Friday, 19 May 2017

Taking the time to celebrate

During the busy school year, we seldom have time to reflect on where weve been and what weve accomplished. Too often we get bogged down in the day-to-day pressures of our schedules and endless lists of what needs to get done.

As part of our year-end to do list here at BrightFish, we send out a survey to educators who have used our programs during the school year. Its wonderful to hear from teachers how their students are enjoying reading for the first time and improving their word fluency and comprehension abilities. These are major milestone for kids who have never had success in reading.

Of all the inspiring stories from the year, three amazing students stand out for rising to the very top of our national points board. Points are part of our extrinsic reward system, but behind the numbers are students whove put in a lot of effort and care into their work. In BrightFish Reading, the more activities you complete and the higher your accuracy, the more points you earn. Its probably not surprising that students consistently rate the points system as one of their favorite parts of the program. The points can be redeemed for games, which are valued rewards, but having a tangible recognition of your work and how far you have come can be even more powerful motivators.

Behind those students are the wonderful teachers who really dig into a technology to make it work for their kids. Bringing in a new tool to use in the classroom on top of everything else thats going on involves change and, frankly, more work. Perhaps its also not surprising that the kids who made it to the top of our national standings were supported by teachers who embraced the tools, asked a lot of questions and devised their own creative strategies for keeping students focused and engaged. For software developers, those educators are considered gold for their ability to bring our programs to life and help us improve.

Next week classroom celebrations are starting to take place as the 2016-17 year winds down. As you recognize your students for their achievements big and small, take time to enjoy the moment and reflect on how much was accomplished this year.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

April showers, May testing

This time of year, testing seems to take over the class schedule. So why add another test to the mix?

Testing fatigue is real, especially at this time of year. However, there are good reasons to have your students take the Cloze post-test in BrightFish Reading. The Cloze is an accurate test of grade-level reading comprehension that has been validated in numerous research studies over the past 30 years. It provides another data point to measure your students reading proficiency and see how much progress they have made from working in BrightFish Reading. The good news? It's a quick test  it takes about 10 minutes to administer and students can access it right from the Quizzes Tile on their BrightFish dashboard.

Even if you didnt administer the Cloze pre-test when your students started working in BrightFish, theres still value in getting an updated snapshot of how well your students can process text at grade level. If you did administer the pre-test, you will be able to see their percentage change from their score before they began working in the program. 

Here are a few tips for getting the most from your Cloze Post-testing:

  1. Confirm that the test has been scheduled. To do that, log into your Teacher Dashboard and click on Calendar in the left sidebar menu. You should see the scheduled test for your class, with a date range of 30 days. That means your students can complete their tests at any time during that 30-day period.

  2. Test students who've done the work. If your students have completed less than 60 minutes in BrightFish Reading and have not finished any stories, there is less value to post-testing. The average time on task to show gains from BrightFish Reading is five hours in the program.

  3. Prepare your students. The Cloze post-test is a short passage of about 200 words, with words missing from each sentence. Students choose the best word to complete the sentence from the three options provided in the drop-down list. Students should be encouraged to take their time and select the best answer. The test takes about 10 minutes, so it can be completed in a single session.

  4. Keep it quiet. Use headsets so that students don't get distracted. While there is no audio during the test, headsets help to keep students focused on the task. Ideally, everyone in the testing lab would be working on the test to keep distractions to a minimum.

  5. Check the results. As soon as your students submit their tests, the results will appear in your Teacher Dashboard. Click on Assessment Reports and select the class you want to review from the drop-down list. Select Cloze Post-test in the "select a quiz" field. Your summary results will appear on the page, with columns displaying pre-test, post-test and percentage change. You can also see the test responses in the Quiz Item Analysis tab. Select your class and test, then click on any of the student results to view their responses.

  6. Share with students and parents.  From the summary screen, press the purple download button on the report. The test results are downloaded to your desktop as a csv file. You can then import the data into another report or use with any format to share with administrators and parents. 

Note: If you have other standardized testing data that you would like to compare with the Cloze test results, we would be happy to create a custom correlation report.  Contact me at

Thursday, 23 March 2017

No Problem, There’s a Tool for That!

5 Tips for Using Technology to Improve Reading

As we head into Spring Break season, its a great time to take a pause and think about how to get the most from the final push of the school year.

As publishers of technology tools, we often make the mistake of thinking about our products as the solution to the struggling reader problem.  The reality is that learning is a very complex, living process that involves human beings. As much as we take pride in the tools that we develop to assist in the process, they are just that tools.

With that in mind, here are my top five tips for using technology tools with struggling readers, gleaned from the awesome teachers who do the inspiring and complicated work everyday in the classroom.

  1.  Keep it interesting: Provide a lot of variety and use different media to engage students. Reinforce reading with video, audio and images that reinforce key concepts. Combine self-paced work with small group instructional time to go over those concepts and remediate any areas of difficulty.
  2. Reward early and often: Students who struggle with reading find it very difficult and discouraging. Teachers acknowledging the hard work their students are doing to improve their reading provides important extrinsic motivation. Set goals and make them achievable. For example, let the class suggest targets for weekly reading time and reward students who consistently hit them. Programs that include collecting and redeeming points for completed work can also help to motivate students to read. Involve parents to provide recognition beyond the classroom.
  3. Give extra credits: Struggling readers need more time to practice reading and improve their skills. Use early drop-off and after-school programs to get as much reading time into the school day as possible. Reward students (see #2) for getting extra reading time at home or after class. Reading time can be used to earn extra credits for class assignments. Some teachers hold rewards days for special prizes and recognition in front of the class and school.
  4. Make it age-appropriate: Research consistently shows that the best way to improve reading proficiency is to work with on-level text. This makes a lot of sense when you consider the deficits students need to make up when they are behind their peers in reading. Nothing is more demotivating than being treated differently from your friends. Try to find reading material that is engaging and high-interest rather than using easier material designed for younger students. Use tools that also give students the chance to increase their knowledge and confidence with grade-level standards and question types from high stakes tests.
  5. Use technology: OK, I started this blog by saying technology isn’t the solution. But it can be a powerful assistant in the learning process by complementing instruction when it’s difficult to give individual attention to every child. Technology programs that measure every keystroke and response provides data to zero in on problem areas for remediation. Technology can also take the fear factor out of reading and help to build both confidence and reading skills.

    Video can increase interest and reinforce understanding of a text.

    Got a tip for working with struggling readers? Share your ideas here or on our Facebook page.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Activating Dual Channels – Why Improving Reading Isn’t Just About the Text


My son recently celebrated his birthday. As tradition holds, he received a LEGO project from his grandparents. Given his experience with the blocks, his proud grandparents thought he was ready for a more advanced creation...but still within the "suitable age range." One afternoon, he sat down to get started. He asked me if we could work on it together as a team. He may have been a little intimidated, but he wouldn't admit it. I was happy to help. I love LEGO. Together, we could build anything.

About 30 minutes in, something wasn't right. A piece didn't fit. We looked at each other, then at the instructions, then at our project so far...then back at the instructions. We repeated this head twisting for several minutes like we were watching Wimbledon - except that we were confused...

LEGO instructions are irrefutable...a model of design. How could we go wrong? Unable to figure it out, we took it all apart and started over. Despite extra attention, we hit the same snag the second the same place. We both realized that we had been defeated. If only there was text or video to support the pictures! A quick Google search turned up nothing. We put the LEGO away.

Mulling this experience over driving to work the next day, I was reminded of the concepts of the Dual Code Theory, cognitive load and information processing. (As an instructional designer, my musings often take odd turns.) Back in the 1970s, Allan Palvio developed a theory of cognition that would influence cognitive psychology for generations.  In a nutshell, Palvio's theory is that the brain processes information along a visual and a verbal channel, and that information is better understood, retained and recalled when both channels are utilized when dealing with new information rather than just one. When combined with the brain's limited cognitive capacity - the brain can only process so much new information at one time (Sweller) - I began to understand our failure at our LEGO challenge. We only had one channel being activated (image-based instructions) and the information coming in on that one channel was too much for us to process.

When new information is presented on both the visual and the verbal channel, it's easier to process, understand and act upon. It's the reason for the rise of multimedia education, TED talks, and YouTube. Children who find it difficult to read can often sit for hours watching instructional videos because the information is presented in a way they can more easily process. As educators we can often give new information to our students that they can't digest because it is using only a single channel and is cognitively too demanding. By presenting text, for example with supporting visuals, audio, or video, the cognitive demands are reduced. Activating both codes (visual and verbal) allows information to be processed and retained more readily.

We still haven't finished our LEGO project. It's been a couple of weeks. I'm sure we'll get back to it once the sting of defeat has subsided. I can't help but think that many kids experience the same thing with their reading struggles, particularly older kids who have outgrown picture books. Knowing that they are supposed to be able to read grade-level material and then fail to comprehend it makes the struggle all the more damaging. If only there were pictures to go with the text.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Banishing the Blahs: Using Rewards Systems that Work

Motivation is hard to come by in February, especially when going outside requires shoveling an escape route.  For students below grade level, reading can be a little like digging out from another foot of snow. It’s difficult, time-consuming and hard to tell if you’re making any progress. 

While there are widely differing opinions on the efficacy of using rewards in learning – and whether we’re creating a generation addicted to instant gratification and “participant” trophies – motivational systems are great tools for teachers to add to their toolbox of strategies for reading intervention. 

I was recently in a class of 3rd graders who were learning to use BrightFish Reading. The level of excitement was high each time they were awarded points for mastering a fluency skill. Calls of “Miss Sue, over here!” were infectious.  I wondered whether the 9th graders I was about to meet in a high school reading intervention class would be more cynical. They were certainly less effusive, but there were a lot of shy smiles as the points racked up and students leaned in to continue their work. It was a great reminder of how important extrinsic rewards are in helping to build confidence and focus. 

Here are my top 5 “must haves” for effective motivational systems in reading intervention:

1. Set achievable goals: Back under my snowbank, it’s hard to get started if all you can see is an enormous heap. Slice it up into manageable chunks and set goals that are achievable in short timeframes. The way we do this in BrightFish Reading is to take a passage and break it down to word level. Students “construct the text back up in a progressive sequence of activities in fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Once students get to full paragraphs, they’ve already seen every word in the text they are about to read.

2. Reward early and often: A big part of the “chunking” philosophy is to also break up the rewards based on milestones. Award points for mastering skills that start small and build up to connected text. Along the way, let students track their progress towards the larger goal. Rewards get bigger as the task becomes more challenging.

3. Make it fun: Rewards need to be inherently motivating and geared to what students find valuable. Being able to redeem their points towards fun games and other high-value prizes keeps students working towards their goals. One teacher recently passed on a great idea: hold “redeeming” days where students can celebrate their accomplishments and get recognized for their hard work. 

4. Challenge but never frustrate: It’s important to set tasks that are achievable but stretch the student’s comfort zone. One of the advantages of software is that it can track student responses, accuracy and time spent on each activity. Monitoring those metrics enables teachers to remediate in areas where students needs help and make adjustments when needed. 

5. Let students create rewards: Choice is a big factor in student engagement, as is having a say in the rewards system. Ask your students to create their own wish list of rewards and vote on their top three. You can be the deciding vote on which ones get added. If you need to get their creative juices flowing, these are just a few of the rewards that classes have created: 

  • Be first in line for a fun activity
  • Sit with friends
  • Browse approved websites for 10 minutes
  • Get recognized by the principal in school announcements
  • Win a homework pass
  • Be the teacher's assistant for the class
  • Select the menu for the next class party
  • Have lunch with the teacher
I've posted a short article on adding your own rewards cards to the BrightFish games room here.

If you have more ideas for great motivational rewards, I would love to hear them!

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Breaking Down the Placement Question

In the spirit of Groundhog Day, I thought I would answer a question that keeps coming up. How do we determine where to place students in BrightFish Reading?

The short answer: place them at their current grade level.

Now for the long answer. Many reading programs require fitting students into a fixed reading level, so weve all become a little conditioned to focusing on the question of placement. BrightFish Reading takes a different approach, by breaking down on-level content to make it accessible. Students "construct" passages, starting with fluency in the words and phrases in the text, then moving on to key vocabulary. From there they read paragraphs, showing understanding of facts and details, then work up to the full text and higher-level comprehension, such as authors purpose and themes.

How are the levels different?
The instructional design of BrightFish Reading is based on a student-centered approach to reading. When students begin the fluency exercises  tackling one, two and three letter words theres not much difference between 8th grade words and 6th grade words. The words and phrases get increasingly difficult, but the progress is gradual and builds confidence as students master each activity. 

As students complete stories, they will gain a deep understanding of connected text in the band range for that grade level. The vocabulary and comprehension exercises align to standards, giving students the ability to practice and improve. As the difficulty of each exercise increases, so do the rewards. With constructive feedback and encouragement, the goal is to challenge but never frustrate.

Where are the pain points?
Vocabulary is one of the most difficult skill areas for students who are behind their peers in reading. It makes sense that the less reading you do, the more gaps there are in your vocabulary. So its not surprising to see struggling readers get low scores on their first attempts in the vocabulary exercises. Whats really interesting is what happens as students complete stories, get feedback and work with the helper tools in the program. We see their vocabulary scores improve. The error data in the Teacher Dashboard provides insights into where students are making mistakes and how they are learning from one activity to the next. 

Vocabulary error data in BrightFish Training Reports

What about the Cloze?
The BrightFish Cloze pre-test is another data point for teachers to get a measure of how well students can comprehend text at grade level. It's not a placement test but it does provide an indicator of how well students are likely to do in a given grade level in BrightFish Reading. When students score below 10 on their grade-level Cloze, teachers will want to closely monitor their progress to provide extra support. Students who score above 80 will likely enjoy the challenge of working on stories a grade level above their current grade. 

When should I make adjustments?
As teachers, you know your students the best, so weve created a flexible system that allows the assignment of multiple levels. If you think students would benefit from a broader range of text complexity  either up or down you can easily assign additional grade levels to individual students or whole classes.

Ive posted a how to article on adding levels to a class or student menu. Find it here.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Resolution #1: Get More Data

New year, new semester. What better time to find out whats new with your students?

Cloze testing is an easy way to get an updated snapshot of how well your students comprehend on-level text. It also offers a useful indicator of how they will do in a grade level of BrightFish Reading.

So if youre just getting started with BrightFish Reading or re-starting now is a great time to administer the Cloze test that comes with the program. The Cloze has been validated as an accurate indicator of reading comprehension in numerous research studies (Bormuth, Alexander, Rankin, etc.). Its a five-minute, fill in the blanks test at grade level that uses Lexiled passages of 200-250 words, with about every fifth word left blank. Students choose the best word to complete sentences. 

What do Cloze results mean?
Cloze scores map to reading ranges: 0 to 39 (frustration); 40 to 60 (instructional); and 61+ (independent). Students scoring in the mid- to high-frustration zone and the instructional zone typically progress at their own pace in the corresponding grade level in BrightFish Reading. Students who score at the high end of the independent zone (above 80) may respond well to the challenge of working on passages from a higher grade level. In contrast, students scoring below 10 may struggle in that level of BrightFish and could benefit from being assigned a lower grade.

Since you have access to levels 1-10 with your BrightFish subscription, you can assign different grade levels to your students as needed.

When should you skip the Cloze?
Generally speaking, students in K-1 are given DIBELS-type assessments to determine reading proficiency, rather than a reading comprehension test. Unless a student is in the second half of 1st grade, I would recommend skipping the Cloze. Similarly, if students are non-readers and essentially reading at a 1st grade level, they may get frustrated doing the test and their results will not be very informative. The test is optional, so you can use your discretion when assigning it to students.

How do you schedule it?
When your classes are first created, the BrightFish system automatically enables the test for a period of 30 days. To see if that 30-day period has passed, you can check your Calendar in the Teacher Dashboard. If there are no tests scheduled, you simply click Schedule Quiz and assign the Cloze pre-test to your class. Your students will click on their Quizzes Tile to take the test.

Once the tests are submitted, you can see the results in the Reports/Assessments page of the Teacher Dashboard.

View a six-minute video intro to the Cloze here.

Cloze Test Results in BrightFish Reading