Literacy Startups Race to Get News

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Traditional newsprint publishers struggling to capture a new generation of readers may have a new ally: companies with a knack for building powerful technology but lacking in content.

An emerging class of literacy startups is racing to grab a piece of the news. First Newsela, which launched in 2013, partnered with major outlets like the McClatchy-Tribune and Associated Press to use their articles as reading materials. Just this month Curriculet, which launched in 2012, announced a similar deal with USA Today.

Not to be outdone, Newsela is today adding a fresh partner, The Washington Post. That brings the total number of news sources available on Newsela to 40, according to company CEO, Matthew Gross.

“Publishers see this as a way to make money off content that they already produce with an entirely new audience,” he tells EdSurge. “They’re trying to build the next generations of news-literate readers.”

Newsela rewrites up to four articles per day from its news partners, each at five different Lexile reading levels. (One might count that as up to 20 new articles every day.) A portion of articles come with reading comprehension questions that correspond to the reading difficulty of the piece. For instance, a Newsela article on manatees asks high-level readers: “Which paragraph from the article explains the significance of the new manatee census?” while readers at a third grade level is asked: “Which sentence from the introduction [paragraphs 1-2] explains the danger facing the manatees?”

Students can also annotate reading passages and cite them as supporting evidence for the answers they choose. Newsela has also added a “Write” feature that allows teachers to ask and grade open-ended response questions at the end of each article.

Results from these assessments, along with data on how students engage with the articles, are available on dashboards for students, teachers and administrators who can break down aggregate student performance by reading level, Common Core standards and other criteria.

These data reporting features and dashboards, says Gross, were partly funded by a $100,000 grant from the 2013 Gates Foundation’s Literacy Courseware Challenge. The analytic features are now available to those who sign up for Newsela’s PRO account. (See chart below for pricing details.) Gross says Newsela has 3.4 million registered users and teachers in 80,000 schools, with 15,000 newly registered teachers and students everyday, but declined to say how many of those users are paying subscribers.

“What we are offering is a never-ending stream of highly topical nonfiction at a level that’s right to every reader,” Gross says.

That value proposition, however, is shared by a number of his peers and competitors. After all, adding questions in reading passages and capturing students’ responses no longer qualifies as “news;” other literacy companies funded by the Literacy Courseware Challenge offer the same feature. For instance, LightSail Education has gained traction in several big districts across the country, including Los Angeles Unified School District and the New York Department of Education. It offers 80,000 fiction and non-fiction titles from more than 400 publishers thanks to an exclusive partnership with book distributor, Baker & Taylor. Like Newsela, Lightsail offers embedded questions, annotations and data reports, along with an “adaptive” system that recommends different levels of reading materials based on students’ performance on the assessments.

Curriculet, which recently inked deals with Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, offers a digital library of more than 30,000 titles along with the news, and allows teachers to embed their own questions, notes, videos and other multimedia elements, into the reading passages. These teacher-created content can be shared with other teachers and students. For those reasons, CEO Jason Singer calls Curriculet “a digital reading platform capable of capturing every reading moment in the school.” The company will also offer six USA Today articles each day, with embedded questions at different reading proficiency levels aimed at elementary, middle and high school students.

Concerning Curriculet’s deal with USA Today, Gross says “the move isn't surprising considering how powerful the news can be as a teaching tool. I'm sure that other sources will appear as well.”

In today’s world, even the most hard-hitting, eloquently-written story need a boost from new technology platforms to get wider distribution. Even the once venerable New York Times is seriously considering hosting its content on Facebook.

And given how quickly “viral” media companies have grown, it may not be long before outlets like Buzzfeed and TMZ also start making their way into kids’ reading comprehension exercises, too.

Comparison of Products Mentioned

It may be difficult to comprehend how this trio of literacy startups, all of which boast impressive libraries of content and all founded within the past three years, stack up against one another. Here’s an overview what they offer and, perhaps more importantly, cost:

Company Notable Content Partners Estimated Cost User Base Claims
Curriculet (news, non-fiction, fiction) HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Oxford University Press, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster $4.99 per student for yearly subscription to USA Today (after a 45-day free trial); books can be rented for $0.99 to $3.49 per copy 450,000 students and 50,000 teachers each month
LightSail (non-fiction, fiction) 400,000+ titles via distributor, Baker & Taylor, of which 25,000 will have Lightsail’s assessment features Around $4000 per school; exact pricing varies based on number of students 75,000 students
Newsela (news) Associated Press, Bloomberg, Los Angeles Times, Scientific American, Washington Post Approximately $4,000 per year for elementary schools and small schools; district pricing is negotiated based in part on the number of schools 3.4 million registered users across 80,000 schools
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