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Posts tagged ‘English’

What to teach? So many options

Alrite, so we are going to help students learn, practice and understand Math and English as it should be. Pay equal focus on both Math and English and not be biased towards Math. Have everything in a gaming environment to engage them. Got it.  Now what.

Well, I had sleepless nights the past few weeks figuring out what should be the benchmark to teach Math and English. 50 states – 50 different curriculums – 50 ways of teaching. What is the best way to teach? What should be PracTutor’s curriculum? It definitely cannot be the 51st way of teaching or 51st different curriculum because if we do so considering that we are the champions and everyone should follow our curriculum just like others – in this battle the students eventually lose. They would feel disconnected and lost of what may be taught in the school and what they learn from us.

Then I came across something what is called as Common Core Standards – a very simple mission to provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them – across the US. And how many states adopted it – 45 states and 3 territories. Wow. That’s a game changer right there. Imagine a country having same format and same structure to follow to teach all its children. And what standards does Common Core cater to – Math and English. There could not be a better match.


So I started digging in more from there and started going to all individual state’s education board sites – CA, NY, TX, IN, KY, MA – almost all of them. Yes, most of them had adopted the standards and wanted to transition in 2-3 years time. But there was a twist. There is always a twist. Some of these bigger states had changed certain standards or added more as per their views. Hmm. So I started listing down the changes, the actual standards and comparing them with these variations. I did this for all the major states. The only real changes were seen in the states of CA and NY. Now, Why doesn’t that amaze me.

Texas was the major state that hadn’t adopted Core Standards (only 1 of the 5 states who didn’t adopt core standards for whatever reasons) so I had to go in great detail and compare Texas education and Common core standards. Although there wasn’t a huge difference Texas did have Statistics and Probability introduced earlier than Core Standards but everything else more or less was the same.

I must pause here and tell how impressive core standards are. They have very neatly divided each grade into topics that need to be taught, what college readiness skills are to be taught and what sub-topics to be taught in those topics and its details. Very logically laid out as it should be and the best part – they are all created by the educators from schools across the country. The teachers who actually teach in the classroom and know what the students need. English standard had defined the books to refer and the classroom lessons as well. Impressive and an excellent starting point for us.

So coming back to other states – CA, NY and TX were the only states who had major variations from the core standards. We just added those variations to our curriculum to give students the opportunity to see what is different that is taught in CA, NY and TX.

So now we have the curriculum to start from. NC state board gave unpacking tools to even understand those standards in greater depth. A very effective document.


So we put in a team of teachers in Math and ELA from elementary, middle and high school and started putting the content and other pieces together. How to get unlimited questions in Math and ELA with increasing level of difficulty so that the student always has a different question which challenges him was a software challenge to be solved another day. But as of now I could sleep for the next 6 hours since we had the right curriculum to follow.


As we start working on Math and English Language Arts (ELA) training for Grades 1 to 8, I started digging in and searching for companies who provide such kind of training.

I googled several keywords like online math training, math learning, math practice, math videos, online math games, math practice worksheets, math practice test, math for k12 and went through several websites offering math training. Most of the keywords returned 4 million+ results. I went through a few dozens.  A few websites offered animated math practice, a few were plain old text, a few allowed to download worksheets to work on, a few had several videos that can be used to learn basic math. Most of the videos had annoying rap songs to teach math. Who does that? Rapping to teach fractions and geometry!!!

I started looking for more videos and training through blogs and other websites. There are more than 50,000 Math videos only on YouTube, more than 3000 belong to one man – Salman khan. A few hundreds to Patrick of patrickjmt fame and then the remaining divided among various teachers. Not a single place except Khan and patrickjmt has the videos well organized and categorized. Practicing Math with well-organized topics was again limited to only a handful websites like Khan and iXL.  This too was limited to basic practice like putting formulas and getting answers. What if I wanted to prepare for advanced tests like the gifted students program, the CogAT, NNAT and others? What if I truly wanted to master a topic and not just put formula to get an answer? Well there is no place for that on the internet.

Among all this chaos (almost 40 websites visited) I had two important observations

  1. Most of the companies just touched the basics and worked on the shallow top. They did not bother to get into the depth and show the students importance of Math or more complex real world problems that they can relate to and are actually asked in competitive exams.
  2. Most of the websites are boring. They did not really engage me (I wondered how would they be able to engage the students who have a shorter attention span)

This strengthened my vision to have a Math program not only to engage the students but to get them to the depth on Mathematics. Maths is not just about putting a formula and getting an answer. We need to understand why this formula, how did this formula came by, can we have a different formula. It’s more about starting a whole lot of more questions and starting that curiosity bug.

Then I turned my focus to English and started googling similar keywords for ELA – language arts worksheets, language arts games, language arts videos, English worksheets, English for K12 etc. the results were even more surprising for me. Not a single website had good resources for ELA for students in elementary and middle school. Khan Academy or iXL were only limited to Math. The worksheets of most other websites were not usable. The videos were not that good and the animated practices were simply not good enough. If we are preparing our kids for 21st century and compete with the smarter kids across the globe this would NOT do.

I went to several blogs and websites then to look for more Math and ELA videos, worksheets, practice whatever I can get. I explored Kumon, Sylvan, Huntington – all big names. This brought me to another startling conclusion

  1. There are no good resources for practising English for elementary and middle school students. I did not do a lot of research for high school students. But I am sure the results would be the same.
  2. There are less than 1/20th videos available for ELA compared to those available for Math. Again not all at the same place and definitely not organized as per the curriculum or needs
  3. English and Language Arts as a subject was severely ignored or outshined in the online world as compared to Math.

That got me thinking why this huge difference. So many videos (literally thousands) available for Math and so few for English and Language Arts. So may practice websites, worksheet generators, software available for Math but only a handful for English. What could be the reason?

On deeper engagement and research I realize the difference was because of several reasons

  1. Math is universal. The same topics and stuff that is taught in US is also taught in UK, France, Brazil, China, Russia, India etc. The only thing that needs to be tweaked is the changing the format as per the curriculum in the US. Hence so many sites that were not US Math centric also offered training to US students in Math.
  2. Also, Math practice and videos was pretty easy to create. You just need to have a working knowledge of basic Math and start teaching basics of fractions and multiplication etc.
  3. English on the other hand was difficult to start teaching and to create worksheets and make it US centric was even more difficult. Again nouns, verbs, tenses remain the same across the globe but the way it is taught to us in US is very different that in Europe or Asia. Any practice for English will need to have text, literature and even non-fiction work related to US. Most people in Asia would not know Declaration of Independence or The Kennedy’s story but they certainly know algebra and triangles.

Does this mean that we should not focus on English and Language Arts and keep on creating more and more websites/software/technology solutions geared towards Math? Do the US competitive exams demand the same thing? I will cover more of this in the next post.

But brain storming has put one thing in perspective for me – the dire need for a quality Math and English Training Program – videos for teaching each and every topic and quality practice which is adaptive and increasing in the level of difficulty to challenge the students. And all this at one place not scattered across the internet.