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Breaking down barriers to reading news: 7 good questions with Newsela’s Jennifer Coogan

Newsela screenshotNewsela is a less-than-a-year-old educational technology startup that uses news articles to teach reading comprehension to youth. What makes Newsela unique is that Chief Content Officer Jennifer Coogan and her team of a dozen freelancers break down and rewrite news relevant to youth, creating versions of the same story at different reading levels. They do this instead of simply taking a New York Times article on the latest developments in Ukraine and putting it in front of a sixth grader.

Most news is written for an adult audience, with an expectation that they can at least read moderately well and know some of what the new piece of news is about. Youth don’t always know that. Words may be unfamiliar, existing history may be unfamiliar. There are barriers to entry. With a team of writers, licensing agreements with McClatchy-Tribune and Associated Press, and some strong technology, Newsela tries to knock those barriers down. In the process, it teaches them to be stronger readers.

It also aligns with Common Core standards.

The startup launched in June 2013 and just a couple of months later, they started the school year with 5,000 teachers using its product. They’re now adding 1,000 teachers a day and about to launch a premium product, according to Coogan.

I chatted with Coogan about how the Newsela team breaks down barriers of entry to news for young readers by simplifying concepts and adding context — and how the lessons learned can be applied to the wider industry.

Newsela is taking a different path to using news as a tool for learning in the classroom. What’s the main idea behind it?

jennifer-cooganJENNIFER COOGAN: In the past, schools have used news to teach current events, but usually just in a short unit in social studies class, or a small sliver of the school day such as homeroom period. The idea was to make students more aware of the world around them. Our approach is much broader. We want to use the news to train students to be sophisticated readers and deep critical thinkers. And we believe that since the news covers topics ranging from the arts to the sciences, it can be a tool for teachers of all subjects.

Could you explain how it dovetails with Newspapers in Education (NIE) efforts? Or news literacy curricula?

COOGAN: News literacy is a critical part of having an informed, engaged democratic society. But with U.S. reading levels at such dismal levels — according to the 2013 Nations Report Card, two-thirds of eighth graders in U.S. public schools are not proficient in reading — we can’t fully exploit all the informative and reliable content that news organizations provide.

What we aim to do is help students move, step-by-step, up the staircase of reading complexity, so that they can eventually read [news] . . . without any added support.

Contrary to what some might believe, news articles are not written at an eighth grade level. It’s not that journalists have become so much more sophisticated in their writing, it’s that what we demand of eighth graders has slipped over the past century. So what we aim to do is help students move, step-by-step, up the staircase of reading complexity, so that they can eventually read the paper fresh off the presses without any added support.

Not just any article goes up on Newsela, right? How do you choose the articles you use?

COOGAN: Right, there’s a great deal of consideration that goes into our selection. First and foremost, a story has to have an element of high-interest to seize a student’s interest because many of them may be reluctant readers.

A story on the shutdown of the federal government might be a dry topic, but if the story mentions how thousands of middle schoolers’ field trips to the Smithsonian are on the line, that’s a high-interest hook that will draw them into an important topic. That’s key because we want a student who uses Newsela to not only be an advanced reader, but someone who feels empowered to take part in conversations about critical issues.

You may not put them on Newsela, but what then do you think about the use of GIFs and lists — or anything other than traditional news articles? How does the format of the news affect the accessibility of critical issues for young readers?

COOGAN: Video, infographics and audio recordings can all go a long way in bringing a story to life. They can definitely help a student understand a subject that might otherwise be out of their grasp. Knowing how to integrate information learned from a text and some form of multimedia is a skill that will be tested in the new Common Core Standards.

That said, if we rely on them entirely, students won’t have the reading stamina they need to succeed in college or on the job. Traditional, in-depth print reporting gives them the practice they need in a world that is increasingly feeding them micro-servings of information.

What do you see as barriers for getting youth to understand news or be interested in it?

COOGAN: The biggest barrier is that news is no longer broadcast in the home the way it used to be. Dad no longer comes home at 6:30 p.m. and commandeers the television in the den, subjecting the kids to Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather. Today, parents get their news through a feed, or on their iPads, or they DVR “Meet the Press” for later and surrender the television to the kids.

News consumption has become more personalized, but that’s not necessarily a good thing for creating a news habit. Without having that background gained at home, a lot of the news is inscrutable to a young reader.

We don’t just simplify the writing, we build in background knowledge that the reader will need to understand the story, or even just to care about it.

Very often journalists take for granted that their readers have adequate background knowledge to understand what they’re reading. That’s why when we “level down” the articles we publish, we don’t just simplify the writing, we build in background knowledge that the reader will need to understand the story, or even just to care about it.

Adding context to news for those who might be unfamiliar with a topic — that’s a trend we’ve been paying attention to and something some organizations, say Vox Media’s Project X, seem to be looking to solve. Could you give an example of how you do this with young readers?

COOGAN: At our lower-grade versions, when the story discusses an unfamiliar term, concept or event (e.g. Secretary of State, subsidies, organized labor) we will add in examples or descriptive equivalents – not just definitions. We might describe the UK parliament as a “body similar to the U.S. Congress.”

Sometimes the context is buried lower in the original version of the story, so we’ll re-order it so that the young reader knows right away why the article is meaningful.

Sometimes the context is buried lower in the original version of the story, so we’ll re-order it so that the young reader knows right away why the article is meaningful. For example, in a story about young Iranians views of the West, we’ll state plainly in the lede that the U.S. and Iran have been enemies for more than 30 years, whereas in the original version that’s only referred to obliquely four paragraphs into the article.

Lastly, we group articles by theme on our Pinterest boards so that teachers can make connections and help their students see the big picture. For example, we’ve done a number of articles on the use of drones. When you look at the Pinboard, you can see right away that this technology is quickly becoming pervasive in modern society and that we’re going to need to figure out what regulations it requires.

What can Newsela’s method of interacting with young readers teach the wider news industry about reaching adults?

COOGAN: I think we’ve learned that you shouldn’t underestimate or write-off certain segments of the population and their potential to be avid newsreaders. Students who’ve never had a newspaper delivered to their homes show interest and curiosity in important, meaty subjects once they are given articles at the proper entry point.

Students who’ve never had a newspaper delivered to their homes show interest and curiosity in important, meaty subjects once they are given articles at the proper entry point.

I think the problem is that for years, people have entered adulthood knowing how to read, but not feeling comfortable [enough] reading serious journalism. We want to change that so that people have the reading ability to satisfy their interest and curiosity in the world around them.

  • Is Newsela paying the papers/reporters from which they draw their stories? If not this seems like a business that is essentially stealing somebody else’s work, re-writing it and making money off the re-write. Yes, they are crediting the newspaper, but its hardly just compensation. By the way, I’m a former reporter.

    • kevinloker

      Bill, thanks for commenting. Coogan told me they have have licensing agreements with both McClatchy-Tribune and Associated Press (mentioned obliquely in the intro for the Q + A here). Those agreements are written as such to not only syndicate from their wires, but also to level the content.

  • “Very often journalists take for granted that their readers have adequate background knowledge to understand what they’re reading…” I have to say-it used to bother me when my editors suggested adding in that background information–that everyone knows. Or so I thought. But I can see your point–we need to realize–people who read news articles come from different levels of understanding, exposure, and personal experience. It’s the readers’ life experience that helps them understand a story and relate to it better. Adding essential background info can certainly help them along.

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