This Company Finds an Innovative Way to Support Student Literacy

Education is in desperate need of reform — and startups and nonprofits are leading the way.

One organization that is tackling literacy development with an innovative solution is CommonLit. Founded by Michelle Brown after her experience teaching 7th grade English at a high-poverty school in rural Mississippi, the organization aims to make important literary works more easily accessible to students and teachers around the country.

Teachers often have a hard time getting access to materials and lesson plans, and in some districts the process for procuring textbooks or other materials can cost a lot of time and money.

So Brown started CommonLit as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “My goal was to build a free digital library of tools that would save teachers time, improve instruction, and help make students more excited about reading,” she told Opportunity Lives.

The CommonLit website launched in 2014 and features a number of works for teachers to use in their classrooms. Almost instantly, Brown said CommonLit began receiving feedback from teachers about how to improve the resources and tools on the site.

She took much of that advice to heart and founded the Teacher Advisory Board as a way to integrate valuable feedback into CommonLit’s mission. “We select teachers from all over the country to represent specific classroom contexts that we want to learn more about,” Brown said.

CommonLit - Michelle Brown Meeting Canadian Governor at 1776 office

CommonLit founder Michelle Brown, left, shakes hands at a conference. Brown started her company to provide teachers and students with digital resources to promote literacy. | Photo: CommonLit

As a result, CommonLit has become a helpful resource for teachers by hosting several important literary works on the website and allowing educators to use the readings in their lesson plans. Teachers can browse by theme and grade level to see possible readings along with discussion questions. CommonLit offers ready-made “student PDFs” as well as teacher guides and parent guides to support each reading assignment.

CommonLit now hosts about 400 lessons on its website, and the materials have been used in tens of thousands of classrooms around the country. That number will keep growing as CommonLit finds new ways to develop content.

Brown said CommonLit has helped to raise awareness about adolescent illiteracy. Many students graduate high school without the reading and writing skills they will need for college or a future career, and it’s important to shore up that foundation as soon as possible.

CommonLit is a vital tool in that effort. By making resources available to more students at no cost, the nonprofit is leading the way in bringing innovative solutions to schools. CommonLit will be working with 1776, a global startup incubator, to pilot the platform in several Washington, D.C., schools before expanding nationwide.

“By making this tool free, we are supporting teachers in underserved schools and expanding educational opportunity for more students,” Brown said.

Daniel Huizinga is a columnist for Opportunity Lives covering business and politics. Follow him on Twitter @HuizingaDaniel.