My Review of Newsmart, the Latest and Greatest in Reading Comprehension with the WSJ

A while back I stumbled across Newsmart, a great new(s) site for students to experience reading one of the world’s top English language newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, at no charge. At first, I thought lawsuits would soon be on the way, but as it turns out Newsmart is produced with the blessing and cooperation of the WSJ. Anyway, it’s a super easy to use service and – with a few tweaks – one that has a bright future in ELT.

스크린샷 2014-03-08 오후 3.53.13

Students can select from a collection of news stories gleaned from the WSJ proper. While reading they can also complete mostly multiple choice questions on vocabulary, grammar and reading comprehension, crafted by professional content creators from ELT Jam. Readers are then given a score based on how many articles they’ve read and the accuracy of their answers, which then appears on the left side of the screen. Even better, like in my Boy Scout days, you get badges for your effort. The latter may seem a touch trivial, but you should never underestimate the power of small awards and just how immensely satisfying it is to have your achievements recognized (however humble they may be, as in my case).

The site itself is beautifully crafted, devoid of the advertising and other junk that clutters up competing sites. There is a large variety of articles to choose from, and thus something for everyone. A search box, though, is strangely lacking, which means having to spend several minutes scanning all the articles for the one you may have glanced at a couple of weeks ago but then forgot to click on the star-shaped ‘save for later’ button at the top of the page. And surprisingly, no app is yet available for iOS or Android, although I imagine there must be one in the works, since so many students would inevitably want to use this service while on the bus or metro.

Each article mentions how many points can be acquired in the three categories of questions, important for those trying to game the ranking system. More importantly for educators, the learning objectives are conveniently presented at the beginning of the text.

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The questions can be accessed by clicking on the color coded words spread throughout the article.

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Like this comprehension question:스크린샷 2014-03-01 오후 1.59.51

This vocabulary question:스크린샷 2014-03-01 오후 2.00.35

Or this short grammar exercise:스크린샷 2014-03-01 오후 2.01.36

Overall, not bad, eh? (…as I give away my nationality.)

The site is the creation of Dan Teran, a partner at the New York-based venture development firm Prehype, in cooperation with Nick Robinson of ELT Jam, Collins Learning, and of course The Wall Street Journal. It’s free for now, but that won’t last forever sans advertising, although in an exchange of emails Dan and Nick have reassured me that some version of the site will continue to be free going into the future.

Newsmart is already a powerful tool for individual study and it has the potential to be a great classroom tool for teachers. There’s nothing simpler than emailing links to articles you’ve assigned for homework, not to mention there is already a scoring metric in place. But going through some of the articles, I couldn’t help but think it lacked the convenience of Breaking News English, a similar site I reviewed last year.

Sure, the production values are not even close to Newsmart, but on BNE you can download the entire article, comprehension questions, and answer key as a pdf file, distribute it to students, and go over the answers in class. Now Newsmart may have a very good reason for NOT doing this, namely any method that makes it easier for students to use their material offline inevitably reduces the number of site users, but it could be a feature offered as part of a premium service. BNE also offers downloadable MP3s of their articles being read aloud in both American and British accents, which makes it easier for students to check and practice their pronunciation.

Then there are sites like The Day, whose articles come with discussion questions and can also be downloaded for classroom use. And there really should be some way for teachers to see how their students are getting on in the aggregate, much like the set up OUP has for its online homework, as I’ve written about here and here.

So as an educational tool, I still think there is some work to be done. As a business model, though, Newsmart could and should be replicated for other major newspapers like The New York TimesThe Financial Times, and The Economist, just to name a few that I’d like to see be made available. The whole thing might be free now, but I could be convinced to to pay quite a bit for it if it were more classroom friendly.

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