Thursday, 14 March 2019

Vocabulary and comprehension: chicken or egg?

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

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

Word processing

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

Same or different? 

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

Making inferences

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

Time for data chats 

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

Download sample vocabulary strategies here.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

The Ways We Learn from Our BrightFish Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 25 January 2019

Unlocking the magic of reading

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

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

Make it a choice

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

Story choice can engage readers and give them control.

Chunk it down

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

Faster isn’t always better

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

Map the way

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

Graphic organizers help students develop mental maps for new information.

Take on the challenge

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