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

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

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

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Keep on Reading: Tips for Bridging the Summer Gap

Schools are celebrating the end of another year this week, basking in the hard-won achievements together with their students. The end of school is a time for educators to take a breath, reflect and plan to do it all over again. For students, school’s out for summer, but that doesn’t mean the learning has to end.

The balance shifts from school to home and community to ensure that students don’t lose ground over the summer break. Struggling readers in particular can use the time to continue their growth in reading. The key is to make it fun and relevant, which may seem like trying to disguise broccoli as a treat. If all of those Instagram posts can be believed, it is possible – and you can do it for reading, too.

Here are just a few ideas to keep kids reading this summer:

1. See a movie – and then read about it. Summer blockbusters are a great way to get kids excited about a story. Disney favorites Aladdin and The Lion King both have chapter book treatments for grades 3-7. Aladdin: Far from Agrabah is an original story based on the main characters from the film and is written for grades 5-9. Nexflix and other streaming services are a great source of older films based on books, such as the Harry Potter series, The Hobbit, Where the Wild Things Are and Chronicles of Narnia. Read the books together, or ask your child to read it and report back on the differences from the movie adaptation.

2. Visit your local library. Public libraries are a great source of books and movies. It’s often free — and a great way to engage in reading activities on rainy afternoons. Some libraries offer weekly summer camps or day programs to keep boredom at bay. A lot of bookstores also have special promotions to encourage summer reading. For example, Barnes & Noble's summer reading program features picks by age group and free rewards.

3. Use technology: Schools with active licenses for technology programs used during the school year will often extend usage during the summer. BrightFish Reading lets kids log in from home or anywhere with a device and an Internet connection. If your child is planning to use a reading program such as BrightFish Reading over the summer, make sure to set achievable goals and keep a running points tally on the fridge for extra motivation. 

Most technology programs track usage and progress.
You can use this information to motivate your child.

4. Create high-value rewards: Many programs come with built-in rewards, such as the points cards and game store in BrightFish Reading. You can also create meaningful rewards for your child to encourage reading, such as the opportunity to eat a favorite snack, win prizes or participate in an activity. Set the bar for earning these rewards and create an awards ceremony at the end of the month.

5. Make it real: If your child likes to cook, craft or build, find a project and make reading the instructions a key part of it. Take a recipe out of your family cookbook or download a page from a DIY or recipe website. Assign your child to create a list of ingredients or materials and read the instructions aloud. Go on a shopping excursion together to get the items and post pictures of the final "product" on your fridge and social media pages.

Read our summer reading tips for BrightFish Reading. 

Friday, 26 April 2019

Motivating students through the post-test doldrums

So much energy goes into year-end testing, there’s a natural letdown once it’s over. Students are inclined to put on the breaks in the final weeks of school. Given all of the year-end distractions, it's not surprising that students can lose focus. Particularly for struggling learners, now is the time to ramp up and make strides in reading practice before the summer break.

How do you shift the momentum? Here are a few suggestions from our BrightFish teaching community for engaging students before closing the book on this school year:

1. Set weekly goals: Every Monday, set goals with your class for the week. In BrightFish Reading, this could be time on task, completed story units, growth in comprehension scores or other skill measures. At the end of the week, recognize the top 3 achievers with a special award or recognition.

2. Designate a celebration wall: Post printed certificates for weekly high achievers and new skills mastered by students. Some teachers have created a poster version of the leaderboard in BrightFish Reading so that students can see how they are advancing every day. 

3. Collaborate with the class to create rewards: Once you’ve set the criteria for #1, ask students to come up with the top prize of the week for the remainder of the year (pending teacher approval). In BrightFish classes, students have suggested everything from setting the menu for an upcoming class party to getting recognized in the principal's daily announcements.

4. Build a team dynamic: Team challenges foster a positive group dynamic and can be very motivational for students to pursue new milestones. Challenges can be based on improving their team averages in BrightFish Reading story units, or they could take the form of a group project. For example, ask them to choose one of the nonfiction story topics and create a model or group presentation.

5. Share reflections: Ask students to write a short piece or record a video about their experiences with reading this year. Ask them to discuss what they learned, how they mastered challenges, and where they have improved. Approach it from the perspective of what they would tell other kids just starting out with a new software program or reading unit.

6. Start a book club: Students can review BrightFish stories and select titles from short stories or graphic novel collections that they would like to read as a group. Post the meeting schedule and nominate a weekly leader to set the topics and moderate the discussion.

7. Set up a game day: Designate a day and time for students to play online games in BrightFish Reading using the points they’ve earned. Or extend it out to other online games or board games that are both educational and fun, such as Scrabble and Mastermind.

We'd love to hear your ideas about motivating students to keep reading!