Friday, 12 June 2020

Getting Real Results in Virtual Summer School

This year, summer schools and reading camps have morphed into virtual learning sessions. With just a few short weeks to make an impact, summer programs present a unique set of conditions for teachers. Learning at a distance adds even more factors that need to be considered when implementing a summer program virtually. Effective online instruction that is engaging for students, easy to access and simple to use can make all of the difference, especially when time is in short supply.

Here are a few tips on getting results in (virtual) summer school: 
  1. Set clear daily or weekly goals: Most summer schools and camps are 2-4 weeks in length, so there’s very little time to waste. Tell students what they will be learning each week and why. Communicate how their progress will be monitored (frequency, metrics, feedback) and what milestones are going to be measured by you each week. 

  2. Do something different: Many students stopped “regular” school back in March and have been distance learning for a while. Finding a program that is different from what they’ve been doing will stimulate new interest for students. Engaging students with multimedia content, lessons that can be completed in short periods, and high-interest topics will go a long way to keeping students focused and on task.

  3. Make students accountable: Part of the weekly evaluation is getting students to self-monitor and evaluate their performance. In BrightFish Reading, for example, students use the “story tracker" to check their scores in different skill areas and monitor their growth. Teachers can also assign weekly progress sheets where students rate their work and record reflections. Simple tracking mechanisms like leader boards (shown below) and visible progress bars motivate students to achieve their goals. 

  4. Let them know you’re watching: In short summer school sessions, it’s important to closely monitor how much time students are working and what’s getting done. Real-time metrics for time on task and progress are essential. Once you set the weekly or daily goals, give students specific feedback on their progress data. Offer clear direction about what is going well and any changes you expect to see before the week’s end.

  5. Reward and celebrate: Motivating students to keep up the pace can be challenging from a distance. Here are a few ideas to try with your classes: 
    • Celebrate the weekly top scorer for time on task, lessons completed, scores, etc.
    • Use weekly video calls to acknowledge top scorers and most-improved students.
    • Keep a tally of points and give extra credit for achieving milestones in different categories.
    • Write a note to the student’s parents and send PDF certificates for completed work.
    • Create weekly prizes, such as coupons to use in local bookstores, food stores or online.
    • Hold a raffle for a mystery prize at the end of the session that only top scorers can enter.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help: Reports and self-help tools are great, but the only “easy button” is having a live person on the other end of the phone, chat or email to be your virtual teaching assistant.
Get BrightFish Reading for summer school:

Friday, 8 May 2020

We Can Do This: Five Ways to Keep the Momentum Going

Motivating students to keep up the pace is a huge challenge at this time of year – especially from a distance. With many districts approaching the end of their traditional school calendar, the momentum for learning from home is grinding to a halt. This downshift is especially discouraging for teachers working with students who struggle to read at grade level. They worry that their kids will lose too much ground and have little time to make it up again.

Motivation is the spark that inspires students to keep going. Teachers can re-ignite it by encouraging students to take ownership of their learning. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of Top 5 strategies from the BrightFish teaching community to keep the momentum going:

1. Use Student-Centered Tools: Online programs that provide self-paced instruction put students in control of their own learning. Teachers can take on the role of coaches, using data to remediate and redirect students with support and resources. For example:
  • Mastery-based instruction that takes students through an individual learning path.
  • High-interest content in different genres and multimedia formats engages students in their learning.
  • Feedback and rewards that are part of the instruction help to encourage and motivate students to keep working.

2. Plan for Individual Needs: Identify your students’ strengths and weaknesses, and plan for individual needs with different motivational strategies. Here are some examples:
  • Learned helplessness and dependence: students who wait for teacher direction and praise. Providing regular feedback by looking at their data helps to keep these students on task.
  • Risk-averse: students are worried about failing and avoid stress through withdrawal. Programs that celebrate success at each step of the way can be combined with encouragement from teachers that the student is on the right path. 

3. Connect and Share: Encourage students to try these new ways of interacting and learning.
  • Create a forum for students to share their new experiences through reading logs.
  • Moderate an online chat with the class. Teachers are using BrightFish story topics for discussions in science, biology, biography and literary fiction.

4. Encourage Self-Monitoring: Students need to be encouraged to take risks and learn that a certain amount of failure is part of learning.
  • Ask students to evaluate their performance. In BrightFish Reading, they can track their results in each story unit and use the "story tracker" to record their observations and errors.
  • Schedule data chats with students who are struggling in a skill area, such as vocabulary. Ask them to identify where they are making errors and why.
  • Anxious students in particular need reassurance that they can learn. Set clear expectations and have students document the strategies and tools they can use to improve.

5. Reward and Recognize: Acknowledge your students’ progress and provide specific incentives.
  • Praise students one-on-one (or in front of the class) in video meetings.
  • Award extra points for achieving goals. In BrightFish Reading, you can add points for students to use in the online Games Store.
  • Send parents/guardians the weekly certificates for their children with a personalized note of congratulations.
  • Create mystery e-prizes with different contents each week. Create a shortlist of students and place their names in a draw based on qualifying criteria (such as the highest time on task or activity scores.) At the end of each week, draw a winner and post the results on a shared forum.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Closing the Distance-Learning Gap

Shifting to fulltime distance learning during the COVID-19 crisis has been an unexpected shock for even the most prepared schools. Moving from a controlled and structured school environment to supporting learners at home has created a whole new set of conditions for teachers and students alike.

As the publishers of BrightFish Reading, we made the decision early on to offer our online instructional program at no charge during the closures. That was the easy part. The avalanche of requests that followed made things significantly more complicated as we rushed to get hundreds of new schools set up in a matter of days – and in some cases, hours. While I won’t go into the gory details of the myriad devices, browsers and Wi-Fi issues we’ve encountered in these past few weeks, there are a few interesting themes that have emerged so far.

Here are some of our “lessons learned” from the brave new world of virtual education:   

1.       You really can have too many enrollment options: Getting teachers and students set up for online programs is relatively straightforward in a typical school environment. We provide several class rostering options – Clever, ClassLink, Google Classroom  and offer import tools for enrolling students directly in the BrightFish platform. In the rush to get going, many teachers chose multiple methods, resulting in duplicate classrooms and general confusion. All of this was fairly easy to straighten out but left us with a major action item to rethink the whole sign-up process. (When things settle down we’ll get to it.) 

2.       Email is good but live chat is better: Since teachers and students are working from remote locations, there is no school office number to call to provide support. Usually we have only an email address for teachers and no contact information for students. Live chat has been a major tool in getting teachers and students the help they need in the moment. Email is OK for follow-up, but there’s nothing like having an interactive conversation to answer questions and troubleshoot tech and setup issues. Our live chat traffic has increased 10-fold and most issues can be resolved in a matter of minutes. It was an important tool before the closures and absolutely critical in this environment.  

3.       Expectations matter: If anyone ever questioned the role of teachers in online learning, the experience of the past few weeks underlines how critical teachers are to the process. Video conferencing, messaging, email, phone – teachers are finding creative ways to provide instruction and guidance to their students. We can see the impact in the data. Teachers who have been rigorous in setting clear expectations, monitoring students’ work and providing regular feedback are seeing really high usage rates and continued improvement in scores for their BrightFish Reading activities. Many students are getting higher time on task and we’re seeing spikes in weekend and evening usage.

4.       Screen time is irrelevant: Many of our teachers are reporting parents saying “Johnny and Janie have been on the computer for 2 hours this week.” Yet our usage reports show only 30 minutes of work in BrightFish Reading. There’s nothing wrong with the data – just that we report on time on task (TOT) based on completed work. TOT is a really useful productivity measure when you’re teaching students remotely. It doesn’t matter how long they have been logged into their device or staring at their computer screen. Measures that capture completed work, such as time on task, help teachers see exactly how focused and productive their students are in whatever program they are using. In distance learning, access to data showing time spent on completed work is an important tool for teachers to monitor their remote learners.
5.        Self-paced learning gives students control: One of the benefits of self-paced learning programs is that they put the student at the center. The role of the teacher is to guide, monitor and remediate. Students gain more control over their own learning – and more responsibility for using the available tools to track and improve their performance. In a virtual learning environment, teachers can review their students' data and provide personalized feedback and remediation based on individual areas of weakness.    

6.       Motivation is possible from a distance: Teachers are finding new ways to be present for students, whether it’s using video conference tools or just checking in daily to provide support. Online tools can also be effective in keeping students motivated while learning remotely. A few tools that teachers have been using in BrightFish Reading include creating reward cards that can be redeemed for extra credit and topping up points for achieving personal best scores. We’ve posted ideas in our Virtual Learning Center and we’re sharing tips from BrightFish teachers.

Visit our Virtual Learning Center here.

Thursday, 26 December 2019

More of our favorite things from 2019

In this second annual review of our “favorite things” from the year past, we celebrate the many gifts that our students and teachers give us every day. As the year draws to a close, let’s unwrap the highlights from 2019!

#1: Ideas that motivate and inspire
Collaboration with BrightFish teachers is a significant part of the joy of working in schools. The inspiration that we get from our dedicated teachers is truly a gift that takes the program to places we could never reach on our own. While we’re busy adding more features to roll out in 2020, some of the best ideas can only be delivered in person, such as motivational rewards, celebration walls, special prizes for achieving milestones in the program and fish-themed classrooms. With all of these great resources, we’ve now started a classroom gallery where our teachers can share what works to motivate their kids.

Prizes and fish-themed rewards inspire students at Taylor Elementary School.

#2: Grading that is timely and relevant
Teachers are reinforcing the importance of BrightFish Reading by integrating the data into their class grading programs. Here are a few of the great suggestions from teachers for grading:
  • by points earned: BrightFish provides a total and percentage based on the number of points earned out of the maximum available for each story. Convert the points percentage into a grade.
  • based on activity scores: Vocabulary and comprehension activities are scored with an overall percentage by story. Take the average of these scores to create one grade for each story or by skill area. 
  • based on stories completed per week: The average completion rate is 60 to 90 minutes per story, but that varies by student and reading level. Evaluate activity scores and stories completed to grade based on effort (time) and accuracy (scores). 
#3: Challenges to apply new skills
When students finish working on stories in their assigned level of BrightFish Reading, they can try Challenge activities to apply the skills they have learned. Passages are longer and contain graphical features such as sidebars and timelines, and questions simulate high-stakes testing to help students build confidence. Read more about BrightFish Challenges here

#4: Time for data chats
As part of our teacher training program, we emphasize the role that regular data chats can have on student achievement. Using data in the Student Progress Report for regular discussions is a great way for teachers to check in with students and help them improve their scores in BrightFish activities. While "good" progress may be different for each student, we created a checklist that teachers can use to determine appropriate interventions. We’re happy to report that it’s the #1 downloaded item from our Teacher Resource page!

#5: Data that informs and even surprises
This fall, we introduced a new reporting system that we hoped would give teachers easier access to the data they need. Like any new system, there was a typical learning curve and feedback phase where we honed the reports to make them simpler to read and use. A funny thing happened along the way – and it’s something we didn’t exactly expect. Teachers started asking all kinds of really interesting, in-depth questions about the data, which showed us that our new design was working. The feedback gave us even more ideas for reporting (see favorite thing #6).

#6: Teacher feedback to make us better
This year, we introduced an “upvote” option, which enables teachers to suggest new features and “vote” on their favorite ideas. A very dedicated teacher panel also gave us invaluable insights into how teachers were using our reports and provided ideas for new features that would enhance the use of the new system. Any time we are planning to roll out new tools, we can utilize the panel to get specific feedback and reactions to make changes as needed.

#7: Live chats and instant connections

Last year, we introduced live chat support to give our teachers another avenue for reaching our technical and instructional team. A few teachers used it a lot, but the majority still relied on email and phone to ask questions. We’re not exactly sure why, but this year we saw our live chat averages balloon – and it became the top way for teachers to get in touch with us. The great thing about live chat is that we can resolve most issues in under a minute – so it gets teachers on their way quickly and back to working with the class. 

#8 Students working hard – even on Christmas Eve!
We use monitoring software that lets us see when students are logged into BrightFish Reading, and for how long. This year we set a new benchmark for daily usage of more than 2,000 users  – and then went even higher. There are so many students logged in at all hours that we’ve had to start posting alerts for system updates and scheduling them between 12 midnight and 5 a.m. And if Santa was looking for extra effort to make the “nice” list, we even had kids working on December 24!

#9: Kids saying the darndest things
Periodically, we poll our students to see what they think of BrightFish Reading and how they would improve it. As usual, they didn’t disappoint and gave us some pretty interesting thoughts and ideas. Read some of our favorites from 2019.

#10: Winters that melt into spring
Well, maybe we're not near to spring just yet. But we’re looking forward to the “second half” of this school year and the continued collaboration, surprises and highlights that are sure to come in 2020! 

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Addressing learning challenges in reading

Students who have a disorder in one or more of the learning processes involved in language often experience significant difficulties with reading comprehension. There are a number of underlying causes that can be addressed by structured, scaffolded instruction and practice to develop reading skills. 

We know from the research into reading delays that students with learning disabilities typically rely on working memory to process and understand words. This requires more attention and cognitive energy than when reading subskills are fluent and automatic. 

Building from the bottom up

In BrightFish Reading, we employ a mastery-based methodology that helps students improve their word recognition processing and develop comprehension strategies to extract information from text.

The reason that we start each story unit with word recognition fluency is that it builds mastery of word and phrase-level subskills to the point of automaticity. This overlearning approach ensures that processing becomes virtually automatic so that students can free up cognitive capacity to attend to the meaning of what is being read. Students combine automatic processing with explicit instruction and scaffolded practice in vocabulary and comprehension strategies as they build a story from words to phrases to paragraphs and finally the full text. 

Remediating skill gaps

There are a number of strategies that you can use with your students to strengthen their skills development. Here are a few suggestions for activities that can develop these important reading foundations based on underlying deficits:

1. Review Patterns: Auditory processing disorders can cause issues with the ability to distinguish differences in sounds. Problems in visual perception can include reversing letters and skipping words. In BrightFish Reading, you can use data from the Student Progress report to see errors in visual match and sound match activities. Together with your student, review the trials for each story unit and look for patterns of errors. Choose the most common pattern, such as missed starting consonants, and work on those first. Then move to the next pattern.

Isolating patterns of errors can help focus remediation on specific skill gaps.

2. Set Word Challenges: Ask students to identify words from each passage that they find challenging. Have them keep a journal where they write down difficult words and their definitions. Work on the words together to discuss their meaning and application in the passage. 

3. Use Graphic Organizers: The graphic organizers used in BrightFish Reading can be downloaded from the Teacher’s Guide page as blank templates that can be printed. These are excellent resources to assist students as they work through the questions onscreen, but also to identify, organize and remember important ideas from what they read.

Read more of my strategies here.

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.