Thursday, 14 March 2019

Vocabulary and comprehension: chicken or egg?

Reading comprehension reflects two underlying skills working together – the ability to recognize words and understand their meaning. For decades, researchers have been studying comprehension in an effort to identify root causes, with the aim of finding effective remediations. One question frequently arises: Is it fundamentally a vocabulary problem causing comprehension difficulties or a comprehension issue creating a vocabulary deficit?

In this case, it's the chicken and the egg. The complex interactions between vocabulary and comprehension make it difficult to isolate one from the other. For some readers, there may be gaps in word recognition. Others lack inferencing strategies to glean the meaning of new words from context clues. Approaching vocabulary and comprehension as interwoven skills can significantly improve outcomes for struggling readers. 

Word processing

Slow and inaccurate word processing creates a barrier to comprehension. Students who have not “automized” the visual and sound recognition of words in a text need to use inefficient working memory to process the words and determine their meaning. This is a difficult task that can be very frustrating, especially in the upper grades when students are working with longer academic and technical texts. Practicing word and phrase recognition as a pre-reading activity for a text can help to ensure that slow, effortful processing won’t hinder comprehension.

Same or different? 

The ability to determine synonyms and antonyms is frequently underdeveloped in below-level readers. In BrightFish Reading, students typically score the lowest in this area of the program’s vocabulary sequence. Using strategies and tools such as elimination, online dictionaries and graphic organizers can significantly improve accuracy in this area. 


Making inferences

Students who struggle with reading comprehension often have difficulties making inferences. This affects both their ability to use comprehension strategies and apply context clues to infer the meaning of new words. Providing structured practice in word usage for a text, along with explicit instruction in vocabulary strategies, increases understanding and confidence in learning new words.

Time for data chats 

In BrightFish Reading, we typically see an acceleration effect after a few stories – once students begin using the helper tools and strategies, most improve without additional interventions. But some don’t get there without extra support, which has teachers seeing red in the Student Progress report. (Color coding in the reports is a visual cue that highlights areas of weakness in each story unit.) Taking time out to review errors and strategies is needed before students start their next story unit. By monitoring errors and trends for each student, teachers can guide students with effective interventions to bridge the gap in reading comprehension.


Download sample vocabulary strategies here.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

The Ways We Learn from Our BrightFish Schools

Learning is hard work - and it requires a certain amount of fearlessness to face what you don’t know. Students who struggle with reading take a leap of faith that they can overcome their barriers to improve. As developers of online reading software, we have the unique privilege of seeing how our students and teachers embrace BrightFish Reading as part of this process. 

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, here are just a few of the reasons we absolutely love our BrightFish schools:

1. Students take ownership: Students get very invested in earning full points in the vocabulary and comprehension activities. When we get asked to double-check answers and confirm how many attempts students made before getting it right, we know that kids are really engaged!

2. They work overtime: We often see students logging in on Friday afternoons and over the weekend, working diligently on their BrightFish stories. It probably helps that they can track the class scoreboard to see if they are moving up in the rankings!

Students can see the points ranking in their backpack - and track their position.

3. Our inbox is full: We periodically ask students for their opinions on what would make BrightFish better - and we get some fantastic responses. Students submit ideas for additional questions and activities, giving us great ideas for product development. (Recently, we had one entrepreneurial 4th grader asking to work at the “BrightFish Company.”)

4. They make it their own: Every week, teachers tell us how they are integrating BrightFish into their classroom in new ways. They generously send us the tools and worksheets they’ve created to increase time on task, improve focus and extend the work students are doing in the program.

5. We get inspired: Teachers often share photos and samples of what they are doing to keep students motivated and celebrating each milestone. Their goal is to keep the reading experience positive and rewarding, whether it’s creating custom game cards for class prizes, celebration walls with certificates for completed stories, or posters with the leaderboard for the week.

6. They get results: BrightFish students are making make great strides in their reading – and we get to watch it happen! There’s nothing more gratifying than seeing someone improve from 20% in vocabulary on their first story to 75% just five stories later. Students who used to avoid reading tell us about their love of learning new words, finishing stories and taking time to get the right answers.

7. Gratitude is awesome: It’s truly special to hear a heartfelt “thank you” and “you’re amazing” from teachers, especially when we’ve done something very minor, such as resetting a password or helping them create their class lists. The BrightFish live chat is an especially fun way to connect with teachers and make sure they have what they need. Playing a small part in student learning is a pretty wonderful way to spend the day!

Friday, 25 January 2019

Unlocking the magic of reading

In this world of instant gratification, distraction and sensory overload, reading can seem a little quaint. Kind of like a relic from the olden days when we sat around by candlelight and told ghost stories. You know, way back in the 1980s.

For struggling learners who have never had success in reading, the work is hard and the payoff appears negligible. Let's face it, none of us wants to do something that we’re just not very good at doing, especially if the progress is slow. (Case in point: my 2019 exercise regimen.) Finding that sweet spot of interest, tenacity and motivation is the key. The exact combination, however, is different for every student. Technology tools can provide teachers and parents with different strategies to engage struggling readers and motivate them to put in the work.

Make it a choice

Whether hurtling asteroids or strange tales of storytelling stones will pique a struggling reader’s interest, choice gives students a feeling of control over their reading material. In BrightFish Reading, for example, students select from a menu of fiction and nonfiction passages, and then use that text as the foundation for developing their skills in fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Not surprisingly, there’s a positive correlation between the student’s interest level in a topic and the scores for each story unit.

Story choice can engage readers and give them control.


Chunk it down

Any activity that seems daunting as a whole can become achievable when you break it down. When considering the reading process, the idea of “deconstruction” is much easier to accomplish using technology. Skills can be broken down into subskills with rewards for mastering each level or activity. Students move forward in a sequential process where they are building a story from the bottom up. Dashboards that show points for completed work and progress bars for each story keep the student in control and aware of their own progress.

Faster isn’t always better

One of the metrics that teachers track in BrightFish Reading is the time it takes to finish a story unit. The average time for middle and high school students to finish a story is 90 minutes, but individual pace differs. After completing a few stories, teachers start to see each student’s optimum pace profile – and speed alone isn’t the end goal. A student may race through the text and questions to finish a story unit without really focusing on the activities, so their scores for vocabulary and comprehension are low. Online tools capture rich data on everything from time per activity to individual responses and errors. Teachers can use that information for regular “data chats” with students to talk about the reading material and the strategies they are using to answer questions.

Map the way

As students practice reading and develop their capacity to comprehend and integrate new information from text, the parallel development of critical thinking skills has a positive impact on all subject areas. Online and offline graphic organizers help students to visually map information into main ideas, fact versus opinion and character development. Creating a conceptual map reinforces understanding and retention of information gleaned from the text. 

Graphic organizers help students develop mental maps for new information.


Take on the challenge

Building confidence in reading strikes a fine balance between engagement and challenge. Video games do this very well by starting at the easiest level and creating a forward momentum as players take on increasingly difficult tasks. In the BrightFish Reading process, starting at the word and phrase level before moving up to paragraphs and full passages provides the motivation for students to keep going to take on the next incrementally more difficult challenge. Tracking that process with online data helps us to provide the guidance and assistance that is truly tailored to each learner.





Monday, 24 December 2018

A few of our favorite things

It’s been a busy fall in our schools, so it’s a treat to have a moment to rest, reflect and take stock in between the feasts and festivity of the season. With that in mind, I’ll share a few of my favorite things from the first part of the school year as we look forward to 2019.

#1 Great gains on maze tests

Many of our schools completed the midyear maze testing in our program this month, and we just love watching those upward trends on our graphs. Of course the maze is just one of many metrics used to determine progress, but it’s very encouraging to see the positive indicators in word fluency and comprehension. Anecdotally, we also hear about improvements students are making in all subject areas as their reading skills and confidence grow. If you’re interested in learning more about the maze, we recently posted an excellent white paper from Research in Education that looks at the maze, what it measures, and how it can be used for both assessment and classroom instruction.

#2 Data with insights for learning and growing

We’ve noticed an interesting trend with BrightFish students. If you show them the data, they want to see more! From the beginning, we’ve incorporated points, gameplay, and a dashboard that lets students track their progress in any story or activity. As students get into the program, their interest shifts from time on task and points totals to looking for insights into how they are improving and what they can do to achieve more. When we first set out to design BrightFish, our thoughts on engagement centered around high-interest content, multimedia support and rewards systems. While those features are still an important part of the design, our developers are now heavily focused on finding ways to give students access to their own learning profiles and improvement metrics.


#3 Kids logging in – even on weekends!

We use monitoring software that lets us see when students are logged into BrightFish Reading, and for how long. This year we quickly set a new benchmark for hourly usage of 300 users – and then just as quickly surpassed it. Evenings and weekends used to be “safe zones" to update the system without affecting response times for our users. Now we have so many students logged in at all hours, and even on weekends, that we’ve had to start posting alerts for system updates and scheduling them between 12 midnight and 5 a.m. At least, for now, those times seem to be safe!


#4 Words that give meaning

The instructional approach to vocabulary in BrightFish Reading is a holistic one, in that instruction revolves around a selected text and understanding both word definition and application in the passage. While vocabulary knowledge tends to be the biggest area of weakness for our students, it’s also the activity they find the most value in doing. Periodically, we invite students to give us anonymous feedback on the program. After the games (no surprise), the “most liked” is vocabulary – and it’s also the skill they want to work on more. To take vocabulary development beyond BrightFish, we’ve developed a series of teacher resources for data chats, remediation, and extension activities that can be woven into review and instruction.



#5 Inspiring ideas tied up with strings

Collaboration with BrightFish teachers is by far the most rewarding part of our work in schools. We get a lot of great ideas from teachers using BrightFish in the classroom, which makes our product wish list a piece of cake. Turning those ideas into software is a little more difficult, but the inspiration and excitement that we get from our dedicated teachers and the way they are using BrightFish Reading to help their kids is a gift all its own. Some of the ideas we’re working on for the next half: improvement profiles based on story progress and scores; customized tutorials for constructed response questions; and teacher feedback in the students’ backpack.

We're looking forward to more "favorite things" in 2019!











Friday, 30 November 2018

Overcoming the Language Barrier

Reading is a challenge for many students, but English Learners in particular have to work twice as hard just to keep up. Improving your understanding of English while also reading to learn in all subject areas creates unique barriers for EL students.

In middle and high school, this disadvantage becomes increasingly significant. Packed schedules and demanding curriculum leave little time to work on improve reading skills and word knowledge. Technology-based learning tools that are designed for self-paced learning can give older EL students access to structured reading practice to improve their reading skills and achieve academic goals.

Chunking it down

Students who can’t read at grade level still need to engage with grade-level text to advance in their learning. One way that technology can be used to enable EL students to work at grade level is to deconstruct text into manageable parts or “chunks.” Using a structured process, students can work from words to phrases and short paragraphs before reading a full text. Starting with the simplest units of text and constructing a passage from the bottom up gives students a progression path that builds skills and confidence with the material. Giving students a way to track and monitor their work keeps them in control of the process.



Modeled reading

Technology tools can also provide support for EL students with “read aloud” options for text. Audio gives students modeled fluent readings of words and paragraphs. Paired with a “chunking” approach, audio supports can help students focus on portions of text and reduce the difficulty of reading new material. Images that reinforce the meaning of words and concepts also strengthen understanding of the text.

Words in context

Many students who struggle with reading have deficits in vocabulary and word knowledge, which increases the difficulty of comprehending text. EL students are learning English words and their meaning as they read content-area material. Technology programs can focus on targeted activities to build and strengthen vocabulary and understanding of how words are applied in a passage. Online dictionaries, usage activities and contextual definitions help to reduce barriers to learning that can arise from underdeveloped vocabulary knowledge. 



Self-paced learning

EL students who are high-performers in their home language are often motivated to practice reading English to improve their capacity to learn, making quick strides towards proficiency. Self-paced learning environments are ideal for students to advance at their own pace – accelerating when possible and remediating when necessary. Access from home or outside the traditional classroom setting expands learning time and lets students practice anywhere they have an Internet connection.

1:1 feedback

As students progress in their reading practice, technology platforms can monitor progress with every keystroke. Teachers can view missed learning objectives and error data to spot trends that can assist in 1:1 and small-group feedback sessions. Remediation tools to target areas of weakness can also help to reinforce concepts and provide additional instruction.

Learn how BrightFish Reading can be used with EL students here.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Building reading skills and engagement in older students

Engaging struggling readers in middle and high school is a difficult prospect for teachers. Below-level readers in the upper grades have not experienced success in reading for a very long time – if ever. Gaps in fundamental skills become roadblocks as students work with increasingly complex content in all subject areas. The process of reading is slow and frustrating, and it often compounds any behavioral or attention issues that struggling learners may also be grappling with, forcing them to work harder than their peers for diminishing returns.

While there are real skills deficits at the root of the problem, the lack of engagement and desire to spend time reading becomes its own issue. We tend to avoid something that is too challenging, especially if it makes us look bad in front of our peers. Unfortunately, time is not on the side of struggling readers or their teachers – packed schedules and rigorous curriculum requirements create a practical issue for educators trying to address the problem in a structured manner.

Technology can be an effective tool to reach struggling readers in new ways that can stimulate a different response. Self-paced reading practice takes away the pressure of class environments and instead offers greater control over the learning process.

Here are a few observations about “what works” in using technology to engage older readers:

1. Offer choice and interesting topics: Reading is already a bad experience for struggling readers, so providing a wide range of text in different genres and subject areas is critical to grabbing and sustaining interest. Enabling students to choose their reading material from a menu (think Netflix) also puts the control into the student’s hands.


2. Provide a path to grade-level reading: “Why am I doing this and how will it help me?” are two common (and very good) questions from older students. Reading practice becomes meaningful when text is accessible but not too junior, and when students can actively track their progress and skills mastery. Also letting students know how the work they are doing will help them in other classes and on high-stakes tests tends increase their commitment and interest.


3. Incorporate video: Content comes in many forms, and students need to be able to digest and process information from different media. Technology programs can weave video and audio content into the learning stream to help students better understand a topic and evaluate information from a variety of sources.


4. Reward often and in different ways: Building up the intrinsic motivation to read can require a little external support. Technology programs can incorporate points, badges, certificates, and other rewards to celebrate milestones as students master concepts and improve their skills. Using games rooms and class “leader boards” provide alternative ways to reach students motivated by different types of rewards.


5. Give teachers data: Technology-based programs are uniquely capable of gathering data as students complete their work. Giving teachers access to real-time data on how their students are progressing provides a powerful mechanism to inform 1:1 feedback sessions and small group remediation.

Technology is part of the teacher toolbox that can be used to engage older students to read, learn and increase their confidence.

Read more about how BrightFish Learning in middle and high schools here.

Content for older students needs to be high-interest and accessible.

Friday, 7 September 2018

1:100 - How schools are getting creative about technology access

Schools are back in full swing now, and the 2018-19 school year is officially on. For those of us in the instructional software game, that means one thing – teacher training. Small groups, large groups, webinars – whatever the format, there’s a short period of time to bring teachers up to speed on using our program. There’s a definite theme emerging from this year’s sessions, or more accurately, a cry for help. Instead of the usual discussion about the instructional design and intervention strategies, the conversation has almost exclusively centered on technology access and scheduling.



The struggle is real
Reading all of those encouraging studies about the rise of devices in schools, it’s natural to be lulled into thinking that all is rosy in edtech. The harsh reality is that computers are scarce in many districts and badly outdated in others. While teacher acceptance of “another new thing” is still a barrier to the adoption of new tech for reading intervention– along with the fear that students will miss out on content-area instruction – the scheduling issue really has become about physical access to computers.

1:100?
Remember when 1:1 computing was a thing? Some schools actually got there, only to find that the devices they invested in five years ago are now completely obsolete. Other districts have tried but never really came close. Based on my completely unscientific survey of teachers using BrightFish, it’s common to find schools that have just 1 computer lab of 15-20 devices for 1000 kids.

Bring your own device (BYOD) programs were a hot topic a few years ago, but these have largely failed for very real issues around security and data privacy. It’s also a thorny equity issue because not all homes have laptops and tablets, and while phones are pretty ubiquitous, they are not a great format for serious instruction. Even when kids get online, providing a good experience can be a challenge. Programs like BrightFish are delivered over Wi-Fi and incorporate a lot of video and audio support. In a large district pilot that we ran last year, some schools struggled to provide working headsets and bandwidth levels in their classrooms were barely better than dial-up. Browsers crashed and kids kept getting kicked off the district network – not exactly a great experience.

The good news
Fortunately it’s not all bad news. Companies like Google and Amazon have packed a lot of functionality into their devices at a reasonable price point. The latest Chromebooks for schools are retailing at around $150 and new Amazon Fire tablets can be purchased for less than $100. Of course there will always be replacement costs for damaged or missing devices and accessories, but these are more reasonable expenses that can be worked into annual budgets.

Cable and telecom companies have partnered with districts to improve their infrastructure and bandwidth, and dedicated funding at the federal and state levels are starting to make a dent. While rural areas are lagging behind, there has been a concerted effort to increase access that should start to pay off in the next few years.

On the classroom side, teachers have gotten very creative in finding more time in the day for students to work online. For reading intervention, it’s critical to have regularly scheduled time blocks of at least 30 minutes for sustained practice, but there are periods of downtime before and after school when students can also do productive work. In BrightFish, activities are available in short, contained units, so students can log in and make progress in as little as 10 minutes, and teachers can monitor their work in real time. The key is flexibility and structure. Gone are the days of prescriptive rotations in 90-minute blocks. Programs have to fit into existing schedules and curriculum.

Read about some of the creative implementation models teachers are exploring with BrightFish here.

Are you finding ways to improve student access to technology in your school? We would love to hear from you!