Teachers are constantly choosing texts for their classes to read. In doing so, they naturally evaluate how appropriate these are for their students. But is this the same for the online content that we use in class?
This process can be considerably harder. The intended audience for online content can be less clear, with no blurb to offer an overview, and no reviews from other teachers to direct or help us.
What is readability?
So how can we evaluate online content more effectively? It’s all about readability. The readability of a text is based on the complexity of its vocabulary and sentence structure. But even with years of teaching under your belt, this is not always an easy thing to judge.
And so readability algorithms can be extremely useful. These programs analyse the elements of a text, such as number of sentences, number of words, number of words per sentence and average number of syllables per word. They can also analyse the number of complex words (which can otherwise be a tricky, subjective process). Once the numbers are crunched, smart machine learning technology gives you a reading age for the content, letting you know whether your students will be able to access it.
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But there are things that these tests can’t do for you. When judging if online content is suitable for your class, you still need to look through the lens of prior knowledge. What does your class know about the subject already? Even if they are familiar with the overall topic, it’s important to identify the specific vocabulary you will need to teach them beforehand. Be aware of idioms: phrases such as “keep it under wraps”, “don’t spill the beans” and “letting the cat out of the bag” all relate to secrets, for example, but may have to be explicitly addressed to ensure understanding. This can be particularly challenging for children who speak English as an additional language and are not yet fluent. It’s also worth looking at the pictures alongside the text. The right choice of image can help enormously with comprehension.
We can also apply these ideas when creating our own content for students. When you’re writing anything for your classes, work within the frame of what they already know about the topic. Consider your vocabulary choices carefully. If you are creating non-fiction content, decide what technical vocabulary needs to be included. Define terms clearly, using words that students understand and are able to relate to familiar concepts. In order to be able to do this effectively, you need to know your subject pretty well yourself, so allow time for this, too, if it’s something new.
Finding age-appropriate texts
In terms of structure, be sure to make the main point of the text early on and then elaborate afterwards. Keep sentences short. Use links between sentences to connect meaning. Use active rather than passive sentences. If you are putting together a long piece of text, explain what new vocabulary means if it is mentioned again later. Source images that complement your text and will help understanding.
Wizenoze’s Web For Classrooms, which is integrated into the free educational software Prowise Presenter, goes a step further. This search engine enables you to enter the reading age of your students before entering a search term, ensuring suitability of content. However, the magic happens when you search for easier or more difficult content, using a simple five-level guide. Level 1 is easiest and 5 the most difficult. That means less wasted time, both in preparation and in class, and personalised learning access to more relevant online information.
Ultimately, the great advantage of online content is that it is easy to find and can save us a load of time when preparing resources for our class. Most teachers will check that the content is appropriate but we also need to evaluate readability, just as we would when introducing a book to our classes. Keeping these simple guidelines in mind and using web tools to analyse text can really help us with sourcing suitable material, as well as with creating our own readable content.
Claire Lotriet is assistant headteacher at Henwick Primary School in London and a teaching & learning, assessment, computing and enterprise coordinator. She tweets at @OhLottie