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Building Background Knowledge with World News
for Students using Newstopia

For students with complex learning needs, building background knowledge from listening and reading helps form connections, supplies context, and introduces experiences. Using news articles to make learning more meaningful not only strengthens emerging literacy skills, but also sparks curiosity, fosters communication and enhances the mental models that develop students’ knowledge of the world.

The Benefits of News Articles for Emergent Learners

News articles help students build a tangible, real-world context around abstract concepts. For students with complex learning needs, who may struggle with applying theoretical ideas, these texts bridge the gap between academic classroom learning and real-world examples and can be used for literacy learning. For example, learning about the wind, rain, and flooding that result from a hurricane in a news article helps students understand the impact of this kind of event. This mental model can be applied when reading fictional accounts of similar kinds of storms such as a tornado in ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.’

Non-fiction articles also help build vocabulary by exposing students to a rich variety of words, supporting a natural and immersive approach to language acquisition. Educators can choose articles that align with interests and vocabulary goals of their students to ensure the learning experience is appropriately challenging and supportive.

Additionally, analyzing and understanding non-fiction articles requires critical thinking skills. Students are prompted to question and evaluate information. This approach provides a helpful structured framework for the literacy development of students with complex learning needs. Breaking down articles into main ideas, supporting evidence, and author perspectives strengthens analytic skills that are useful beyond the classroom.

Connecting Your Classroom to the World with Newstopia

Did you know that jaguars are good swimmers, or that work began on the Notre Dame Cathedral a full 600 years before George Washington was born? Newstopia provides educators with articles that include news and information to build background information about these and other topics.

The online portal for educators is updated every week with several new articles  At any given time, educators and or students can select from a rotating selection of articles to use in their classrooms.

Each article is written for educators providing special education services to students in grades three through high school plus, and each article has a Teacher Guide for educators, substitute teachers and paras to use to provide engaging instruction with discussion prompts using an “Anchor, Read, Apply” format that builds background knowledge to enhance understanding. For each article, educators also receive:

  • videos for building background knowledge
  • instructional slide shows with Focal Pop
  • academic and secondary transition program extension lessons
All Newstopia articles are accompanied by visuals, ranging from charts and graphics to images and diagrams. For students who may benefit from visual support, educators can use Focal Pop – a Newstopia feature which removes distracting background objects. Additionally, the multimodal nature of all Newstopia articles–incorporating text, audio, and video–caters to a wide range of learning preferences.

Using Newstopia and News Currents to Provide Equitable Access

Knowledge Unlimited, a sister company of Building Wings, publishes News Currents and News Currents Sr. These weekly programs provide instructional materials about current events for learners in schools and residents of assisted living communities. Both online publications are intended to engage conventional learners in conversations about important newsworthy current events, while also building background knowledge, vocabulary, and critical thinking skills.

In contrast, Newstopia is designed for students with complex learning needs and focuses on background knowledge building for literacy development, including developing critical thinking skills and vocabulary development using non-fiction articles rather than current events exposure.

A school district using both News Currents and Newstopia can demonstrate that equity in instruction is being provided to ALL students.
Blue and yellow graphic. The top portion depics News Currents for conventional learners with a screenshot of one of the articles in that current events program. The bottom half depicts Newstopia for learners with complex learning needs with a screenshot of a hurricane article.

Using Newstopia with Readtopia

Newstopia is a stand-alone online program. Educators who use Readtopia, a literacy curriculum that teaches phonics, reading, and writing to students with complex learning needs, find that Newstopia offers an additional way to provide background knowledge, offers repetition with variety, and builds citizens of the world.

Newstopia builds general background knowledge so students have a stronger understanding of real-world concepts. It distinguishes itself because of its:
  • Focus on combining comprehensive information with real-world contexts and enriching multimedia
  • Comprehensive teacher resources, including lesson plans, weekly materials, and professional development resources
  • Emphasis on the application of knowledge to real-life scenarios
  • Interactive lessons, discussions, and projects

Accessing Newstopia

Check out samples of articles and instructional materials previously published on Newstopia on MyLearningLiftoff or request a quote or additional information.



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Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D.​

Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D. is Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. Her focus is on understanding the best ways to assess and teach reading and writing to children with the most severe disabilities. As a special education teacher, Dr. Erickson has worked to support students with a range of disabilities in a variety of classroom settings, particularly students who do not use speech as their primary means of communication.


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