Thursday, 13 July 2017

So many instructional models, so little time

When Im planning a new implementation, the question I get asked most frequently starts with How can BrightFish Reading fit into our…” From there, you can fill in your choice of blended learning, flipped instruction, rotational models, push-in, pull-out, response to intervention, expanded learning, and so on. Despite what we often hear about stagnation in schools, there is a lot of innovation going on and a willingness among educational leaders to try different approaches to find an instructional mix that matches the needs of their students and teachers.

With a plethora of pedagogy (sorry, I couldnt resist), its critical for instructional tools to fit into whatever, whenever. Few schools still ask for blocking schedules anymore the software just needs to fit into the many things that are already going on in the school day.

Take pull-out and push-in models. In a traditional pull-out, students go to a lab for a dedicated period of work for anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. A reading interventionist or instructional coach facilitates the class, offering support and additional instructional on missed learning objectives, either individually or in small groups.

In the push-in model, co-teaching enables the interventionist collaborate with the lead instructor in the class environment. Class management is more challenging, but students dont lose any time transferring classes, and teachers can work together to make sure the instruction and intervention are well-integrated. Having common tools that co-teachers can use to monitor the progress of their students is critical to information sharing and effective instruction.

Flexible tools
Below is an example of how flexible instructional components can be used for pull-out or push-in instruction. (Despite saying I never provide schedule blocking anymore, here goes):

1. Whole or small group mini-lesson (10 minutes)
While BrightFish is designed to be self-paced and student-centered, the tools can be used as part of small group or whole group lessons. For example, teachers can model a reading comprehension strategy based on missed learning objectives in the students’ training reports. For younger students in a pull-out reading lab, teachers could model the program on an interactive whiteboard using a sample story to introduce each activity.
2.Self-paced student practice (30-45  minutes)
During reading practice, students work independently on their chosen stories and activities. The interventionist or instructional coach can walk around and observe, as well as check her dashboard for any notifications to provide one-on-one support to anyone struggling with an activity. BrightFish Reading is self-paced, so students can log into their workstations or laptops and pick up where they left off. It takes students 60 minutes on average to complete a story with all of the fluency, vocabulary and comprehension activities. Self-paced practice can happen anywhere, giving students more reading practice outside of the reading class.
3. Re-reading and reflection (5-10 minutes)
A short summary session can be used for read-aloud, where students can use the passages from their current story to read aloud to the group. Teachers can also use the reflection period to facilitate discussion on the learning objectives and activities.
Teacher collaborationIn the BrightFish system, teachers can “subscribe” to monitor different classes, to get notifications and review assessment and training data. Reports can be printed for teacher discussions and error data can be used to identify common areas of weakness for group instruction. Open response questions can be scored and comments can be added by both teachers to provide more feedback to students.
Pull-out and push-in models are just two examples of instructional approaches being used in schools. Learning can (and should) happen anywhere, and instructional tools have to be flexible and adaptable to different environments while promoting easy communication and collaboration among teachers.
Read how BrightFish teachers are using the program as part of their reading instruction.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Getting into the Game: How Structured practice with connected text levels the playing field for struggling readers.

I spend a lot of time at practice. Like many parents with active kids in competitive sports, I constantly shuttle kids to and from practice. There isn’t a day in the week that I don’t have at least one practice to get to. In fact, I’m at practice right now.

In sports, practice is taken seriously even from a young age. My daughter’s soccer team practices for two hours three times per week. The coach wants them to be competitive. Despite having advanced skills, the team still works on speed and accuracy of the basics like passing and receiving – these skills need to be automatic so that the girls can keep their heads up and focused on the game. But strong basic skills aren’t enough to make a strong player or a competitive team. That’s why these soccer practices also spend a lot of time running plays – a sequence of ball movements with a set purpose and intended outcome. Some may be simple three-pass plays and other may build on three or four more passes. Repeatedly practicing these connected actions allows the players to know where they need to be, anticipate where the ball is going, understand the flow, and maintain situational awareness in game situations. In other words, practicing foundation plays enables game comprehension. Comprehending the game makes you competitive.

You probably know where I’m going with this. It is a reading blog after all.

Soccer practice (or practicing any skill) is a lot like reading practice. Reading fundamentals such as phonemic awareness and decoding are essential but not sufficient for reading comprehension. Reading fluency has often been described as the bridge between word recognition and comprehension, most notably by Rasinsky. Fluency develops over time with practice in reading and re-reading text. Samuels theorized that due to limited cognitive capacity, re-reading reduces brain processing because of the increased familiarity the reader has with the content. With less effort applied to word recognition, the brain frees up more resources for comprehension.

Like running foundation plays on the soccer pitch, reading fluency develops with practice reading connected text – word combinations such as phrases and common co-locations. Building short sentences using previously practiced word strings adds an incremental but manageable complexity to the reading task. Through repeated practice with connected text, the reader is able to read with enough accuracy, pace, and expression to understand the author’s message.

Not all of our readers can handle the demands of comprehending grade-level texts. In many cases, struggling readers have developed basic decoding skills but they lack the fluency required to draw deep meaning from print. By getting more practice re-reading connected text in small structured chunks, below-level readers are in a much better position to access grade-level material. As they become more and more familiar with what they are reading, they are better able to focus on meaning. With enough practice, the gap eventually closes and readers can handle grade-level reading expectations independently.

We all want our students to be reading at grade level. Be it reading or soccer, structured and purposeful practice enables comprehension – and that makes you competitive.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Summer Reading - Keep Up the Momentum!

Every year, teachers strive to make up lost time with students who have fallen behind in their reading skills. It’s a challenge to schedule enough practice time and give extra attention to students who need more help and encouragement.  

Once struggling readers leave school for the summer break, their progress often comes to a grinding halt. Outside of summer school, it’s the families and communities that can keep the momentum going by making reading a central part of summer activities.

Here are a few ways that you can make reading part of summer fun:

  1. See a movie – and then read about it. Summer blockbusters are a great way to get kids excited about a story. Wonder Woman, Transformers: The Last Night and Spiderman: Homecoming all have graphic novel treatments. You can also choose a movie that’s based on a book, such as Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants. Then read to book together or ask your child to read it and tell you how the movie stacks up.

  2. Get a family library card. It’s often a free — and fun — way to engage in reading activities and spend a rainy afternoon. Many libraries offer weekly summer camps, or you can look for a program that has library activities as part of the roster.

  3. Read aloud every day. Model fluent reading by setting aside time to read aloud to your children — and have them read to you. Look for interesting books, newspaper articles and magazine stories to read together. Let your child choose the reading material "menu" for the day or week.

  4. Find a project. Create something and get your child involved by reading the instructions. It could be a recipe for a favorite family dish or a DIY project. Get them to write up the ingredients or materials list and read the instructions aloud. Shop for the items together and post your final "product" on your social media pages.

  5. Keep up the points. One of the most popular features of BrightFish Reading is the points system. You can use that idea to reward reading and writing activities. Kids can rack up their points and redeem them for special prizes, privileges or outings – whatever is rewarding to them. Set the points values together and post their weekly scores on the fridge so the whole family can get involved.

If your child already has a login for BrightFish Reading from school, it can be accessed from anywhere with an Internet connection. With just 20 minutes a day, three times per week, your child can continue to build reading skills over the summer.

If you have a great summer reading idea, share it here!

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.