Product review: Newsmart

newsmart1Newsmart is a platform designed to help learners improve their Business English. It provides language learning experiences based on news content from Wall Street Journal. Learners can develop their grammar, vocabulary and comprehension skills by reading any of the six new articles published daily. Articles cover topics related to business, finance, technology and work-based culture, and appear in either text or video form. The platform is gamified, giving points and badges for task completion/success, and the chance to climb a leader board.

How did the product come about?

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the Newsmart homepage

The product has been around for a couple of years. NewsCorp (owners of Wall Street Journal) were aware that a chunk of their readership were using the WSJ as an online platform to develop their Business English. They collaborated with members of the ELT community and trialled the product for a year, during which time it was developed and a market in the Asia-Pacific region (along with Europe and South America) became apparent. They obviously collaborated with the right people in ELT Jam, which resulted in the product winning the David Riley Award for Innovation in Business English and ESP.

Who is Newsmart aimed at?

Learners

The site is aimed at learners who already have some level of proficiency in English. It is not suitable for beginners. Although there is a Business English focus, I’d say Newsmart has a far broader application, and could provide useful reading practice and vocabulary building for IELTS students too. Each article is graded from 1-6, with Level 6 being roughly the equivalent of IELTS level 7-8. Level 4 (IELTS 5-6) seems a fairly common grade for articles. The breakdown of how this grading relates to other language testing systems is clearly defined in the learning objectives at the start of each article.

Institutions

In a broader sense, the product may be suited to institutions where there are a lot of non-native English speakers who are keen to develop their language skills – i.e. foreign universities. That’s according to the product developers. I really hope that my own institution (the British Council) look into subscribing to the site – which gives away my stance on the product!

Does it cost?

Yes. The product is $7.50 per month or $75 for an annual subscription. However, you can get a one-month free trial first to see if you like it. I personally think that $7.50 is a fair price.

The blurb on the subscription page says this is what you get for your money:

  • Premium news content from the Wall Street Journal, the world’s leading business news publication in both text and video format
  • Teaching software with over 2500 comprehension, grammar and vocabulary exercises
  • An expert Learning Team who ensure content is relevant and effective and exercises are pedagogically correct
  • Badges, learning points and a Newsmart leaderboard

Using Newsmart

Placement testnewsmart2

Newsmart offers a placement test when you sign up for the trial. It involves answering a set of multiple choice questions, like choosing correct headlines, suitable words, etc. You are given a ‘job title’ after the test in relation to your performance, so those with basic proficiency are Interns, and experts are Senior Vice Presidents. You accumulate points by completing activities, which help you improve your ‘job title’ on the platform!

You don’t have to complete the placement test, you can go straight to the journal content if you want.

Tasks

Each article on the site is authentic material from the WSJ, and when in text form usually looks like this:

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You can see that the learning objectives for each article are clearly defined, as is the explanation of the article level. The colour coding for vocabulary, grammar and comprehension tasks makes it clear where points are available. To complete a task and achieve points, all you have to do is click on an area in the text which has been colour-coded. This will show a drop-down box revealing the task.

Tasks do vary a lot. Comprehension tasks involve plenty of multiple choice, True/False and sentence completion. I enjoy the grammar and vocabulary tasks more. The lexical ones are the best as they often build learner vocabulary by addressing different word forms. For example, if a word like ‘competitor’ appears in a text, an activity might be to provide learners with 4 related word forms (competing, competition, etc) and require you to complete sentences using the correct form. This has been a recurring problem for my learners at IELTS level 5 particularly, so it’s nice to see this type of task integrated into the articles at this level.

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an example of instant feedback

I’ve clicked around on the site and counted at least 30 different tasks across the three categories. I’ve just skimmed 3 different articles, and come across this range of tasks:

Sentence completion, matching sentence halves, true/false, matching vocabulary/definitions, choosing synonyms, choosing correct paraphrasing, concept checking, gist reading (first paragraphs), grammar transformation, word order drag and drop, selecting correct affixes, selecting correct collocations.

Tasks offer instant feedback and tips too, which is a good feature.

Overall, the tasks themselves are fun, interactive and varied. The learning content has been handled brilliantly by ELT Jam, and the choice of articles is interesting too. I have no doubt that learners would benefit from the tasks, and I’ve already pointed stronger learners towards the platform as a self-study resource for reading.

Design

The site looks good. The colour coordination is useful and consistent. There are plenty of stock images and the theme used by the sitenewsmart7 gives prominence to them. I’ve actually clicked on a few articles without reading the heading, just because the pictures look interesting! Above all, the site looks professional but it doesn’t scream corporate and the Wall Street Journal logo isn’t banded about everywhere. On a less serious note, the colours used for the fixed navigation bar at the top of the screen make me want to buy a pack of Revels

Is the site user-friendly?

Yes. There are little touches that make the site very user-friendly, but also little things that could be done to improve this. The site lacks some simple navigation features, meaning you have to use the back button on your browser a bit, which is just a mild annoyance. It doesn’t seem to have an archive for articles anywhere, meaning you just have to scroll down the page if you want to find something you’ve read before. You could argue that with 6 new articles a day you will probably look at an article only once anyway, so why be able to find it again easily? Well, a learner might remember coming across a word in a particular article/context, and may wish to refer back to it. A search bar or archive would solve that issue easily enough. It would also help me to find the video articles, which I haven’t stumbled across yet! There is the option to save articles you like, and to scroll back over the activities you’ve completed though.

Those little features that are good are well predicted. When I first looked at an article, I thought ‘hmm, I wonder if all these highlighted words will get annoying, I don’t want to read an article laden with colour’. After about 10 seconds of not moving the mouse, all the highlighting disappeared (almost), so I could concentrate a bit more.

Then I thought, ‘there are a lot of other words I don’t understand in this article, but I can’t be bothered to keep flicking onto newsmart8dictionary.com and looking them up’. The developers thought of this too – you can highlight any word in any article and look it up instantly using the inbuilt dictionary powered by Collins (available in English and Spanish).

The chance to comment at the end of an article is useful, although not utilised enough it seems.

I like the use of gamification on this platform. It’s highly motivational. When you earn a badge it comes accompanied by a little snippet of information too – the learning never stops!

Could anything be improved?

As mentioned, I think the learning content is handled well and apart from a few navigational issues there isn’t much to work on. However, despite the range of tasks provided, there’s a few things that could improve the product further:

1) More gist tasks. These feature as part of comprehension tasks, and normally focus on skimming the first few paragraphs of an article. I’d like to see this broadened a bit and more tasks offered, as skimming is an important skill to develop. The placement test has a ‘choose the best headline’ task, they can easily set this type of activity up. How about a gist reading quiz every few weeks for a bonus badge?

2) Exploit the gamification a bit more. They could easily add timed scanning challenges for some articles. If they are publishing 6 articles a day, they could easily have one that really milks the gamification side of things, combining this point and the above.

3) Adding an online journal to learner profiles. When I was completing tasks, I thought to myself ‘if I don’t write this down, I’m not going to remember it’. It’d be nice to add interesting words/tasks to a journal in your profile, then you can keep a clear record of your learning. As a product, this would be quite important for the developers as it might encourage subscription renewal… You can look back at your activity on the site and see that you’ve completed tasks, but it might be equally useful to see that you’ve learnt words too.

Overall

A great product that’s well worth recommending as a self-study tool. It’s no surprise that this has won awards. Value for money too. 9/10

All images are taken from the Newsmart site

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