CommonLit Paves the Way in New Age Literacy

A photo of a mother and her young daughter reading on an iPad.

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The Innovative Approaches to Literacy Program is a little-known program being run by the U.S. Department of Education, with a 26 million dollar budget, which is small change at the federal level. Its goals are to encourage the invention of programs for improving literacy levels in high-risk schools. Focus is divided between encouraging early reading skills in the young and motivating reading interest in older students, and it encourages this with competitive grants for innovators.

A recent recipient, CommonLit, bears a good look. CommonLit is a three-year-old educational technology (edtech) nonprofit with aims to use software and apps to encourage students to read more and read more efficiently. Students with accounts can track their reading and receive assignments that are tailor-made to their current reading level. Teachers and parents can track their progress and get tips about what needs reinforcing.

CommonLit includes its own library, which is full of donated and open-source content for all reading levels. Everything from fiction to current news. Users or educators can sort content by grade, genre, theme, or lexicon, which is a particularly useful metric. Perhaps unique among edtech softwares, they also allow users to print any material they need, which makes it more accessible to the millions of students without Internet at home.

What CommonLit hopes to do with the nearly $4 million grant they received from the DOE through the IALP is to make their content and service available completely free to any school, family, or student who needs it.

“We don’t want to put the best parts of our product behind a paywall,” said founder Michelle Brown, gently denouncing ‘freemium’ access platforms, which provide only a percentage of their features for free to end users.

As of this September, CommonLit reports more than 22,000 teachers signed up in more than 12,000 schools. The nonprofit is ready to expand, and the DOE grant means that they can bring more content to more who need it.


In An Age of Technology, Does Handwriting Matter?

A close-up image of a young boy writing in cursive.

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If you’re on Facebook at all, you’ve probably seen the image of cursive writing that reads something like “In the future, this will be a secret code.”

This meme was formed in response to the removal of cursive writing from elementary school curricula when the Common Core standards replaced handwriting with a goal of competency in keyboarding rather than penmanship.

For those of us who grew up in a bygone era, learning cursive was almost a rite of passage: “grown-up writing” enabled us to write more quickly than standard printing, and it also, at least in theory, offered neurological benefits to those who learned it.

But is handwriting really necessary in an age of technology?

Anne Trubek, a self-admitted “left-hander with terrible handwriting” who watched her own son struggle with penmanship, argues that it isn’t.

“The desire to write faster has driven innovations throughout history: Ballpoint pens replaced quill pens; typewriters improved on pens; and computers go faster than typewriters. Why go back?” she writes.

Having seen some school kids practically standing on their heads as they attempt to hold a pencil or pen, we can certainly understand where the view of handwriting as an unnecessary struggle has its origin. But the fact is, at least one study has shown that learning how to write is crucial to learning how to read.

Karin James, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, did functional MRI scans on children before and after they learned how to print. Before, “Their brains [didn’t] distinguish letters; they respond[ed] to letters the same as to a triangle,” she said. But after they were taught to print, they responded to letters differently and there was increased activation of an area of the brain responsible for our ability to read and process written language. Some experts also argue that cursive writing helps children learn how to spell and write better.

Ultimately though, even if schools end up focusing exclusively on keyboarding at the expense of teaching the ability to write quickly and legibly, the fact is that technology is not infallible and kids do need to learn how to write by hand. Whether that writing is in print or in cursive matters less than the fact that they know how to hold a pen and put letters onto paper. Being able to sign your name is also a good skill to have.

What do you think? Are you in favor of children learning to write cursive, or do you believe it’s an antiquated system of writing that isn’t necessary in today’s technological age? Let us know in the comments.

Little Free Libraries Provide a Simple Dose of Literacy

Little Free Library

Little Free Libraries make books accessible to many different community members–for free!

If you’re looking for a simple, effective way to spread literacy in your neighborhood, a Little Free Library may be just what you’re looking for.

In 2009, Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin built a model of a one-room schoolhouse as a tribute to his mother. He filled it with books and put it on a post in his front yard, thereby creating the first Little Free Library. After building several more to give to friends, his work caught the eye of Rick Brooks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the two decided to officially put together a community enterprise that became known as Little Free Library.

Individuals, businesses, and organizations can purchase Little Free Libraries from the 501(c)(3) non-profit (or build their own and purchase official signage) to put on their property. The little libraries are then filled with books that passersby can take and add to for free.

According to their website, Little Free Library’s mission is to promote literacy though free book exchange and to build community by encouraging people to share skills, creativity, and wisdom across generations. The initial goal—to build 2,510 Little Free Libraries, the same number of libraries built by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in the 20th century—was surpassed in August 2012. In January 2015, there were an estimated 25,000 Little Free Libraries all over the world.

The little wooden structures offer communities a chance to create something unique and useful. For example, Amish carpenter Henry Miller of Cashton, Wisconsin, built a Little Free Library using wood recycled from a 100-year-old barn destroyed in a tornado. Groups often come together to build, paint, and stock the libraries.

“Not all parents take their children to the library,” said Cathy Henderson, who, along with neighbor Kathy Jones, spearheaded the building of a Little Free Library in their hometown of New Orleans. “[Parents] are so busy with work and school and keeping up with household responsibilities that driving to the library is not ‘on the list.’ Here, they can just walk or drive by.”

Houses, coffee shops, and even office waiting rooms have all been home to Little Free Libraries across the world. Official charter numbers and signs allow visitors to the Little Free Library website to check for the nearest location to them on the World Map feature.

What do you think? Would you want a Little Free Library in your neighborhood? What would you like to see in it?