Review by Patricia Monticello Kievlan, Common Sense Education | Updated September 2016

ThinkCERCA

Critical-reading program buoyed by high-interest texts, clear structure

Common Sense Says:
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Grades
4-12 This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
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Pros: High-interest texts can spark classroom discussions, and the critical-reading framework has the potential to foster deep, Common Core-aligned learning.

Cons: Further tools for collaboration and differentiation -- such as variable reading levels for each text -- would empower as well as create more opportunities for meaningful learning.

Bottom Line: A solid resource for CCSS-aligned critical-reading and writing -instruction serves as a potential springboard for in-class discussions, group work, and extension activities.

It's tempting to see ThinkCERCA as a Common Core silver bullet -- especially if you're using the full subscription -- because it's such a thorough resource. Teachers can arrange for whole-class access to the site during the school day or, if possible, assign students to read specific articles as part of a flipped classroom. In either scenario, teachers can pull individual students to meet with while the rest of the classroom attends to their assigned work.

Either version of the site's offerings supports a weekly routine of assessing students' reading. However, the program might be best used in conjunction with your own lessons and extensions to help transfer learning into the offscreen realm as well. ThinkCERCA's articles serve as good support for thematic units in language arts, social studies, math, or science. The articles could serve as springboards for excellent whole-class debates or small-group discussions. Additionally, if using the full subscription, students could print their essays and score their peers' work, meeting in small groups to help each other and encourage better writing.

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ThinkCERCA is an online program designed to support individualized instruction in critical thinking for students in grades 4-12. The CERCA acronym (Claims, Evidence, Reasoning, Counterarguments, Audience) represents the site's structured approach to teaching critical thinking and argumentation. While reading one of the program's numerous text selections, students can make claims about what they're reading. They're then prompted to support these claims with evidence from the text, explain their reasoning, and address possible counterarguments. Throughout, students are prompted to use audience-appropriate language as they write.

The basic, free version offers teachers texts (leveled by grade band), CCSS-aligned close reading assessments, and student and class data, as well as support and planning ideas. ThinkCERCA's full, paid version also includes ready-made lessons, a school-wide writing and assessment platform, district-wide data reporting, college and career portfolio storage, and the aforementioned close reading and argumentation lessons, which are really the heart of the program. These ThinkCERCA lesson sets each connect a text with some performance of understanding, whether it's creating a summary or completing a dynamic graphic organizer to form an argument. From there, students can draft an essay that teachers can score online.

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ThinkCERCA's free program can help teachers integrate CCSS-aligned, cross-disciplinary reading and writing instruction into their classes. And the program's selection of high-interest texts span a range of reading abilities, which is an added benefit. Without a tool like this, gathering, curating, and organizing this many high-interest nonfiction readings would prove challenging -- if not impossible -- for most busy teachers. ThinkCERCA also includes adjoining assessments with each text for individual, small-group, and whole-class assessment.

The paid option takes learning further, getting at the heart of the program's approach to reading and writing instruction. The handy argument-organizer tool walks students through the CERCA format. The reading and response windows appear side by side in a logical, dynamic, and user-friendly layout. However, more options for differentiation -- such as variable complexity within each text -- would be a big benefit. ThinkCERCA fills a critical void in the world of online reading and writing instruction, and there's a lot of potential here for more. For instance, teachers may want to support collaborative learning among students of varying abilities. A built-in tool to encourage online collaboration utilizing a "more capable peer" approach could help facilitate this, and such a tool would be a solid addition. As it stands, ThinkCERCA provides teachers and students with a solid, if somewhat formulaic, approach to critical reading and argumentative writing.

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Overall Rating
4

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?
3

Students will like high-interest texts on discrimination, school uniforms, or renewable energy. The critical reading formula is spot-on, but without more choice and variety in the response format, students' enthusiasm may wane.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?
4

Standards-aligned, cross-disciplinary texts support close reading practice while inviting debate and discussion. Application and extension of students' reading will depend on teachers' initiative to go beyond the screen.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?
4

Site support is plentiful for teachers and students. Texts have embedded definitions and images to assist comprehension. More versatility to differentiate reading levels and text complexity would help support learners of varying abilities.


Common Sense Reviewer
Patricia Monticello Kievlan Foundation/nonprofit member

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