Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Not Your Father’s Library: How Public Libraries are Transforming into Learning Hubs

As schools close for the holidays, Im thinking about how much work struggling readers have done this term and how much more there is yet to do. When theres so much ground to make up, its essential that learning continues outside the classroom.

A recent article on talks about the role public libraries can play as an extension of school, family and community support. While the article focuses on public libraries as places for older students to engage with new technology and build digital literacy skills, the access to high-quality WiFi, computer workstations and quiet spaces for homework are also rich environments for online learning and extended reading practice.

Libraries and personalized learning
What role can libraries play in personalized learning and reading development? Beyond offering digital reading collections, public libraries are increasingly getting involved in delivering individualized services for reading instruction and practice. The wide availability of browser-based software makes it possible to offer reading programs that can supplement, enhance or work with existing school-based interventions. Leaving aside the discussion about collaboration between schools and public libraries, there are a number of must haves on the technology side for instructional software to be used effectively in this way. 

Here's my take on the "top five" considerations for instructional technology in public libraries:

1. Easy access: A simple sign-on process enables students to type in a username, password and access the program from any computer in the library. Systems that can run without downloading or storing any data on the local machine make for easier maintenance and security.

2. Self-paced: Students have to be able to come in at any time and resume their work. There are two elements to self-pacing: 1) exercises can be completed in short, self-contained chunks; and 2) mastery-based activities, self-monitoring and corrective feedback enable students to monitor their own work and improve as they progress through the program.

3. Structured: Reading is hard work for struggling learners. While staff can be trained to understand the basics of reading programs being used in their libraries, the reality is that students will need to work independently with minimal assistance. Structured programs that move students forward through a sequence of "chunked" and self-contained activities are best suited to drop-in environments.

4. Engaging: Rewarding completed work and allowing students to track their own progress will help to motivate students to keep going. Points systems, game-based rewards, as well as high-interest text and video content are all ways to get students engaged in self-paced learning and increase their confidence.

5. Data monitoring: Program coordinators need simplified dashboard views of the progress that students are making while working on library computers. Tracking time on task, activities and results in a centralized dashboard provide an efficient way of monitoring and evaluating program success. Data can also be shared with schools through common secure dashboards and data exports.

Just a few years ago, prognosticators were making dire predictions about the demise of libraries as being outdated and irrelevant. Instead, public libraries have seized the opportunity to reinvent and innovate while continuing to act as vibrant learning hubs for their communities. Providing another avenue for struggling readers to build essential foundation skills and confidence is another extension of that critical role, and it's one that offers exciting potential for developing life-long learners. 

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Lessons Learned: Making Software Work in the Classroom

As creators of reading intervention software for K-12, we spend a lot of time thinking about students as our “end users.” We research the instructional design and fine-tune the interface to make sure it’s intuitive, accessible and engaging. Of course we also deliver training programs that focus on helping teachers understand the design, what to expect in the classroom, and how to use the monitoring and classroom management tools. Yet transitioning from that initial training session to using our tools in the classroom isn’t always a smooth process.

So I read with interest a recent EdSurge article: “ My School’s Approach to Tech Training Was Unsupportive—Here’s How I Fixed It.” While the author’s example was a complex learning-management system, her basic principals hold true for any software implementation training:

1. Chunk learning down to make it accessible.

2. Make time for meaningful, hands-on practice.

3. Appoint an internal expert for ongoing support.

Seems obvious, right? While I would wager that most software implementations are planned with these guidelines in mind, too often there’s an expectation that the end of the training session is the end. Of course, it’s only the beginning.

“The way a district rolls out new technology has a huge impact on its effectiveness in the classroom. Teachers need to feel supported, rather than inundated with new information that doesn’t directly apply to their classroom.” -- Brittany Aponte, 4th grade teacher

In the past two years of implementing BrightFish Reading, we’ve learned (or rather relearned) these lessons and have added a few of our own:

Lesson #4: Success will come in the first six weeks – or not at all. Everyone leaves the training session excited to get started with students, armed with knowledge and enthusiasm about the new tool. Accounts are set up, devices are ready and the IT check is complete. Then a week goes by and another. Crickets. No students have logged in or a handful have spent just a few minutes working in the program. The reason is often simple timing (holidays, exams, parent-teacher meetings), but the longer the delay between training and starting with students, the lower the likelihood that the program is going to get off the ground. The only remedy is relentless follow-up: emails, calls and school visits to ensure the program starts. If the software is browser-based, monitoring tools are invaluable in providing hourly usage metrics for each class and school. Which brings me to lesson #5.

Lesson #5: District implementations need strong campus leaders. Software is quite often purchased at the district office for a specific student population, either in select schools or district-wide. Even with a strong district coordinator for the implementation, there’s no substitute for campus leadership. Each school needs to appoint a coach for the program who can support their teachers and work with the district on establishing local best practices. Knowing that the software is new for teachers – who may be hesitant to bring in yet another tool – this kind of local support is critically important.

Lesson #6: Chunking down also means “just in time” information. Taking the lesson about chunking information one step further, it’s critical to give teachers information when it’s relevant to them. A case in point is progress data. During training, we demonstrate the different reports and data views, all to enthusiastic nods. However, until teachers have their own students’ data to review, the reports mean very little. In addition to school visits, we’ve started running webinars after approximately 4-6 weeks to go through the data and discuss any trends or remediation topics related to those students.

Lesson #7: IT people are your friends – get to know them. With any technology, it’s important to conduct an IT readiness review before launching a new program in a district. But even when all of the tests pass and things look great, there are always old devices, dropped connections and weird gremlins lurking in the firewall to confound the most straightforward implementation. Rooting out the issues can take a bit of time, making those IT relationships invaluable to the success of your program.

Lesson #8: Asking for help is hard. It’s true for our students and teachers, and really for any of us. No one wants to admit that they missed something, made a mistake or don’t quite understand. This is where followup and coaching are so vital to the success of a software program. In a previous blog, I wrote about live chat and how it has really improved teacher engagement. Asking a question to an online agent somehow seems less threatening than either email or person to person. Issues can be resolved in minutes rather than being left to fester until you hear that horrible statement, “I stopped using it because the program just didn’t work.”

Brittany Aponte’s original article linked from this blog is part of an EdSurge Research series about how personalized learning is implemented in different school communities across the country. These stories are made publicly available with support from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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!

Friday, 19 May 2017

Taking the time to celebrate

During the busy school year, we seldom have time to reflect on where weve been and what weve accomplished. Too often we get bogged down in the day-to-day pressures of our schedules and endless lists of what needs to get done.

As part of our year-end to do list here at BrightFish, we send out a survey to educators who have used our programs during the school year. Its wonderful to hear from teachers how their students are enjoying reading for the first time and improving their word fluency and comprehension abilities. These are major milestone for kids who have never had success in reading.

Of all the inspiring stories from the year, three amazing students stand out for rising to the very top of our national points board. Points are part of our extrinsic reward system, but behind the numbers are students whove put in a lot of effort and care into their work. In BrightFish Reading, the more activities you complete and the higher your accuracy, the more points you earn. Its probably not surprising that students consistently rate the points system as one of their favorite parts of the program. The points can be redeemed for games, which are valued rewards, but having a tangible recognition of your work and how far you have come can be even more powerful motivators.

Behind those students are the wonderful teachers who really dig into a technology to make it work for their kids. Bringing in a new tool to use in the classroom on top of everything else thats going on involves change and, frankly, more work. Perhaps its also not surprising that the kids who made it to the top of our national standings were supported by teachers who embraced the tools, asked a lot of questions and devised their own creative strategies for keeping students focused and engaged. For software developers, those educators are considered gold for their ability to bring our programs to life and help us improve.

Next week classroom celebrations are starting to take place as the 2016-17 year winds down. As you recognize your students for their achievements big and small, take time to enjoy the moment and reflect on how much was accomplished this year.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

April showers, May testing

This time of year, testing seems to take over the class schedule. So why add another test to the mix?

Testing fatigue is real, especially at this time of year. However, there are good reasons to have your students take the Cloze post-test in BrightFish Reading. The Cloze is an accurate test of grade-level reading comprehension that has been validated in numerous research studies over the past 30 years. It provides another data point to measure your students reading proficiency and see how much progress they have made from working in BrightFish Reading. The good news? It's a quick test  it takes about 10 minutes to administer and students can access it right from the Quizzes Tile on their BrightFish dashboard.

Even if you didnt administer the Cloze pre-test when your students started working in BrightFish, theres still value in getting an updated snapshot of how well your students can process text at grade level. If you did administer the pre-test, you will be able to see their percentage change from their score before they began working in the program. 

Here are a few tips for getting the most from your Cloze Post-testing:

  1. Confirm that the test has been scheduled. To do that, log into your Teacher Dashboard and click on Calendar in the left sidebar menu. You should see the scheduled test for your class, with a date range of 30 days. That means your students can complete their tests at any time during that 30-day period.

  2. Test students who've done the work. If your students have completed less than 60 minutes in BrightFish Reading and have not finished any stories, there is less value to post-testing. The average time on task to show gains from BrightFish Reading is five hours in the program.

  3. Prepare your students. The Cloze post-test is a short passage of about 200 words, with words missing from each sentence. Students choose the best word to complete the sentence from the three options provided in the drop-down list. Students should be encouraged to take their time and select the best answer. The test takes about 10 minutes, so it can be completed in a single session.

  4. Keep it quiet. Use headsets so that students don't get distracted. While there is no audio during the test, headsets help to keep students focused on the task. Ideally, everyone in the testing lab would be working on the test to keep distractions to a minimum.

  5. Check the results. As soon as your students submit their tests, the results will appear in your Teacher Dashboard. Click on Assessment Reports and select the class you want to review from the drop-down list. Select Cloze Post-test in the "select a quiz" field. Your summary results will appear on the page, with columns displaying pre-test, post-test and percentage change. You can also see the test responses in the Quiz Item Analysis tab. Select your class and test, then click on any of the student results to view their responses.

  6. Share with students and parents.  From the summary screen, press the purple download button on the report. The test results are downloaded to your desktop as a csv file. You can then import the data into another report or use with any format to share with administrators and parents. 

Note: If you have other standardized testing data that you would like to compare with the Cloze test results, we would be happy to create a custom correlation report.  Contact me at

Thursday, 23 March 2017

No Problem, There’s a Tool for That!

5 Tips for Using Technology to Improve Reading

As we head into Spring Break season, its a great time to take a pause and think about how to get the most from the final push of the school year.

As publishers of technology tools, we often make the mistake of thinking about our products as the solution to the struggling reader problem.  The reality is that learning is a very complex, living process that involves human beings. As much as we take pride in the tools that we develop to assist in the process, they are just that tools.

With that in mind, here are my top five tips for using technology tools with struggling readers, gleaned from the awesome teachers who do the inspiring and complicated work everyday in the classroom.

  1.  Keep it interesting: Provide a lot of variety and use different media to engage students. Reinforce reading with video, audio and images that reinforce key concepts. Combine self-paced work with small group instructional time to go over those concepts and remediate any areas of difficulty.
  2. Reward early and often: Students who struggle with reading find it very difficult and discouraging. Teachers acknowledging the hard work their students are doing to improve their reading provides important extrinsic motivation. Set goals and make them achievable. For example, let the class suggest targets for weekly reading time and reward students who consistently hit them. Programs that include collecting and redeeming points for completed work can also help to motivate students to read. Involve parents to provide recognition beyond the classroom.
  3. Give extra credits: Struggling readers need more time to practice reading and improve their skills. Use early drop-off and after-school programs to get as much reading time into the school day as possible. Reward students (see #2) for getting extra reading time at home or after class. Reading time can be used to earn extra credits for class assignments. Some teachers hold rewards days for special prizes and recognition in front of the class and school.
  4. Make it age-appropriate: Research consistently shows that the best way to improve reading proficiency is to work with on-level text. This makes a lot of sense when you consider the deficits students need to make up when they are behind their peers in reading. Nothing is more demotivating than being treated differently from your friends. Try to find reading material that is engaging and high-interest rather than using easier material designed for younger students. Use tools that also give students the chance to increase their knowledge and confidence with grade-level standards and question types from high stakes tests.
  5. Use technology: OK, I started this blog by saying technology isn’t the solution. But it can be a powerful assistant in the learning process by complementing instruction when it’s difficult to give individual attention to every child. Technology programs that measure every keystroke and response provides data to zero in on problem areas for remediation. Technology can also take the fear factor out of reading and help to build both confidence and reading skills.

    Video can increase interest and reinforce understanding of a text.

    Got a tip for working with struggling readers? Share your ideas here or on our Facebook page.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Activating Dual Channels – Why Improving Reading Isn’t Just About the Text


My son recently celebrated his birthday. As tradition holds, he received a LEGO project from his grandparents. Given his experience with the blocks, his proud grandparents thought he was ready for a more advanced creation...but still within the "suitable age range." One afternoon, he sat down to get started. He asked me if we could work on it together as a team. He may have been a little intimidated, but he wouldn't admit it. I was happy to help. I love LEGO. Together, we could build anything.

About 30 minutes in, something wasn't right. A piece didn't fit. We looked at each other, then at the instructions, then at our project so far...then back at the instructions. We repeated this head twisting for several minutes like we were watching Wimbledon - except that we were confused...

LEGO instructions are irrefutable...a model of design. How could we go wrong? Unable to figure it out, we took it all apart and started over. Despite extra attention, we hit the same snag the second the same place. We both realized that we had been defeated. If only there was text or video to support the pictures! A quick Google search turned up nothing. We put the LEGO away.

Mulling this experience over driving to work the next day, I was reminded of the concepts of the Dual Code Theory, cognitive load and information processing. (As an instructional designer, my musings often take odd turns.) Back in the 1970s, Allan Palvio developed a theory of cognition that would influence cognitive psychology for generations.  In a nutshell, Palvio's theory is that the brain processes information along a visual and a verbal channel, and that information is better understood, retained and recalled when both channels are utilized when dealing with new information rather than just one. When combined with the brain's limited cognitive capacity - the brain can only process so much new information at one time (Sweller) - I began to understand our failure at our LEGO challenge. We only had one channel being activated (image-based instructions) and the information coming in on that one channel was too much for us to process.

When new information is presented on both the visual and the verbal channel, it's easier to process, understand and act upon. It's the reason for the rise of multimedia education, TED talks, and YouTube. Children who find it difficult to read can often sit for hours watching instructional videos because the information is presented in a way they can more easily process. As educators we can often give new information to our students that they can't digest because it is using only a single channel and is cognitively too demanding. By presenting text, for example with supporting visuals, audio, or video, the cognitive demands are reduced. Activating both codes (visual and verbal) allows information to be processed and retained more readily.

We still haven't finished our LEGO project. It's been a couple of weeks. I'm sure we'll get back to it once the sting of defeat has subsided. I can't help but think that many kids experience the same thing with their reading struggles, particularly older kids who have outgrown picture books. Knowing that they are supposed to be able to read grade-level material and then fail to comprehend it makes the struggle all the more damaging. If only there were pictures to go with the text.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Banishing the Blahs: Using Rewards Systems that Work

Motivation is hard to come by in February, especially when going outside requires shoveling an escape route.  For students below grade level, reading can be a little like digging out from another foot of snow. It’s difficult, time-consuming and hard to tell if you’re making any progress. 

While there are widely differing opinions on the efficacy of using rewards in learning – and whether we’re creating a generation addicted to instant gratification and “participant” trophies – motivational systems are great tools for teachers to add to their toolbox of strategies for reading intervention. 

I was recently in a class of 3rd graders who were learning to use BrightFish Reading. The level of excitement was high each time they were awarded points for mastering a fluency skill. Calls of “Miss Sue, over here!” were infectious.  I wondered whether the 9th graders I was about to meet in a high school reading intervention class would be more cynical. They were certainly less effusive, but there were a lot of shy smiles as the points racked up and students leaned in to continue their work. It was a great reminder of how important extrinsic rewards are in helping to build confidence and focus. 

Here are my top 5 “must haves” for effective motivational systems in reading intervention:

1. Set achievable goals: Back under my snowbank, it’s hard to get started if all you can see is an enormous heap. Slice it up into manageable chunks and set goals that are achievable in short timeframes. The way we do this in BrightFish Reading is to take a passage and break it down to word level. Students “construct the text back up in a progressive sequence of activities in fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Once students get to full paragraphs, they’ve already seen every word in the text they are about to read.

2. Reward early and often: A big part of the “chunking” philosophy is to also break up the rewards based on milestones. Award points for mastering skills that start small and build up to connected text. Along the way, let students track their progress towards the larger goal. Rewards get bigger as the task becomes more challenging.

3. Make it fun: Rewards need to be inherently motivating and geared to what students find valuable. Being able to redeem their points towards fun games and other high-value prizes keeps students working towards their goals. One teacher recently passed on a great idea: hold “redeeming” days where students can celebrate their accomplishments and get recognized for their hard work. 

4. Challenge but never frustrate: It’s important to set tasks that are achievable but stretch the student’s comfort zone. One of the advantages of software is that it can track student responses, accuracy and time spent on each activity. Monitoring those metrics enables teachers to remediate in areas where students needs help and make adjustments when needed. 

5. Let students create rewards: Choice is a big factor in student engagement, as is having a say in the rewards system. Ask your students to create their own wish list of rewards and vote on their top three. You can be the deciding vote on which ones get added. If you need to get their creative juices flowing, these are just a few of the rewards that classes have created: 

  • Be first in line for a fun activity
  • Sit with friends
  • Browse approved websites for 10 minutes
  • Get recognized by the principal in school announcements
  • Win a homework pass
  • Be the teacher's assistant for the class
  • Select the menu for the next class party
  • Have lunch with the teacher
I've posted a short article on adding your own rewards cards to the BrightFish games room here.

If you have more ideas for great motivational rewards, I would love to hear them!

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Breaking Down the Placement Question

In the spirit of Groundhog Day, I thought I would answer a question that keeps coming up. How do we determine where to place students in BrightFish Reading?

The short answer: place them at their current grade level.

Now for the long answer. Many reading programs require fitting students into a fixed reading level, so weve all become a little conditioned to focusing on the question of placement. BrightFish Reading takes a different approach, by breaking down on-level content to make it accessible. Students "construct" passages, starting with fluency in the words and phrases in the text, then moving on to key vocabulary. From there they read paragraphs, showing understanding of facts and details, then work up to the full text and higher-level comprehension, such as authors purpose and themes.

How are the levels different?
The instructional design of BrightFish Reading is based on a student-centered approach to reading. When students begin the fluency exercises  tackling one, two and three letter words theres not much difference between 8th grade words and 6th grade words. The words and phrases get increasingly difficult, but the progress is gradual and builds confidence as students master each activity. 

As students complete stories, they will gain a deep understanding of connected text in the band range for that grade level. The vocabulary and comprehension exercises align to standards, giving students the ability to practice and improve. As the difficulty of each exercise increases, so do the rewards. With constructive feedback and encouragement, the goal is to challenge but never frustrate.

Where are the pain points?
Vocabulary is one of the most difficult skill areas for students who are behind their peers in reading. It makes sense that the less reading you do, the more gaps there are in your vocabulary. So its not surprising to see struggling readers get low scores on their first attempts in the vocabulary exercises. Whats really interesting is what happens as students complete stories, get feedback and work with the helper tools in the program. We see their vocabulary scores improve. The error data in the Teacher Dashboard provides insights into where students are making mistakes and how they are learning from one activity to the next. 

Vocabulary error data in BrightFish Training Reports

What about the Cloze?
The BrightFish Cloze pre-test is another data point for teachers to get a measure of how well students can comprehend text at grade level. It's not a placement test but it does provide an indicator of how well students are likely to do in a given grade level in BrightFish Reading. When students score below 10 on their grade-level Cloze, teachers will want to closely monitor their progress to provide extra support. Students who score above 80 will likely enjoy the challenge of working on stories a grade level above their current grade. 

When should I make adjustments?
As teachers, you know your students the best, so weve created a flexible system that allows the assignment of multiple levels. If you think students would benefit from a broader range of text complexity  either up or down you can easily assign additional grade levels to individual students or whole classes.

Ive posted a how to article on adding levels to a class or student menu. Find it here.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Resolution #1: Get More Data

New year, new semester. What better time to find out whats new with your students?

Cloze testing is an easy way to get an updated snapshot of how well your students comprehend on-level text. It also offers a useful indicator of how they will do in a grade level of BrightFish Reading.

So if youre just getting started with BrightFish Reading or re-starting now is a great time to administer the Cloze test that comes with the program. The Cloze has been validated as an accurate indicator of reading comprehension in numerous research studies (Bormuth, Alexander, Rankin, etc.). Its a five-minute, fill in the blanks test at grade level that uses Lexiled passages of 200-250 words, with about every fifth word left blank. Students choose the best word to complete sentences. 

What do Cloze results mean?
Cloze scores map to reading ranges: 0 to 39 (frustration); 40 to 60 (instructional); and 61+ (independent). Students scoring in the mid- to high-frustration zone and the instructional zone typically progress at their own pace in the corresponding grade level in BrightFish Reading. Students who score at the high end of the independent zone (above 80) may respond well to the challenge of working on passages from a higher grade level. In contrast, students scoring below 10 may struggle in that level of BrightFish and could benefit from being assigned a lower grade.

Since you have access to levels 1-10 with your BrightFish subscription, you can assign different grade levels to your students as needed.

When should you skip the Cloze?
Generally speaking, students in K-1 are given DIBELS-type assessments to determine reading proficiency, rather than a reading comprehension test. Unless a student is in the second half of 1st grade, I would recommend skipping the Cloze. Similarly, if students are non-readers and essentially reading at a 1st grade level, they may get frustrated doing the test and their results will not be very informative. The test is optional, so you can use your discretion when assigning it to students.

How do you schedule it?
When your classes are first created, the BrightFish system automatically enables the test for a period of 30 days. To see if that 30-day period has passed, you can check your Calendar in the Teacher Dashboard. If there are no tests scheduled, you simply click Schedule Quiz and assign the Cloze pre-test to your class. Your students will click on their Quizzes Tile to take the test.

Once the tests are submitted, you can see the results in the Reports/Assessments page of the Teacher Dashboard.

View a six-minute video intro to the Cloze here.

Cloze Test Results in BrightFish Reading