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.