Thursday, 9 November 2017

Time to talk: Can live chat change classroom support?

Unlike a printed book, software is complex, open-ended and constantly evolving. School technology environments are equally complex, each one its own unique ecosystem. 

Software just has to work – even in places that don’t have a reliable cell signal or consistent Wi-Fi. Faced with a classful of students and a block of 40 minutes or less, teachers have no time for connection failures or searching through Teacher’s Guides to find out how something is supposed to function. Yes, there’s startup training and a trove of articles and videos in the resource center. But when a student is stuck, who has time to look up troubleshooting tips? Things that seemed crystal clear in training can suddenly become a little murky when students are online.

Who you gonna call?

When teachers are new to BrightFish Reading, it’s the ones we don’t hear from who worry me the most. No news is definitely not good news in the instructional software environment. Toll-free phone lines are a good support option, but when there’s no landline in the classroom or cell reception, who you gonna call?

Last winter, we integrated live chat into our online Teacher Dashboard. Teachers have embraced the tool as a way to get instant responses to their questions. It enables our support team to close most issues in minutes and get ahead of anything that might affect the student or teacher experience. When there’s a problem, we know about it right away.

“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” – Jim Barksdale

As software developers, we live for metrics. Since integrating live chat, we’ve cut our average response time from 15 minutes down to five. Ninety-five percent of support requests are now closed within one business day. Based on our live chat data, we are able to plan for heavy traffic times, create new tools based on frequent questions, and make changes to our training program to better equip teachers. Increased chat volume from specific schools can help to identify additional training needs at those campuses. 

Our chat tool also has a monitoring feature, so we can see exactly which devices and browsers students are using to access our program – great information for troubleshooting performance issues.

Using live chat involves a bit more setup time when we’re bringing on a new school, as it requires the local server firewall to allow access. But for the most part, it’s been a seamless addition to our support portfolio. We still offer toll-free phone and email, but things are getting very quiet on those old-school channels!

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Frontloading: How pre-reading builds a bridge to comprehension

Recently I was fortunate to attend a fluency seminar in New York as part of a sponsorship of a literacy series from the New York City Department of Education. The lead speaker, Dr. Esther Friedman, Executive Director of Literacy and Academic Intervention Services for the DoE, had me furiously capturing notes and doing a lot of underlining. 

One of Dr. Friedman's key points was the importance of "frontloading" fluency and vocabulary development in struggling readers. I am often asked why BrightFish spends so much time on word recognition fluency when it's a reading practice program.  Now I can answer with a single word: frontloading.

Reducing cognitive load
Frontloading is a pretty simple concept: if readers can process words almost automatically, then cognitive resources can be applied to comprehending what we're reading. If you think of the brain as a limited processor, that makes sense. New information is processed in short-term memory, which can hold about 5-7 items at a time and churns through a lot of brain power. The more we can overlearn and move information to long-term memory where capacity is virtually limitless, the more we can apply cognitive resources to higher-order thinking.

In BrightFish, we take word recognition fluency to the phrases level. Once students can demonstrate that they are processing words from a passage automatically, then we present phrases and ask students to match visual and sound targets accurately and at an appropriate rate. Frontloading the ability to process chunks of text facilitates comprehension by freeing up more capacity for the brain to work on meaning.

Frontloading word meaning
The ability to process words and phrases at an accurate and appropriate rate is second nature for proficient readers. The other critical piece is word knowledge and "Matthew Effects," where the more you read, the more words you know. For struggling readers, taking time to frontload word meaning reduces the cognitive load of trying to understand a lot of new words while reading a piece of text. In BrightFish, we tackle this barrier by working on skills in sequence - words to phrases to word meaning - and by chunking information so that it can be more easily accessed.

So the next time I'm asked if students can skip the word recognition fluency activities in BrightFish Reading and go straight to comprehension, I will have a ready response. 

Thursday, 21 September 2017

More than Words

Working with struggling readers, we see evidence every day that the mechanics of word recognition fluency and vocabulary knowledge are closely linked to the comprehension of text. A reader needs to process words and phrases quickly enough so that it's almost automatic, freeing up cognitive resources for comprehension. At the same time, understanding the meaning of words in context enables the reader to extract information and make inferences about the material.

It's somewhat intuitive that struggling readers would also be very likely to have a deficit in vocabulary knowledge. The less reading you do, the fewer words you encounter. Research supports that correlation: Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimated that the average child enters first grade knowing some 6,000 words, rising to about 45,000 by high school graduation – acquiring an average of 3,000 words per year. White, Graves, and Slater (1990) found that below-level readers learn just 1,000 words a year.

Getting over the 4th grade slump

The vocabulary deficit grows over time, but it also becomes more critical as material gets increasingly complex. It's not surprising that the "4th grade slump" is where we often start to see the gap growing as students grapple with less common, more academic and technical words.

Developing a richer vocabulary can have a positive impact on both fluency and comprehension. Knowing more words leads to more accurate, fluent reading while understanding their meaning is necessary to comprehending text.

The goal is to challenge students with grade-level appropriate rigor so that they can develop and improve their vocabulary while building their reading skills. Direct instruction and practice using words in different ways can help to build both vocabulary and confidence. That doesn't mean making it easy, but rather challenging and rewarding students for their efforts, providing constructive feedback and support along the way.

Learn more about the BrightFish approach to word recognition and vocabulary.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Getting the Level Right

The new school year is getting underway and the hot topic among our new and returning schools is placement. Doesn't sound all that sizzling, but with below-level readers there's a certain level of anxiety that goes with those placement decisions - and for good reason. What students spend their time on will (or should) have a direct correlation to how much growth they will achieve.

Fortunately, getting it right isn't a "once and done" decision, but rather a process of continuous evaluation based on solid research principles and data.

So how do we place students in BrightFish Reading?

BrightFish Reading uses certified Lexile® measures for text complexity to assign stories to grade levels. The Lexile framework has established Common Core stretch bands that cover multiple grades, and weve leveled our stories to fit within that research-based framework.

Lexile measures give us a standard mechanism to determine text complexity and communicate the level of challenge that a student may have with text at a given level.

Since our Cloze pre- and post-test passages are assigned by Lexile level, we know that the text will present a documented level of challenge for a given grade level. Based on the score from a Cloze Test passage activity, we can see where students fall in the reading comprehension zones for the tested level: frustration, instructional or independent (these zones are established by research and validated over 20 years of testing with broad student populations). 

Is that the whole story?

BrightFish Reading uses a text deconstruction process to break down text, so students are able to work at a higher Lexile complexity level than may otherwise be possible. As such, we use a students grade level, 3rd party or state assessment data, and our Cloze pre-test scores to inform decisions on where to place students, but we typically go no further than two grade levels below the current grade band to ensure that students get structured practice with the appropriate rigor.  For example, if a student is in 9th grade and scores 20 percent on the Cloze for grade 9 (frustration zone), we would start by placing the student in a 7-8 stream and monitor the training progress.

What about data?

The advantage of using a browser-based software tool is that it generates a lot of data about what students are doing in real time. Teachers can use the BrightFish dashboard tools to see where students are struggling and get detailed error data to use for remediation, either 1:1 or in small groups. Teachers have access to content from levels 1 to 10, making it easier to change levels - up or down - at any time. The result is a more flexible system that exposes struggling readers to the right level of challenge for their grade level and reading ability, while gradually increasing the difficulty as they move through the program.

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!