “About” tab or trusting any site with a “.org” URL isn’t sufficient anymore. “You could come across a website called MercuryFacts.org, and might not know the site is sponsored by the fishing industry,” says Wineburg.

“It doesn’t mean the information’s not true, but it’s important to know who stands to benefit if you accept as persuasive the information they’re presenting.”


Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.