Sailing Through the Summer Brain Slump

column | Adaptive Learning

Sailing Through the Summer Brain Slump

By Betsy Corcoran (Columnist)     Jun 1, 2016

Sailing Through the Summer Brain Slump

Oh, it’s coming.

Along with summer holidays, a dark specter shadows many students—the “summer brain drain.”

Take kids out of school and, if left unchallenged, they may lose up to two months of math skills and two to three months of reading skills, according to the National Summer Learning Association. Many high-income children may spend their summer days pumping through books and projects at academically oriented camps, leaving lower-income students at an even greater disadvantage when school resumes in the autumn.

Edtech entrepreneurs, particularly those building products aimed at boosting student literacy, would love to help change that trajectory. For instance, BrainChase devotes itself to creating engaging intellectual adventures for students albeit at a price: $80 per student. By contrast, libraries in the Laredo Independent School District are hosting a free program built around Accelerated Reader during June, aimed at cajoling students to keep reading by awarding them points.

New York City-based LightSail says its summer reading program this year is deeply informed by what it learned last summer when it ran a reading program with 280 New York City middle school students. Students involved with the program, which lasted an average of seven weeks, experienced a “significant” gain in their Lexile levels during that time and finished a bit more than 7.5 books, according to an assessment conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins.

Here’s how it works: Students start using LightSail by taking a reading assessment to measure their current reading (or Lexile) level. LightSail texts include embedded reading comprehension assessments every two to four pages—among them, short answer questions and “cloze” items—selections that are missing a critical word. (Students see options for filling in the word). LightSail is adaptive in that it serves up assessments at different levels of difficulty. It tracks how students are doing and shows them their progress. Finally, it gives teachers a chance to interact with students while they are still immersed in the text.

And the results? Students in three categories (those who read less than 15 minutes a day, 15-30 minutes a day and more than 30 minutes a day) improved, but students who went into the program as better readers than their peers benefited more. Notes the report: “Students with lower Lexile measures at the start of the [2015] SummerSail program tended to spend less time reading within LightSail in comparison to those with a higher beginning Lexile score, indicating that struggling readers may need additional supports to encourage more consistent program use.” And—no surprise here—the more students read, the bigger their reading gains.

Equally important: teacher attention made a measurable difference. “As teacher feedback on annotations increased, so did the amount of minutes student read within LightSail,” reported the Johns Hopkins researchers.

So what helped the most—LightSail’s program or simply reading?

“We would argue that students would have read less if they only had read paper books because students would not have been exposed to all of the benefits of the LightSail app,” notes Gideon Stein, founder and CEO of LightSail. He ticks off what his software offers students: Continuous, “just-right” and engaging content, a sweeping catalogue of hundreds (to thousands) of titles, interactions with both students and teachers, in-text definitions and annotations, badges and so on. Meanwhile, teachers get a better glimpse of whether students truly understood the content from their performance on the embedded assessments, he adds.

That said, coaxing students to read—especially during their summer holidays—is no small project.

“Needless to say, we’ve learned more than a few lessons from our first major research study,” Stein adds. For instance, last year, LightSail offered teachers about two hours of professional development to learn to use the program. This year, LightSail is boosting that exposure and aiming to help teachers engage more deeply with students who are lagging even at the outset of the program.

Other edtech companies are also supporting students learning to read—among them Newsela, Actively Learn, Curriculet and Accelerated Reader. Most use some combination of embedded assessments (to measure student learning) and ways to link teachers and students more tightly together. (That wasn’t enough to keep Curriculet going: the company will close in mid-June, even though it won over 1.2 million registered teachers and students and raised $1.8 million in funding.)

LightSail, which has 55 full-time employees (including 20 full-time engineers in Israel and South Africa) has raised $23.2 million and reports that more 700 schools (about 250,000 students) pay to use its tools.The cost varies, depending in part on how many digital books administrators want to serve up to their students. For instance, LightSail typically suggests school pay a one-time “library”-related fee of approximately $15 to $25 per student, then a subscription fee that starts at $12 per student per year.

“Based on what we've seen in the LightSail data since we launched in late 2013, the reading behavior of these students likely changed—they tended to slow down and read more carefully because they knew that they were going to be assessed every few pages,” Stein says.

For now, Stein he plans to keep studying and iterating on LightSail. This year, LightSail will run more program in New York City—and is beginning to work in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, too. “LightSail strives to be one of the most studied and data-focused ed tech start-ups and we are continuously improving our platform and service as a result of these findings.”

Editor's note: Pricing information has been updated from a previous version.

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