How I Use It
I used the paid complete version in my classroom as part of the Gate Foundation's Literacy Courseware Challenge. My students only had a cursory understanding of how to write a strong argument before starting to use the application. Before starting using ThinkCERCA, my students had had instruction on the elements of an argument but hadn't use written an argument.
I introduced the software to the student and went over what a CERCA is. We completed the first assignment together, step by step so that the students knew what to do. I started with the CERCA lesson set, starting with their introductory lesson. The lessons in the CERCA lesson set are organized so that the lessons get more difficult as the lessons progress. I was able to assign students different reading passages based on their reading levels, which is very helpful. My English language learners and students who struggle with reading comprehension were able to be assigned a text at at lower reader level with the rest of the students reading a text on or above grade level. In addition, being able to listen to the text was also helpful for struggling readers.
Learning how to highlight evidence from the text with the tools was also useful to my students--it was a skill that translated to what they were expected to do on the Smarter Balanced Assessments and reminded them that they needed to find evidence from the text. My students learned how to write structured arguments and appreciated the ability to cut and paste.
The program is very structured and self-explanatory--students understood what they needed to do and there were sentence frames for the students who needed help. This definitely helped struggling students though it would be nice to have the ability to turn it off for students who don't need it (or are transiting to being more independent). Once we completed the first CERCA together, students worked independently on the assigned CERCA, with me checking in with students who need additional help. Since students needed to use computers (rather than ipads), I tried to give them time in class to finish the assignments. My most advanced students can finish a CERCA in one 65 minute period.
I only used one or two minilessons and though the program can be used to learn narrative elements, I didn't explore that option since I wasn't able to differentiate the reading levels for those lessons (and my current unit was argument writing).
Overall, I really liked this product. I liked being able to pick the student reading levels, having the text be audible, and having a text comprehension check-in. (Students complete a quick five question CCSS-aligned check-in after reading the text so that I can check for understanding, which is useful as a teacher. There is a rubric that goes with each CERCA though I had a hard time grading each CERCA each week.) In addition, I liked the practice for my students since most had little experience writing arguments.
One drawback is that the source is a single source (and text-based rather than multimedia options). Also, they did get tired of the repetitive nature of the doing a thinkCERCA a week and so in the future, I am going to think about how to integrate it better into my other classes. Students also felt limited by having to take a stand on items when sometimes they agreed with both sides.
After using the program, my students had a better understanding of how to structure an argument, how to find evidence in the text, and how to write an argument. Still, I can't see this replacing my entire writing curriculum and at $40 per student, it is quite expensive as a part of my language arts program (since I also use paid programs for vocabulary, grammar, and other ELA strands).