Thursday, 18 July 2019

The Perfect Blend – Merging Technology with Teaching

In the midst of the summer doldrums, there are a few signs of activity stirring on the horizon. Schools are booking teacher workshops for back to school and administrators are ramping up plans for the new year. It’s still a relatively relaxing time, though, which makes it perfect for having those “ideal world” conversations about how best to merge technology with teaching. 

For most teachers, the sweet spot is where technology can do things that are really difficult or time-consuming, such as data collection, self-paced instruction and skill reinforcement. Teachers are looking for ways to have a tighter, more personalized handoff between online learning and their own instructional approach. With that in mind, we’ve compiled the “top five” themes for achieving the perfect blend of technology and teaching:

1. Inspire independent learning: Students who struggle with reading need to build both foundational skills and confidence to create their independent learning practice. Scaffolded instruction with mastery-based learning makes it possible for students to set their own pace and goals while staying on task. Game-based elements such as starting at easier levels and earning rewards for completed activities keep students motivated and moving forward. Content-focused tutorials and constructive feedback provide specific and targeted support that students can use to improve their performance.
Helper tools such as content-specific tutorials and feedback enable students to apply strategies that improve results.

2. Create meaningful context: While many software programs are designed to be self-paced, teachers can significantly improve both student engagement and achievement by setting the context for online learning activities. Prior to starting activities, teachers can introduce a model lesson and establish expectations for the work students are doing. Students are more focused when teachers are monitoring their work and available for extra assistance.


3. Invite discussion: Shorter, “chunked” lessons that can be completed in a session leave time for discussion on a 1:1 and small-group basis. Technology programs can do this without requiring teachers to modify and customize lessons for each class and student. Introducing activities prior to independent learning helps students to set expectations before they begin. Discussions about assignments while they are fresh enable a “just in time” review of new concepts and information that can increase retention and understanding.


4. Enable data chats: Online platforms make it possible to capture rich data on every keystroke, decision and error that students are making. Teachers can use that information for regular “data chats” with students to discuss their progress, missed concepts and strategies they are using to answer questions. These sessions can be scheduled weekly or take the form of impromptu feedback sessions as students are working through their assignments. Data that is updated in real time is powerful information that teachers can use to recommend strategies and review concepts and activities.
Access to summary and detailed progress data gives teachers the information they need to accelerate student learning.

5. Encourage ownership: Developing an effective learning practice is an essential part of building foundational skills. Technology platforms can foster a student’s ability to self-monitor. In BrightFish Reading, for example, students can track their progress in their personal dashboard. Metrics such as time on task per week, points earned for each activity and story, and error feedback for completed work all contribute to students taking ownership of their learning. Teachers can take this a step further by asking students to keep a learning journal to write reflections about what they’ve learned and where they need to improve.


How are you using technology to support your teaching practice? Comment below or send an email to support@brightfishlearning.com.

Friday, 28 June 2019

Building Independent Reading Practice


Sifting through year-end notes from BrightFish teachers, I found some really interesting observations among the usual feature requests. The common thread? Students who needed a lot of support in BrightFish Reading at the beginning of the fall term were working independently by the spring. It’s partly a happy side-effect of improvements in fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. But I think it really goes beyond skills development. Independent reading practice not only reinforces classroom instruction, it also builds confidence and can foster a newly discovered love of reading. 

In their 2010 research, Johnson & Keier put it this way: “If children are not spending a significant portion of their day engaged in texts that allow them to practice the strategies we are modeling, then we cannot possibly expect them to take on these strategies and use them independently.”

Meghan Holmes, a BrightFish teacher from Spout Springs Elementary, shared this observation about one of her students: "At the start of the year, Abran lacked the confidence to work on BrightFish Reading independently. He would look for teacher support during each lesson in order to gain a better understanding of the task at hand. Now Abran leads our class in BrightFish. He is always excited to complete a book and receive the Congratulations screen."

Establishing a regular reading practice for struggling learners requires more than just access to text. Here are a few strategies for developing independent reading:

1. Start small: For many students, especially those with learning disabilities, scaffolding provides the support to internalize a routine for reading. Pre-reading activities that start with simpler activities, incorporate repetition and a mastery learning approach help students to set their own pace. For example, story units in BrightFish Reading start with word and sound match activities, working from the easiest words up to the most difficult phrases in a passage. Mastery requires a minimum of 97 percent accuracy and consistent speed.

2. Build stamina: Breaking text down into smaller chunks makes it possible for students to move from shorter sessions to longer periods of sustained reading. Students are more likely to keep going if they are challenged but not frustrated. Moving from short paragraphs to longer passages in a structured sequence creates a sense of control and achievement. Rewarding concrete steps along the way motivates students to spend more time reading.



3. Level the field: Providing age-appropriate material at a student’s instructional level makes it easier to access text and experience success with independent reading. Struggling readers are more likely to engage with text that is not frustrating or difficult to comprehend.

4. Encourage self-monitoring: Independent reading eventually becomes its own reward, but building that practice requires students to be actively engaged in the process. Setting expectations and enabling students to monitor their own progress creates accountability. Ask students to establish daily or weekly goals and keep a reading log to write down their observations and activities. Software can also help with self-tracking. In BrightFish Reading, students always know where they are in a story unit – and how much more work they need to do. They can review their work and see their scores on each activity. Teachers can review the data with each student in 1:1 sessions to discuss strategies for improvement.



5. Start a conversation: If students are reading the same material, encourage them to discuss the story and what they’ve learned from it. Retelling and sharing impressions about a story, the author’s purpose, main ideas and language encourages active reading and increases understanding of the text.

Do you have ideas on how to encourage independent reading practice? We would love to hear from you! Comment below or send an email to support@brightfishlearning.com.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Keep on Reading: Tips for Bridging the Summer Gap

Schools are celebrating the end of another year this week, basking in the hard-won achievements together with their students. The end of school is a time for educators to take a breath, reflect and plan to do it all over again. For students, school’s out for summer, but that doesn’t mean the learning has to end.

The balance shifts from school to home and community to ensure that students don’t lose ground over the summer break. Struggling readers in particular can use the time to continue their growth in reading. The key is to make it fun and relevant, which may seem like trying to disguise broccoli as a treat. If all of those Instagram posts can be believed, it is possible – and you can do it for reading, too.

Here are just a few ideas to keep kids reading this summer:

1. See a movie – and then read about it. Summer blockbusters are a great way to get kids excited about a story. Disney favorites Aladdin and The Lion King both have chapter book treatments for grades 3-7. Aladdin: Far from Agrabah is an original story based on the main characters from the film and is written for grades 5-9. Nexflix and other streaming services are a great source of older films based on books, such as the Harry Potter series, The Hobbit, Where the Wild Things Are and Chronicles of Narnia. Read the books together, or ask your child to read it and report back on the differences from the movie adaptation.


2. Visit your local library. Public libraries are a great source of books and movies. It’s often free — and a great way to engage in reading activities on rainy afternoons. Some libraries offer weekly summer camps or day programs to keep boredom at bay. A lot of bookstores also have special promotions to encourage summer reading. For example, Barnes & Noble's summer reading program features picks by age group and free rewards.


3. Use technology: Schools with active licenses for technology programs used during the school year will often extend usage during the summer. BrightFish Reading lets kids log in from home or anywhere with a device and an Internet connection. If your child is planning to use a reading program such as BrightFish Reading over the summer, make sure to set achievable goals and keep a running points tally on the fridge for extra motivation. 

Most technology programs track usage and progress.
You can use this information to motivate your child.


4. Create high-value rewards: Many programs come with built-in rewards, such as the points cards and game store in BrightFish Reading. You can also create meaningful rewards for your child to encourage reading, such as the opportunity to eat a favorite snack, win prizes or participate in an activity. Set the bar for earning these rewards and create an awards ceremony at the end of the month.


5. Make it real: If your child likes to cook, craft or build, find a project and make reading the instructions a key part of it. Take a recipe out of your family cookbook or download a page from a DIY or recipe website. Assign your child to create a list of ingredients or materials and read the instructions aloud. Go on a shopping excursion together to get the items and post pictures of the final "product" on your fridge and social media pages.


Read our summer reading tips for BrightFish Reading. 



Friday, 26 April 2019

Motivating students through the post-test doldrums

So much energy goes into year-end testing, there’s a natural letdown once it’s over. Students are inclined to put on the breaks in the final weeks of school. Given all of the year-end distractions, it's not surprising that students can lose focus. Particularly for struggling learners, now is the time to ramp up and make strides in reading practice before the summer break.

How do you shift the momentum? Here are a few suggestions from our BrightFish teaching community for engaging students before closing the book on this school year:

1. Set weekly goals: Every Monday, set goals with your class for the week. In BrightFish Reading, this could be time on task, completed story units, growth in comprehension scores or other skill measures. At the end of the week, recognize the top 3 achievers with a special award or recognition.


2. Designate a celebration wall: Post printed certificates for weekly high achievers and new skills mastered by students. Some teachers have created a poster version of the leaderboard in BrightFish Reading so that students can see how they are advancing every day. 

3. Collaborate with the class to create rewards: Once you’ve set the criteria for #1, ask students to come up with the top prize of the week for the remainder of the year (pending teacher approval). In BrightFish classes, students have suggested everything from setting the menu for an upcoming class party to getting recognized in the principal's daily announcements.

4. Build a team dynamic: Team challenges foster a positive group dynamic and can be very motivational for students to pursue new milestones. Challenges can be based on improving their team averages in BrightFish Reading story units, or they could take the form of a group project. For example, ask them to choose one of the nonfiction story topics and create a model or group presentation.

5. Share reflections: Ask students to write a short piece or record a video about their experiences with reading this year. Ask them to discuss what they learned, how they mastered challenges, and where they have improved. Approach it from the perspective of what they would tell other kids just starting out with a new software program or reading unit.

6. Start a book club: Students can review BrightFish stories and select titles from short stories or graphic novel collections that they would like to read as a group. Post the meeting schedule and nominate a weekly leader to set the topics and moderate the discussion.

7. Set up a game day: Designate a day and time for students to play online games in BrightFish Reading using the points they’ve earned. Or extend it out to other online games or board games that are both educational and fun, such as Scrabble and Mastermind.

We'd love to hear your ideas about motivating students to keep reading!

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.