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Evaluating Websites and Software for Reading and Writing

Many of the activities in other chapters throughout this text support reading and writing. These activities also meet the theoretical framework of the book developed in the first chapter. However, choosing appropriate activities from among the incredible number of possible resources, programs, applications, and websites can be a challenge. Kessler (2017) notes that ‘even for those who are inclined to experiment with emerging technologies, it can be challenging to identify which resources, tools, or websites may best fit a particular lesson, activity, or goal” (p. 205). Therefore, after identifying sites and programs that might help them meet their instructional goals, teachers can follow several steps. First, when using websites either as a teacher resource or part of instructional materials, make sure that the site is published by an association or organization that is trustworthy. Many teaching organizations and schools have websites with great suggestions, materials, and links. Check to see when the site has been updated by visiting it regularly, and look through it carefully for biases or other problems. For example, a safe smartphone application you might have found effective in vocabulary development is now showing advertisements to users as a way to earn money, and those ads might not be safe for your students. Also, if students will go to the site, make sure that the language level is appropriate or that they will have help if needed. For software, get a full demonstration first. If your school technology leader or a colleague has the program available, ask him or her to model it for you and to explain how they use it. If the software is not available, companies like Tom Snyder Productions will send teachers working copies of their software for preview. Reading the software is not enough—software authors and publishers have different ideas about what constitutes contextualization in terms such as grammar in context, for example, with context ranging from individual unlinked sentences to authentic reading passages. The definition and implementation must suit your goals.

Second, after choosing likely sites or programs, teachers should evaluate them as closely as time and effort allow. (If time is an issue, complete one or two per week; share with colleagues; let students do some.) There are many different checklists and guidelines for evaluating these resources, based on cost, structure, technical features, or other characteristics. Because this book advocates using software for many purposes, including some for which it was not originally intended, it calls for a slightly different view of evaluation from other guidelines. Assuming that the cost is right and the technology will work in your school or program, then, like Hubbard (2006), you can evaluate the software based on feasibility and quality.  Most important are the following factors:

1. Goals: What can the software or website do (not what it can’t), and how does this meet pedagogical goals?

2. Presentation: How does the software do it? (Does it introduce or practice? Is there context? Are there exercises, quizzes, multimedia presentations, something else?) Is this appropriate for the students and goals?

3. Appropriateness: How will students be able to use the software to meet goals? (Can students understand it? Does it provide appropriate examples and scaffolds? Is the level appropriate?)

4. Outcomes: What do students produce with only the software or website? What could students produce with additional documents? What other outcomes are possible?

5. Evaluation: What kind of appropriate feedback and evaluation does the software or site offer?

6. Notes: Add notes about what else is important to know about the technology for your context. Then balance the results to decide if the software or website is useful for your instruction.

This evaluation plan is used in the next section to describe some websites and software programs that teachers might consider for reading, writing, and grammar learning and practice.

Website Examples

Grammar Safari
(D. Mills & Salzmann, n.d., https://www.merlot.org/merlot/viewMaterial.htm?id=88394)

Goals: Help students collect examples of grammar points. Useful for inductive grammar learning.

Presentation: Illustrated instructions describe how to use Web browsers to search for terms. It has no preset search items. The application has a help center which can be consulted for different word processing procedures, such as spell checking, cropping, tables, etc.

Appropriateness: This is for intermediate to advanced students who can use inductive reasoning, or who have access to some strategy training. Graphics and layout help with understanding the instructions. Help is provided on how to use browsers and which to use for specific goals.

Outcomes: Depends on browser and search—could be a list of the item, a document in which the find capability can be used, or an exportable text. Typically not the same as a concordancer.

Evaluation: None.

Google Docs
(Google Inc., 2018, http://docs.google.com)

Goals: Help students write and collaborate on writing documents.

Presentation: The application uses a variety of word processing tools to help students craft their documents.

Appropriateness: Google Docs can be used by students regardless of their language proficiency level. The application uses familiar editing tools used in other word-processing applications such as Microsoft Word and Open Office.org. The help menu provides instructions and scaffolds on different world-processing needs.

Outcomes: The students can produce written documents using a variety of elements such as text, graphs, tables, charts, etc. The students can also collaborate with other students, teachers, and colleagues at real time to develop and edit a joint writing project. The application also uses speech-to-text technologies to relieve writers from typing.

Evaluation: None.

Newsela (Newsela, Inc., 2018, https://newsela.com)

Goals: Provide students with appropriately leveled authentic reading news texts in a variety of topics and genres.  The application is meant to create an engaging reading experience for students by giving them authentic news items and the autonomy to choose texts based on topic, difficulty level, reading skill, and language.

Presentation: Reading passages are provided in 5 levels of complexity, which can be filtered based on Common Core State Standards (CCSS, 2010), reading skills, and language (English and Spanish). The readings also come with comprehension questions (quizzes and writing prompts), and the option to annotate. The application is browser-based, so it can run on any platform with a browser and an active connection to the Internet).

Appropriateness: Students might need initial instructions to understand how to use the site. However, help is provided, navigation is very clear, and the interface is relatively simple. The teachers can use the Newsela as a way to engage students in learning. They are also given the tools to assess the students on their comprehension and provide them with feedback.

Outcomes: Quizzes, writing prompts, and annotations.

Evaluation: Any time during the reading task, the students can take the multiple-choice reading comprehension questions and/or write in response to a prompt. Once the students submit the answers, they will be auto-corrected by the system. The writing tasks, though, need to be corrected by the teacher.

Notes: This site also has grammar, writing, vocabulary, and spelling sections. Students could use it independently once they understood the basic instructions. New exercises are added frequently.

PIZZAZ: People Interested in Zippy and ZAny Zcribbling
(Opp-Beckman, 2016)

Goals: PIZZAZ! is dedicated to providing “simple creative writing and oral storytelling activities with printable (yes, printable!) handouts,” which “scale well to beginner through advanced level proficiency and can be used with all ages” (Opp-Beckman, 2018).

Presentation: There are three categories: Poetry, Fiction, and Bag of Tricks. Each section has many links that have complete lessons with student handouts. Some have related links with activities that can be completed online.

Appropriateness: Most of the site is not addressed to students, but some parts are. Navigation is very clear, and the language is simple and clear. Useful for many ages and language levels.

Outcomes: Follow-up activities which can be done in class and/or read to others.

Evaluation: None—depends on instructor.

Notes: Lessons are simple to read and have many scaffolds, such as examples and outlines, so that learners could teach them to each other.

Word Games
(East of the Web, 2015, http://www.eastoftheweb.com/games/)

Goals: Word practice that is not specifically for ESL students but is useful for them as well as native speakers.

Presentation: There are ten word games:  Multipopword, Multieight, Switchword , Eight Letters, Popword, Codeword, Definetime, Storyman, Wordsearch, and Cryptoquote. Most focus on predicting letters, finding words or letters among others, and knowledge of vocabulary.

Appropriateness: Some of the words are esoteric, which might frustrate students. Some of the games, like Popword, could be useful for a variety of levels and ages.

Outcomes: Scores.

Evaluation: Typically “wrong, try again” type with no feedback.

Notes: Absolutely addictive for some students. Students would play forever! Need external document for students to record their words or otherwise work with the vocabulary and rules.

Software/Application Examples

Read&Write
(Texthelp, 2015, https://www.texthelp.com/en-us/products/read-write/)

Goals: Provides students with different tools to read and write. The software toolbar allows the user to access dictionaries (textual and pictorial) and wordlists, read the text on an active window (such as word or PDF documents) or as they type, type as they read, highlight texts, and add text or voice notes. The software supports spelling, accuracy, and fluency.

Presentation:  Read&Write can be installed on Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS machines, with extensions for Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge.

Appropriateness: This software can make learning more accessible to students, especially English language learners and students with reading and writing difficulties. Tools such as e-dictionary and thesaurus, graphic webbing, homonym checker, spellchecker, prediction, and audio playback support planning and organization, transcription, editing, spelling accuracy, and word fluency.

Outcomes: Recorded text and voice notes and annotations.

Evaluation: There is no specific feedback, but learners see the consequences (for example by seeing how their speech in rendered to text) of their actions so the results are meaningful.

Notes: This product is not freeware, so it needs to be purchased; however, it can be tried for 30 days for free. This program supports 4 levels: early elementary, intermediate elementary, middle school, and secondary levels.

Vocab Victor
(Vocabulary Systems, Inc., 2018, https://vocabvictor.com)

Goals: Vocabulary development.

Presentation: The application offers 3 different smartphone (Android and iOS) games, namely, Word Strike, Word Find, and Word Drop, to support different types of word knowledge. The students pass through the levels and rank up, with the app getting more challenging in the process. The application presents interesting images, effects, and musical pieces. Navigation is very smooth and language is clear.

Appropriateness: The application has been designed based on the concept that words are organized into networks of associations in the mind (Aitchison, 2012). Accordingly, the application helps the learners to form native-like neural networks of words.  Developers have asserted that the app is appropriate for college-aged ESL/EFL students, with the intention to be used as a supplement to classroom instruction.

Outcomes: The progress leads to in-game ranking up and vocabulary development. There is a “progress room” in the game where students can learn about their progress.

Evaluation: The application uses stealth assessment (Shute, 2011) to track learners’ developmental knowledge of the words based on their in-game progress and, accordingly, present them with similar or different lower-/higher-ranked words.

Notes: The games are engaging. The application provides Marriam-Webstrer (2018) definitions for the words the students have missed or do not know.

License

Creative Commons License
Evaluating Websites and Software for Reading and Writing by Joy Egbert and Seyed Abdollah Shahrokni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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