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Three tips to address a student agency gap

The Newsela Team
Feb 4, 2022

What do “Roblox”, “animals”, and “sports”all have in common? They were among the most popular student search terms on Newsela in 2021. That means students were genuinely interested in content related to these topics. Students become more engaged with the curriculum if they have choices and are able to be more proactive in their learning. When educators center student choice, this provides an opportunity for students to make decisions, explore academic identity, and connect their learning to interests and passions



Student engagement and student-led learning promote inquiry and curiosity. Increasing student voice should be a priority, since we know this fosters meaningful learning and engagement – particularly among historically marginalized populations. The shift away from teacher-led to student-led learning creates agency for students.  Below are 3 tips to address gaps in student agency using Newsela. If your core materials aren’t allowing all 3 and/or you meet any of the signs in the checklist above, you might be facing a student agency gap.

Provide space for students to choose a project topic that interests them 

Newsela ELA’s Research Projects collection provides opportunities for students to explore their own interests. Perhaps a student’s interest is in the culture of food. If that’s the case, they may browse our Food and Culture project, where students can learn more about how different cultures use food. This project provides students with not only the agency to select articles that interest them, such as Cousins soul food and Southern food are not so distant relatives, but also encourages student engagement, allowing them to use their voice to provide feedback on a restaurant in their blog.

In our Project Based Learning Unit: Investigations of Justice, students can build knowledge on the justice system in the U.S. through text sets on issues such as immigration and race. As students delve deeper into the texts and understand systemic racism in the U.S, they can practice skills in areas such as making inferences and analysis as they develop a creative project that addresses the particular essential question.


Encourage students to use their voice in debates, discussions and writing

A student’s ability to use their voice, whether that is individually or collectively, is important to the learning process. Our Debate and Discussion collection, included with Newsela ELA, includes text sets that students can use to form an opinion and build their case. Middle school students might choose to have a debate on Is there “Right” Place and Time to Protest, related to athletes protesting racism in the U.S. by kneeling during the national anthem. Students can use the articles in that text set to determine their stance. In addition to student agency, the benefits of debating include improved critical thinking skills and greater empathy.

Additionally, our Writing Projects and Lessons collection, which is also included with a license to Newsela ELA, allows students to develop their writing skills and use their voice through 3 different writing skills, 1) argumentative and opinion, 2) informative and explanatory and 3) narrative and creative. Each section offers text sets that encourage student voice.

Cultivate opportunities for students to take informed action


Another part of building student agency includes taking informed action. This means providing students with the space to understand a particular topic, assess it and then act upon it. The connection between a student’s process to achieve that action and their lived experience is why informed action is so powerful for student agency. It’s a student-led decision.

Within our C3 Inquiries collections for elementary, middle and high school, students can conduct their own research in order to take informed action on a variety of issue areas based on the articles they read. For instance, the lesson for elementary school students might cover the Inquiry: Cultural Diversity, which allows students to learn and explore the cultures, histories and traditions around the world such as Kwanzaa. Once they dive into those texts and gain a better understanding of the diverse cultures, they can take action through activities such as planning and hosting a cultural-diversity fair for the other classes.

These are just a few ways students can start to cultivate their agency as they assume more leadership, responsibility and accountability in instruction and use their voice to explore their own interests throughout the learning process. 

Closing a student agency gap allows educators to prioritize the essence and value of student engagement, choice and autonomy in the learning process. Instruction should include a variety of texts, multimedia resources, and collections to promote student-led learning and provide students with voice and choice. When students are empowered to search for content, they fuel their own lived experience, passions and decision making. Let’s continue to ignite agency for every student

Stay tuned for more about the common gaps in core materials in the next blog in the series on the accessibility gap. If you missed the previous blog on the relevance gap, read it here.

Read the story of how teachers at a large Georgia district used Newsela to build student agency within the content here.

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