Thursday, 26 December 2019

More of our favorite things from 2019


In this second annual review of our “favorite things” from the year past, we celebrate the many gifts that our students and teachers give us every day. As the year draws to a close, let’s unwrap the highlights from 2019!




#1: Ideas that motivate and inspire
Collaboration with BrightFish teachers is a significant part of the joy of working in schools. The inspiration that we get from our dedicated teachers is truly a gift that takes the program to places we could never reach on our own. While we’re busy adding more features to roll out in 2020, some of the best ideas can only be delivered in person, such as motivational rewards, celebration walls, special prizes for achieving milestones in the program and fish-themed classrooms. With all of these great resources, we’ve now started a classroom gallery where our teachers can share what works to motivate their kids.


Prizes and fish-themed rewards inspire students at Taylor Elementary School.

#2: Grading that is timely and relevant
Teachers are reinforcing the importance of BrightFish Reading by integrating the data into their class grading programs. Here are a few of the great suggestions from teachers for grading:
  • by points earned: BrightFish provides a total and percentage based on the number of points earned out of the maximum available for each story. Convert the points percentage into a grade.
  • based on activity scores: Vocabulary and comprehension activities are scored with an overall percentage by story. Take the average of these scores to create one grade for each story or by skill area. 
  • based on stories completed per week: The average completion rate is 60 to 90 minutes per story, but that varies by student and reading level. Evaluate activity scores and stories completed to grade based on effort (time) and accuracy (scores). 
#3: Challenges to apply new skills
When students finish working on stories in their assigned level of BrightFish Reading, they can try Challenge activities to apply the skills they have learned. Passages are longer and contain graphical features such as sidebars and timelines, and questions simulate high-stakes testing to help students build confidence. Read more about BrightFish Challenges here

#4: Time for data chats
As part of our teacher training program, we emphasize the role that regular data chats can have on student achievement. Using data in the Student Progress Report for regular discussions is a great way for teachers to check in with students and help them improve their scores in BrightFish activities. While "good" progress may be different for each student, we created a checklist that teachers can use to determine appropriate interventions. We’re happy to report that it’s the #1 downloaded item from our Teacher Resource page!

#5: Data that informs and even surprises
This fall, we introduced a new reporting system that we hoped would give teachers easier access to the data they need. Like any new system, there was a typical learning curve and feedback phase where we honed the reports to make them simpler to read and use. A funny thing happened along the way – and it’s something we didn’t exactly expect. Teachers started asking all kinds of really interesting, in-depth questions about the data, which showed us that our new design was working. The feedback gave us even more ideas for reporting (see favorite thing #6).

#6: Teacher feedback to make us better
This year, we introduced an “upvote” option, which enables teachers to suggest new features and “vote” on their favorite ideas. A very dedicated teacher panel also gave us invaluable insights into how teachers were using our reports and provided ideas for new features that would enhance the use of the new system. Any time we are planning to roll out new tools, we can utilize the panel to get specific feedback and reactions to make changes as needed.


#7: Live chats and instant connections

Last year, we introduced live chat support to give our teachers another avenue for reaching our technical and instructional team. A few teachers used it a lot, but the majority still relied on email and phone to ask questions. We’re not exactly sure why, but this year we saw our live chat averages balloon – and it became the top way for teachers to get in touch with us. The great thing about live chat is that we can resolve most issues in under a minute – so it gets teachers on their way quickly and back to working with the class. 

#8 Students working hard – even on Christmas Eve!
We use monitoring software that lets us see when students are logged into BrightFish Reading, and for how long. This year we set a new benchmark for daily usage of more than 2,000 users  – and then went even higher. There are so many students logged in at all hours that we’ve had to start posting alerts for system updates and scheduling them between 12 midnight and 5 a.m. And if Santa was looking for extra effort to make the “nice” list, we even had kids working on December 24!

#9: Kids saying the darndest things
Periodically, we poll our students to see what they think of BrightFish Reading and how they would improve it. As usual, they didn’t disappoint and gave us some pretty interesting thoughts and ideas. Read some of our favorites from 2019.

#10: Winters that melt into spring
Well, maybe we're not near to spring just yet. But we’re looking forward to the “second half” of this school year and the continued collaboration, surprises and highlights that are sure to come in 2020! 

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Addressing learning challenges in reading

Students who have a disorder in one or more of the learning processes involved in language often experience significant difficulties with reading comprehension. There are a number of underlying causes that can be addressed by structured, scaffolded instruction and practice to develop reading skills. 

We know from the research into reading delays that students with learning disabilities typically rely on working memory to process and understand words. This requires more attention and cognitive energy than when reading subskills are fluent and automatic. 

Building from the bottom up

In BrightFish Reading, we employ a mastery-based methodology that helps students improve their word recognition processing and develop comprehension strategies to extract information from text.

The reason that we start each story unit with word recognition fluency is that it builds mastery of word and phrase-level subskills to the point of automaticity. This overlearning approach ensures that processing becomes virtually automatic so that students can free up cognitive capacity to attend to the meaning of what is being read. Students combine automatic processing with explicit instruction and scaffolded practice in vocabulary and comprehension strategies as they build a story from words to phrases to paragraphs and finally the full text. 

Remediating skill gaps

There are a number of strategies that you can use with your students to strengthen their skills development. Here are a few suggestions for activities that can develop these important reading foundations based on underlying deficits:

1. Review Patterns: Auditory processing disorders can cause issues with the ability to distinguish differences in sounds. Problems in visual perception can include reversing letters and skipping words. In BrightFish Reading, you can use data from the Student Progress report to see errors in visual match and sound match activities. Together with your student, review the trials for each story unit and look for patterns of errors. Choose the most common pattern, such as missed starting consonants, and work on those first. Then move to the next pattern.

Isolating patterns of errors can help focus remediation on specific skill gaps.

 
2. Set Word Challenges: Ask students to identify words from each passage that they find challenging. Have them keep a journal where they write down difficult words and their definitions. Work on the words together to discuss their meaning and application in the passage. 

3. Use Graphic Organizers: The graphic organizers used in BrightFish Reading can be downloaded from the Teacher’s Guide page as blank templates that can be printed. These are excellent resources to assist students as they work through the questions onscreen, but also to identify, organize and remember important ideas from what they read.

Read more of my strategies here.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Context is everything for English Learners

English Learners have to work twice as hard as their peers to build English skills and keep pace across subject areas. For these students, a lack of vocabulary knowledge and contextual strategies can pose a significant barrier to comprehension, particularly in the upper-middle and high school grades.

The first step in helping EL students master vocabulary usage is to teach it in context. In BrightFish Reading, we tackle this through direct, explicit instruction of key vocabulary from each story unit so that when a word is encountered in the text, students will recall its meaning. Students learn the definition of each word as it is used in the text they are preparing to read. Usage examples along with supporting images help to reinforce the concept. In the activities, students apply each new word by selecting the best usage sentence from a list of distractors, sorting similar and opposite words, and using the target word to complete sentences and write their own compositions. Corrective feedback helps students use context clues to understand and apply word meaning.

When using a reading program to bolster vocabulary development in EL students, there are a number of instructional strategies that can accelerate their progress. The goal is to enable EL students to integrate new words with what they already know and recall the meaning of those words when they encounter them in passage text.

Here are a few strategies that can help EL students boost their vocabulary development:


1. Make sure students are not just glancing over supporting visuals in the definition and applying vocabulary activities. Ask students to describe the illustrations and explain why a picture was used as an example as it relates to the definition. If you are unable to sit with your students 1:1 during this activity, have them jot down their explanations in a story journal that you can review together later.

Each BrightFish Reading vocabulary activity includes usage definitions, read-aloud options and supporting images.

2. Create multiple opportunities for students to paraphrase the definition of words based on their usage in the story. Students can write down the target word definition and then rephrase it in their own words, either verbally in small groups or on their own using their story journal. After students finish a story unit, ask them to go back to their written definitions and revise as needed.


3. Give students the opportunity to hear a fluent pronunciation of the words they are working on, either by sitting with them or using a technology program with read-aloud options. Ask students to repeat a word after listening to it. Hearing it and saying the word in sequence will help to facilitate its storage in memory.


View more EL strategies here.

Mildred Papi is a retired New York City Schools reading specialist and BrightFish coach. Have a reading question? Send it to mildred@brightfishlearning.com.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

All or nothing? Why personal learning profiles show there's more to the story

Developing a reading profile for every student

The problem with pass/fail measures is that they don’t capture the full range of individual growth. Setting the goal is important, but how each student gets there will naturally follow different paths. I am often asked what constitutes good progress in BrightFish Reading. My answer? That depends…

Averages and benchmark metrics are important for setting performance baselines, but it’s even more interesting to see a progress profile emerge for each student. Data from online instructional programs can help create personal learning profiles that reinforce and sometimes challenge observations in the classroom.

In BrightFish Reading, we track the story completion rate for each student. As part of our guidelines, we provide average metrics based on age and reading level. For example, the average completion rate for a story unit in 6th grade is one hour. Some students in a 6th-grade class may be way off the average, taking two-plus hours to complete a unit. The teacher asks, "Should I reassign a lower Lexile of stories for these students?"

Looking at the student details, you can quickly see that the average is longer but the completion rates are improving with each story. Measured objectively against the class average, the student is lagging behind. Look more closely at his personal profile, however, and you can see the improvement from story to story, along with the estimated trend line of how many stories he will need to complete to approach the average pace. 



Staying with this example, the teacher can then look at the activity scores for vocabulary and comprehension work. If the scores are also improving along with the rate, the increase in speed and volume of work is not coming at the expense of the quality and accuracy of student responses. Improvements in foundation skills, understanding learning objectives and increased focus all contribute to the full picture of a student’s personalized learning profile. 

Should the student be given easier material? No. He's exactly where he needs to be in order to make progress in his reading. Obviously, each child needs to move toward an end goal that will make it possible to pass year-end and high-stakes tests. The personal path to get there makes the learning achievements even more significant than the raw pass/fail numbers can measure.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Keep it simple - and let the data speak for itself

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks as schools return to BrightFish and new campuses start up for the first time. After the initial rush of rostering, class assignments and pre-testing, students are well into their training streams and teachers are starting to look at the data. This year, we’ve introduced a whole new look for our Teacher Dashboard, and it’s generating interesting – sometimes deep – conversations about instructional levels and student progress. It’s amazing how making simple changes to the way data is presented can lead to a richer understanding of the tools we provide and the best way to use them to help students improve their reading proficiency.


What’s in a level?
Our Test Results report presents the same data as before, but we’ve added a summary pie chart showing the range of proficiency levels in the class. Teachers can also see the grade-level performance for each student, the instructional level and the individualized training stream from the main summary screen. Just this week, I’ve had multiple calls from teachers who’ve used BrightFish for years, asking about the instructional level, what it means, and how the training streams are determined. (BrightFish Reading uses the instructional level from the pre-test to assign a starting menu for stories.) Teachers can adjust a student’s menu at any time as they monitor student progress through their stream.

Class test results: Adding simple visual elements and presenting data in summary screens makes a difference.


Sure, I went to the training…
As trainers, we spend a lot of time agonizing over the “flow” of the online session or workshop. How much information is just the right amount, and when do we push out additional help and recommendations? The reality is that everything seems clear until students start logging in, working on stories and producing data. Once teachers start seeing what students are doing, the real questions begin. We’ve found that a mix of live chat, online videos and articles, and email support gives teachers the “just in time” detail they require to get the most from the program. 
(Check out some of our training videos here.)


How to add value
Our software is designed to be self-paced, and students could theoretically work through the stories completely on their own. In truth, that’s what happens in some environments with a high student-to-teacher ratio. But the transfer of skills from online program to academic coursework (and life) is always much more powerful when teachers are engaged and can forge a bridge between classroom instruction and independent work.

The balance is between adding value and not adding weight to an already overwhelming schedule. Based on teacher input, we’ve developed a number of remediation and supplementary resource tools that can be used for small-group and 1:1 remediation. Teachers can use the data in our progress reports, see where learning standards are being missed, and use our tools or their own to revisit those areas.


It’s about the gains
As part of our refresh for the new school year, we’ve introduced a gains report that will provide visual growth charts and metrics that teachers can review after students complete the midyear and post-test assessment. I can’t wait to hear the feedback on it!

To all of the software developers and GUI specialists who wonder whether their work has an impact, I can say without hesitation that it does. And for the record, keeping it simple is our new mantra!

Thursday, 18 July 2019

The Perfect Blend – Merging Technology with Teaching

In the midst of the summer doldrums, there are a few signs of activity stirring on the horizon. Schools are booking teacher workshops for back to school and administrators are ramping up plans for the new year. It’s still a relatively relaxing time, though, which makes it perfect for having those “ideal world” conversations about how best to merge technology with teaching. 

For most teachers, the sweet spot is where technology can do things that are really difficult or time-consuming, such as data collection, self-paced instruction and skill reinforcement. Teachers are looking for ways to have a tighter, more personalized handoff between online learning and their own instructional approach. With that in mind, we’ve compiled the “top five” themes for achieving the perfect blend of technology and teaching:

1. Inspire independent learning: Students who struggle with reading need to build both foundational skills and confidence to create their independent learning practice. Scaffolded instruction with mastery-based learning makes it possible for students to set their own pace and goals while staying on task. Game-based elements such as starting at easier levels and earning rewards for completed activities keep students motivated and moving forward. Content-focused tutorials and constructive feedback provide specific and targeted support that students can use to improve their performance.
Helper tools such as content-specific tutorials and feedback enable students to apply strategies that improve results.

2. Create meaningful context: While many software programs are designed to be self-paced, teachers can significantly improve both student engagement and achievement by setting the context for online learning activities. Prior to starting activities, teachers can introduce a model lesson and establish expectations for the work students are doing. Students are more focused when teachers are monitoring their work and available for extra assistance.


3. Invite discussion: Shorter, “chunked” lessons that can be completed in a session leave time for discussion on a 1:1 and small-group basis. Technology programs can do this without requiring teachers to modify and customize lessons for each class and student. Introducing activities prior to independent learning helps students to set expectations before they begin. Discussions about assignments while they are fresh enable a “just in time” review of new concepts and information that can increase retention and understanding.


4. Enable data chats: Online platforms make it possible to capture rich data on every keystroke, decision and error that students are making. Teachers can use that information for regular “data chats” with students to discuss their progress, missed concepts and strategies they are using to answer questions. These sessions can be scheduled weekly or take the form of impromptu feedback sessions as students are working through their assignments. Data that is updated in real time is powerful information that teachers can use to recommend strategies and review concepts and activities.
Access to summary and detailed progress data gives teachers the information they need to accelerate student learning.

5. Encourage ownership: Developing an effective learning practice is an essential part of building foundational skills. Technology platforms can foster a student’s ability to self-monitor. In BrightFish Reading, for example, students can track their progress in their personal dashboard. Metrics such as time on task per week, points earned for each activity and story, and error feedback for completed work all contribute to students taking ownership of their learning. Teachers can take this a step further by asking students to keep a learning journal to write reflections about what they’ve learned and where they need to improve.


How are you using technology to support your teaching practice? Comment below or send an email to support@brightfishlearning.com.

Friday, 28 June 2019

Building Independent Reading Practice


Sifting through year-end notes from BrightFish teachers, I found some really interesting observations among the usual feature requests. The common thread? Students who needed a lot of support in BrightFish Reading at the beginning of the fall term were working independently by the spring. It’s partly a happy side-effect of improvements in fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. But I think it really goes beyond skills development. Independent reading practice not only reinforces classroom instruction, it also builds confidence and can foster a newly discovered love of reading. 

In their 2010 research, Johnson & Keier put it this way: “If children are not spending a significant portion of their day engaged in texts that allow them to practice the strategies we are modeling, then we cannot possibly expect them to take on these strategies and use them independently.”

Meghan Holmes, a BrightFish teacher from Spout Springs Elementary, shared this observation about one of her students: "At the start of the year, Abran lacked the confidence to work on BrightFish Reading independently. He would look for teacher support during each lesson in order to gain a better understanding of the task at hand. Now Abran leads our class in BrightFish. He is always excited to complete a book and receive the Congratulations screen."

Establishing a regular reading practice for struggling learners requires more than just access to text. Here are a few strategies for developing independent reading:

1. Start small: For many students, especially those with learning disabilities, scaffolding provides the support to internalize a routine for reading. Pre-reading activities that start with simpler activities, incorporate repetition and a mastery learning approach help students to set their own pace. For example, story units in BrightFish Reading start with word and sound match activities, working from the easiest words up to the most difficult phrases in a passage. Mastery requires a minimum of 97 percent accuracy and consistent speed.

2. Build stamina: Breaking text down into smaller chunks makes it possible for students to move from shorter sessions to longer periods of sustained reading. Students are more likely to keep going if they are challenged but not frustrated. Moving from short paragraphs to longer passages in a structured sequence creates a sense of control and achievement. Rewarding concrete steps along the way motivates students to spend more time reading.



3. Level the field: Providing age-appropriate material at a student’s instructional level makes it easier to access text and experience success with independent reading. Struggling readers are more likely to engage with text that is not frustrating or difficult to comprehend.

4. Encourage self-monitoring: Independent reading eventually becomes its own reward, but building that practice requires students to be actively engaged in the process. Setting expectations and enabling students to monitor their own progress creates accountability. Ask students to establish daily or weekly goals and keep a reading log to write down their observations and activities. Software can also help with self-tracking. In BrightFish Reading, students always know where they are in a story unit – and how much more work they need to do. They can review their work and see their scores on each activity. Teachers can review the data with each student in 1:1 sessions to discuss strategies for improvement.



5. Start a conversation: If students are reading the same material, encourage them to discuss the story and what they’ve learned from it. Retelling and sharing impressions about a story, the author’s purpose, main ideas and language encourages active reading and increases understanding of the text.

Do you have ideas on how to encourage independent reading practice? We would love to hear from you! Comment below or send an email to support@brightfishlearning.com.