My Top 9 Favorite Websites for Simplifying texts

As class sizes grow and the complexity of standards increase, the need for differentiation rises, and the time to be able to do it drops. So, I always try to find resources to help adapt the same materials for different reading levels so that all students can be successful with the same content.

Here are 9 of my favorite websites and tools for simplifying texts. I will highlight some pros and cons of each as I’ve encountered in my own classroom.

Rewordify will simplify complex vocabulary to make a difficult text easily to understand. You can customize the amount that is simplified and the way it looks – As an English teacher, I like the side-by-side text option. There are also various pre-made activities cloze reading etc using the original vocabulary that might help with supporting vocabulary development. Why this is at the top of the list – you choose the text to simplify

Offers a selection of fiction and non-fiction texts at various reading levels that can be sent out to students on any device. Why I like this one – my district went BYOD so there is a lot of technology available, and it includes many of the texts in a secondary ELA curriculum, it is not just elementary.

All of the 4 following are very similar and allow for teachers to access a variety of non-fiction and news articles in a variety of levels. Each has slightly different functionality and I have ranked them in order of my favorites.

3. News in Levels – not only has the different levels but has videos to match the levels and questions after that encourage students to write and speak.
4. Newsela – has the many nice features, like quizzes afterwards, but there is a fee for creating the virtual classrooms and tracking student progress
5. For The Teachers – I used to print these out as anchor activities, for extension and further independent practice with skills.

The next 2 create summaries of text on webpages, or that you can copy and paste.
7. Text Compactor – copy and paste, works pretty well sometimes summaries are not perfect
8. TLDR – works with websites, works pretty well sometimes summaries are not perfect

9. Finally, there is a feature in Read&Write, it increases white space, and reduces the number of sentences. Works pretty well, but as all of these tools, it is not perfect

I've added this to my collection of Technology Tools for English language learners

Using QR Codes with English Language Learners

I was sitting in a training session yesterday where the presenter reiterated an idea that I stand on my soapbox about rather frequently: All means ALL. All students deserve access to a rich and meaningful education. At my table this brought up a lot of lively discussion, not because anyone disagreed, but it was clear that many people did not know how they could differentiate for the variety of learners in their room, and other were so weighed down by the concept of time, they would not even consider it.

So I wanted to highlight another way we can differentiate for all learners, and provide students access to things they need to be successful. In light of my district going BYOD, I am going to highlight a tech tool: QR Codes. There is a fantastic QR generator template created by Tammy Worcester at Tammy's Technology Tips for Teachers. It is very easy to use, and makes creating and organizing QR codes a breeze. Students just need a barcode scanner or QR scanning app on their device.

Scannable QR codes provide students with opportunities to quickly and easily access and interact with a variety of content. QR codes can open web pages, launch videos, and give access to files to download. Here are 7 uses to use QR codes in your classroom to help English language learners.

1. Vocabulary lists

Previously, I have written about Read&Write for Google and its ability to create a vocabulary list, with visuals in your drive. Provide students who need extra vocabulary support a QR code linking to necessary vocabulary for the lesson.

2. Word Walls

Have a QR code attached to the word that links to a pronunciation of the word. This of course could also be done with a vocabulary list. Depending on the students first language proficiency, it could link to a translation of the word too.

3. Audio support

Previously, I have written about Snapverter and its ability to turn any writing into a readable document with Read&Write. Provide students with a link to this converted document for additional audio support. This could be directions for homework/projects as well as reading assignments. You can also record yourself reading directions in the same way.

4. Building Background

One of the largest challenges with English language learners is building background knowledge. The older the ELL, the larger the gap may be. It is important to build background for all students, but English learners may need more support. You can provide QR codes that link to videos, articles, every resources in their native language to give them additional information about a topic. This could also be used to extend and enhance information.

5. Student Response Cards

Most of us in the classroom have tried different ways to elicit student responses to check understanding. White boards for students to write their answers, even those little ABCD cards students hold up. One problem I saw was students would look around and change their answers. Plickers is a simple tool where teachers pose a question and scan students QR code answer cards, no one can look around and see anyone else’s answer.

6.  Scavenger Hunt/Treasure Hunt

This idea could look a lot of different ways. Simply put, place QR codes linked to questions around the school and have groups of students search for them and answer them within a set time. has a nice QR treasure hunt generator you can use as well, it does not require the internet on the students phones.

7.  Talking “Museum”

We live in a multimedia world, so why not let students share their knowledge in such a way. QR codes allow for student to attach an audio explanation of their learning to a physical product. We used this is a lot of ways in my classroom. One of my favorites was a project designed by my students to welcome newcomers to class. They created videos introducing important people around the school, and explaining things like how to go through the lunch line, and check out a book from the library. We posted these QR codes around the school and when a new student would come they would get a school tour with instructions from my students.

Along this same line we have created an interactive bulletin board outside our office that highlights many of the students at the Newcomer Center. It is still a work in progress but a quick scan of the QR codes around the map bring up videos of the students talking about themselves and the things they are learning in school. 

Review: Snapverter

I have previously shared with you all reasons why I love Read&Write for Google in the classroom – I share it with so many people, they should probably give me commission. Recently Texthelp has released Snapverter, an add-on for Read&Write for Google that enhances its capabilities. It too can be found here on the Chrome Webstore.

One of the features of Read&Write was the ability to read aloud text on the web and in documents found in your Google drive, but this feature has limitations. Some documents like pdfs don’t read well if at all, and there is so much more text our students are exposed to than just what we see online.

Snapverter allows you to use your smartphone to take a picture of a text and it will convert it to a pdf that can be read aloud. What this means is, potentially anything can be read aloud to students. Worksheets, posters, notes, books, anything! And everything is done right inside your drive. This means that everything is easily saved and shared.

Being the skeptic I tend to be, and unwilling to promote a product that is not quality, I have tested it out. I took a picture of an old copy of Night, by Elie Wiesel, that I had laying around in my office. Using just the camera function on my phone produced a nice quality photo, but when it went through Snapverter, the recognition was off and fragmented, in many places it broke words into the letters and made the text incomprehensible.

Needless to say I was disappointed, but undeterred. I remembered I have a nice scanning app on my phone CamScanner. This is another product that allows free upgrades for education users, so of course I am going to support them. For more information you can go here. When I used the scanner to take photos of articles I use in my workshops and random textbook pages, Snapverter converted them really well.

I went back and used CamScanner to scan a page from Night. I allowed it to smart enhance the photo which reduced much of the yellowing of the page. Doing it this way, I uploaded the new pdf to my drive and Snapverter handed it really well. There are a few places that still produced errors for example it read tarce instead of farce, and bodies instead of Boches. Despite the errors, this proves to be an invaluable tool.

Currently for individual users this is limited to a trial account only, which means 10 conversions and then limited to 1 a week. I think this is adequate for an average user, because it counts documents and not pages. 


I share this video in many of my workshops, because it is powerful and contains many accurate reenactments of typical scenes I have seen working with ELLs.

I have seen English learners struggle, I have seen students not want to help their English learner peers, I have seen bullying of English learners, I have seen teachers -inadvertently and purposefully- shame and embarrass English learners in front of the class, I have had administrators tell me not to focus on my newest students, but instead to focus on bubble kids.

However, I really like this video because of some of the positive things it highlights. The teacher, even if she doesn't really know how wants to help Moises. She's trying to do the best she can, and she cares about Moises. Moises is shown as hardworking, he understands the content, even better than his peers, but doesn't have the language to share the knowledge.

So often I hear teachers complain about English language learners. Things such as: Why don't they try harder? They are just lazy. But the reality is much different. English learners are trying very hard to learn English, learn how to communicate, and learn academic content, but it takes time. Research says it can take as many as 4-9 years. All we can do is support our English learners, and help them grow in their English.

Review: Read&Write for Google

In my last post I discussed some effective reading strategies that work for ELLs (English language learners). One of the key topics discussed was vocabulary - it is a problem of a vocabulary gap. Casual exposure to words might lead to some incidental learning, but not the meaningful learning needed to bridge this gap. Neither will list after list of words to memorize. In that same post, I also advocated for incorporating visuals with vocabulary instruction.

I can already hear it...But Lisa, adapting reading passages with visuals and incorporating visuals into vocabulary instruction takes up valuable time! Fear not, there are many tech tools out there to help teachers meet the needs of their students using as little extra time as possible, because time is the one thing a teacher can never have enough of.

Read&Write for Google

This is one of my favorite new tech tools. When I share it with teachers, they always ask why they haven't heard about it before.

Read&Write will read text aloud, allow for dual color highlighting, provide text and picture dictionaries, word to word translation, offer suggestions for words with word prediction, speech to text, allow for annotations, and simplify and summarize text on web pages. Whew! That's a lot, and it doesn't even capitalize on my favorite feature.

My favorite feature of Read&Write is the ability to collect text (from documents in my drive or the internet) through the highlighting, and then have Read&Write create a vocabulary list, with visuals, as a fully editable Google doc in my drive. I am not a fan of the text definitions that Read&Write provides because they are not very student or ELL friendly, however, because the doc is editable I can input my own.

Here's what is looks like from a random website:

The output is not perfect, but it saves time. I can delete images I don't need, change the definition to suit my needs, I can also modify how it looks. Because it is just like any other document, with a little tech-savviness and about 2 minutes I was able to turn the vocabulary list into an adapted text.

Overall, I this product is not perfect, but is a versatile tool. The reading capabilities run into issues one webpages with things like formatting and links, but audio support for ELLs is a great tool for any teachers toolbox. The simplification feature is nice, it increases white space and simplifies the text. I tend to prefer methods that keep most of the same text but simplify words instead of removing sentences. But, it is another useful feature.

I wholeheartedly reccommend Read&Write for Google to ever teacher working with ELLs and struggling readers as a tool to help meet their needs, while saving teachers time. It is also new free for teachers, all it takes is a quick registration after it is installed.

For more infomation:

Chromestore Link


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Six Reading Strategies for Secondary English Language Learners

Let me first start by saying, these strategies are good for everyone in all ages. I wrote this specifically with secondary teachers in mind because these are often overlooked. Innumerable times I have seen teachers just pass out something to read with questions, and then act baffled as to why students struggle, much less English language learners. I also get asked all of the time by secondary teachers how they can improve reading comprehension with their English language learners.

1. Building Background
English language learners, especially recent immigrants, are often at a disadvantage because of a gap in background knowledge. This can be because of a variety of things such as cultural differences, differences in schooling – for example things taught nationalistically, or differences in the way different countries write numbers – and just differences in experiences. Our job as teachers is to fill in the gaps to lay a foundation for new learning.

One thing that we can do is incorporating visuals. Visuals reinforce vocabulary knowledge and learning, and provide clues about the text that can support struggling readers. I even go as far as adapting texts and glossaries with visuals. Teachers ask me all of the time why not just give them a dictionary, but looking up a word you do not know in a language you do not understand is little help, if they happen to have bilingual dictionaries, they still may be lacking sufficient academic vocabulary to understand the definition.

2. Vocabulary Instruction
The heart of the English language learners struggles is a gap in vocabulary knowledge. Native speakers have much more exposure to words, and their variations, this creates another disadvantage for English language learners, because the ability to maneuver within the language with finesse - for example knowing that encourage is a verb and encouragement is its noun form – is often taken for granted. Because of this, English language learners need explicit vocabulary instruction and practice.

But which words to choose?
Tier 1: early reader, basic, sight words
Tier 2: high-utility, words frequently used in many different contexts
Tier 3: content area vocabulary, academic vocabulary

Tier 2 words are the most bang for your buck. An English language learner (who need it) will often have support with Tier 1 words from their ESL teacher, and Tier 3 words are the heavy focus of content area classes. Instruction in Tier 2 words is often an afterthought, or neglected all together, but these words often carry a lot of meaning in discourse and texts. Because Tier 2 words appear in a variety of contexts they are more likely to be encountered in different situations and will be the most useful for students to learn.

Often you will encounter more words that an English language learner will need in a particular context, but it is not helpful to overwhelm them either. I limit explicit in depth vocabulary instruction to five words per lesson. This does not mean that they are not exposed to more words, and that I do not explain more words than that, this is instead how many words they are working towards mastery of at one time.

After I have incorporated visuals and given vocabulary instruction, I ask students to describe or tell about the pictures using their new vocabulary words. This is helping to make connections to the content and giving them practice in using their new vocabulary in context.

3. Read-Alouds
When I walk down the halls of secondary schools, I so often see teachers had out reading assignments and questions to answer at the end, or instructions for what students should do with it, but students are left alone to tackle the reading and are alone in comprehension. When I talk to high school teachers in particular, I tell them I read to my students every day, and they say and you taught 12th grade? and your students enjoyed it? Not only did they enjoy it, they understood more for it.

There are a lot of missed opportunities with read-alouds with older students, but it is one of the most powerful things we can do. Yes, our students do need to read to themselves. Yes, for most of our students no one will read the “test” to them – but then again is that all we are after? If we know they struggle as readers, we can model good reading and fluency for them. We can share our joy of reading with them, if it is not something we are willing to do, or even want to do, can we expect them to want to?

Additionally, often with English learners, listening and speaking skills develop earlier than reading and writing. This means we can use read-alouds as an excellent support for fluency and ultimately comprehension.

4. Chunk and Chew
Chunk and chew is what it sounds like - it is breaking the content up into smaller more manageable chunks. I like to follow the 10:2 rule. For every ten minutes of input for students they should have two minutes of "output." That is, they should have two minutes to digest the information. This could be questions/discussion, turn and talk with a partner, drawing, summarizing.

Another important aspect of this is to be able to clarify concepts early and frequently. There is nothing worse than when a reader works through an entire passage and understands nothing because of confusion at the start.

This rule does not apply just to reading, I used it to guide all aspects of my class, after all brain research says that a teenagers working memory has limits and if we want to them to commit something to memory, we cannot max that out.

5. Questioning
So often in the classroom, English language learners are asked few questions and even less ever go beyond a literal, recall of knowledge level. English language learners need to have the same challenging questions to push their thinking and learning. The goal should be higher order questions with a low linguistic demand.

Take this question for instance: Are seeds carried by the wind? This is low level recall, and can be answered with a simple yes or no. But with a little forethought and preparation instead we could ask this question: (holding up pictures) Which of these seeds would be carried more easily by the wind? In this case we are asking students to think critically about the different features of the seeds and how they might interact with the wind blowing. The linguistic demand is still incredibly low. Students can point and use high frequency or recently taught vocabulary to answer. Even a student going through the silent period can answer it by pointing, and another student justifying the response.

Another aspect of questioning is to give students a variety of ways to show what they know. Giving only essay tests, or only multiple choice tests, misses out on a number of other assessment types that might better highlight what a student really does know. So often traditional tests are designed to highlight what a student doesn't know more than what they do, so why not give alternative ways to demonstrate knowledge.

6. Summarizing
This is not so much of a reading strategy, but an important skill to work on with English learners that is coupled well with reading strategies. Summarizing is difficult for English language learners because of the vocabulary gap, and lack of mastery of various sentence structures that I have talked about previously. Seeing information in one way, and then having to break it down and put it into new words is challenging. Being able to summarize and paraphrase is an invaluable skill for language development. If you are struggling with reading comprehension it can be difficult to determine what is important and what is not, so this is a skill that needs explicit teaching and practicing.

It is important to emphasize that when summarizing:

  • keep it short, and only tell what was read
  • use key words from the text
  • include only important information
  • leave out less important details

Escaping the Rut

At different times, my students always get into that inevitable, seemingly insurmountable, rut: I have nothing to write about! Despite my best efforts of keeping writing notebooks full of ideas, students still fall into this rut.

This is an activity I use to talk about characters and characterization, and to get students out of that rut. It works out well to use this with things like story structure as well.

Materials needed: paper
Prep time: minimal

I give students a blank sheet of printer paper and make sure everyone has a pencil. At this my students start asking questions about what is going on, because I rather notoriously hate pencils, but that is another story. I explain to students we will be drawing today. First, they must visualize a made up creature/monster – this is also hilarious if you have them think about other things like their dream date, etc. I do not really tell them what they are going to do. I like to let the steps unravel and see the light bulbs go off in their heads as we go.

1. In the upper corner of their paper, they write their name. Then in the upper part of the paper draw their creature’s head. I give them a few minutes to get some detail, but not too much that they get off task. Usually around five minutes, I ask students to draw a neck on their head. Then fold their paper over so that the only thing that can be seen is the neck. Then I take up their papers amidst great confusion.


2. Then, I pass out a new paper to them, with explicit instructions not to open up the paper and peek. I then have students draw a torso and arms. At this point students begin to realize what is going on and exactly what they are doing. After another five minutes, I have students draw a waist and once again, fold the paper over to hide everything except the bottom of the waist lines.


3. Once again, I pass the papers along to new artists. This time I tell students to draw legs and feet. After another five minutes, I have students open up their papers for the incredibly exciting reveal. If you do this, prepare yourself for loud shrieks and laughter. I have never had this go quietly, even after students know what to expect. As students get their paper back they cannot believe what is on their paper.

4. I give them a few minutes to name their creature, and if need be “fix” anything they need to with them. Sometimes heads and shoulders don’t line up etc.

5. After this, I begin to ask students questions about their new character. Where do they live? Are there others like them, or are they unique? How old are they? Do they go to school? Work? What challenges do they face day to day? What is something their monster really wants? The kinds of questions are just to get the kids thinking about the characters and their lives.

6. I ask them to choose some character traits from a list that apply to their monster. Then I ask how they know. The first time I ask this they look at me like I’m crazy, and say we just made it up. So then, I ask how do you know if a person has those same character traits, after some responses I tell them to use their imagination. Students brainstorm words, actions, thoughts, and others opinions that might be used as evidence in their story to determine character traits.

After this, my students are usually ready to begin telling an interesting story. The absurdity of their monsters and the lighthearted nature of the activity usually frees students to try something different.

It also is not meant to waste time. Writing instruction does not mean that reading instruction stopped. In thinking about character traits for our characters students are practicing with inference and identifying characterization, and getting more familiar with more subtle forms they often forget about.