The Instructional Design Behind CommonLit's Viral Reading Program

CommonLit's CEO and CSO smile in an office.

6 of the best practices that inform our tools & resources

The phrase “best practices” gets thrown around a lot in education, particularly when it comes to teaching literacy. So how do we know which practices will truly work for our students? At CommonLit, we believe that the very best “best practices” have been proven effective in multiple peer-reviewed research studies and in our own classrooms. So let’s run through the top six best practices that our platform supports.

1. Expose students to a diverse array of literature, both fiction and nonfiction (Niu et al., 2015).

In order to be truly prepared for college-level coursework, students need to have the ability to read and comprehend many different types of texts. While it may be tempting to exclusively read narrative texts with strong plot lines (they’re just so engaging!), doing so can be a disservice to students. Start introducing informational texts, news articles, and historical documents into your regular instruction to ensure students are on track.

CommonLit supports this best practice by offering a wide variety of genres in an easily searchable library that includes over 2,600 texts for grades 3–12.

2. Ask text-dependent questions to promote close-reading of texts (Frey & Fisher, 2012).

Text-dependent questions are questions that require students to return to the text to find the answer. These are harder than “right there” questions and basic comprehension questions. Students who aren’t regularly assessed with text-dependent questions will likely learn that they can just skim and cherry-pick details, and then still get the questions right. Yikes!

"Assessment" tab under Questions in CommonLit lesson.

At CommonLit, our text-dependent questions are standards-aligned and designed to hold students accountable for deep comprehension and synthesis. Teachers can look at the Student Progress Dashboard to get a real sense of whether or not students are getting better at answering grade-level assessment questions.

3. Plan coherent instructional units around an idea, topic, theme, or essential question (Guthrie et al., 2004).

If you’ve ever tried to teach a unit that lacked coherence, you’ll probably understand why this best practice is so important. Units that are incoherent are confusing and boring for teachers and students.

The benefits of curricula with a unifying principle are extremely well-documented. Students who read texts that are related and sequenced in an intuitive way gain a sense of expertise, retain more information, learn more vocabulary words, and show more motivation to read.

At CommonLit, we try to make it as easy as possible to find related texts that you can use to plan a coherent instructional unit. You can discover new texts related by theme, genre, and literary device by using the search filters in our library. We also offer curated text sets, book sets, and units.

4. Foster a language-rich classroom where students have multiple opportunities to discuss academic content with their peers (Applebee et al., 2003).

Humans are social animals. From our earliest days, we learn language by interacting with people. It will probably come as no surprise to many teachers that middle and high school students are especially social. In fact, adolescent brains are unique in this regard. Teenagers need to interact with one another to ensure healthy brain and language development. It’s actually counterproductive to demand silence. Classrooms that offer students the chance to have intellectual, academic conversations with their peers have better outcomes.

At CommonLit, we try to make it as easy as possible to foster quality discussion in the classroom. Each lesson in our collection comes with a set of discussion questions designed to get students talking about productive, text-specific ideas. This video offers some useful tips for how to facilitate a discussion.

"Discussion" tab under Questions in CommonLit lesson. 

5. Include struggling students and students with disabilities in regular instruction to the maximum extent possible (Hehir, 2009).

You’ve probably heard of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles. The idea behind UDL is to foster inclusion through a curricular design that allows all students to participate and be appropriately challenged.

This is a critically important best practice, but it’s also one of the most difficult to implement. That’s why we created Guided Reading Mode, a feature that can be enabled or disabled for individual students when you assign a text through CommonLit. Guided Reading Mode “chunks” the text and checks for understanding during reading. Using Guided Reading Mode, teachers can differentiate instruction to ensure that all students are getting the support they need.

For more resources on how to support struggling readers, check out this post.

6. Explicitly teach Tier 2 academic vocabulary (Lesaux et al., 2010).

Tier 2 academic vocabulary words are high-utility words that students will see over and over again during their academic careers. For example, the word “associate” is a Tier 2 word. Tier 2 words are harder than sight words (Tier 1) and more ubiquitous than Tier 3 words like “cumulonimbus,” which are far more technical and discipline-specific.

While all students can benefit from learning academic vocabulary, teaching Tier 2 words regularly has been shown to be especially helpful for English Language Learners and struggling readers. However, to be maximally effective, vocabulary instruction must extend beyond posting a Word Wall. Rather, students should be exposed to Tier 2 words in the context of a passage they are reading or are about to read.

At CommonLit, we know how difficult it is to find vocabulary words that are worth teaching. That’s why we’ve footnoted Tier 2 academic words and created an interactive experience that allows students to encounter them naturally.

Pop out of definition of the word "trudge" in CommonLit reading.
CommonLit’s dictionary feature allows students to look up definitions for Tier-2 vocabulary words.

As always, we love to get your feedback to continue to improve the site. If you have ideas, questions, or stories, please drop us a line at info@commonlit.org