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BACK-TO-SCHOOL BASICS: Turning Students Into Readers With the LightSail Literacy Platform
Posted On August 6, 2019
This article was originally published on May 2, 2017.

Even if we liked reading as a kid, we all have memories of slogging through at least one assignment that just wasn’t speaking to us. (CliffsNotes is popular for a reason.) The LightSail literacy platform for grades K–12 aims to make all books entertaining and educational by capitalizing on the gamification of learning (see the NewsBreaks “tlhIngan Hol Dajatlh'a'? Duolingo Adds New Languages (Including Klingon)” and “Game Simulations Enter the Real World of Education” for more on this trend) and making it easy for students to find their next curriculum-approved read. Thanks to its adaptive and personalized nature, the platform has gained the respect of teachers who track Lexile growth (the standard measure of reading ability). Using it can even help reduce summer slide, according to one study.

The LightSail app’s library has nearly 10,000 digital texts, with about 4,000 premium titles. The app comes preloaded with about 6,000 free titles. It is designed for grade schools, but can be used at any level, even by Ph.D. students. “Paper books are great, but digital books have more value for assessments and instructional capabilities,” says Gideon Stein, LightSail’s CEO.

How It Works

When students open the app for the first time, they are prompted to take the Power Challenge, a grade-level assessment of about 40 questions to determine their Lexile level. As students read, the app prompts them to take periodic assessments from right inside a book, including multiple choice questions, short-response questions, and cloze (fill-in-the-blank) assessments. “The Lexile cloze items are generated automatically through a technology platform developed by MetaMetrics, the creators of Lexile. The multiple choice and short response questions are all aligned to Common Core and state standards (TEKS, Hoosier, etc.) and are written by LightSail,” says Stein. “We have created assessments for more than 8,200 books, texts and articles.”

LightSail tracks students’ progress and awards badges for certain completed tasks that are displayed on personalized dashboards. Students also have access to a “word wall” screen, which features words they’ve defined incorrectly during assessments as well as words they’ve looked up in the in-app dictionary. “Vocabulary is key to literacy growth,” says Stein.

On the home screen, students see their library of books. Ones that meet their Lexile level are marked with a lightning bolt and are known as power texts. Every other book a student chooses from the library must be a power text to ensure they are on track to improve Lexile scores. (All of the books in the library are power texts for at least one student.) After students complete 30–40 cloze assessments, the library is updated with higher-level titles, and it is continually repopulated to keep pace with their needs. For Stein, LightSail’s goal is to match students with books that are just right for them—and are ones they actually want to read. As students grow, their library grows with them, he says.

Measuring Student Performance

Teachers have their own dashboards, where they can keep an eye on student performance by tracking each reader’s benchmarks and who is reading what and when. They can also add their own assessment questions to titles. When students highlight a particular piece of text in the app, it appears in teachers’ dashboards, and they can provide feedback on the annotation. LightSail is designed for classroom teachers who have students use it for reading periods of about 30 minutes each day. However, LightSail’s customers include afterschool programs and other organizations dedicated to education. Schools can purchase a 12-month license so that students can use it over the summer.

Before starting LightSail, Stein was part of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York. Then he worked to turn around two low-performing high schools in New Orleans. “Seeing great literacy instruction at Success [Academy] combined with the challenges we faced in New Orleans got me thinking about how to use technology to provide access to best practices for literacy instruction in ways that were both scalable and cost effective. I founded LightSail to provide all children with access to great content with supports and scaffolding to help accelerate learning,” he says. He chose the company’s name because a light sail (also known as a solar sail) moves through space via solar radiation pressure. “We liked the metaphor of solar propulsion (think enlightenment through exposure to knowledge) combined with the fact that light sails never decelerate … they just keep moving forward or accelerate,” he says.

Diverse and Easily Accessible Titles

LightSail offers Spanish-language content in part through a partnership with Antares Reading, which has low-level Lexile measures and representation of diverse cultures in its ebooks. There are about 1,000 Antares ebooks on LightSail, with 10–12 more titles added weekly. “We are always looking to add content that is compelling and cost effective for our schools and kids,” says Stein.

Antares recently added 350 fiction titles to LightSail. They are in English and Spanish and are written for K–6 students. LightSail’s managing director of academics, Christina Magee, says in a statement, “When students are interested in the subject matter they want to keep reading, and that is the key to literacy. … Antares titles are chosen to reflect the complexities of being a kid today and are representative of diversity in every way possible. Antares moves beyond the stereotypes usually presented in books for children at this age.”

Mindful of the digital divide, LightSail aims to make its content easily accessible. Students can download texts to read at home if they don’t have Wi-Fi there, and for schools that don’t have a device for every student, “LightSail works with schools to develop device sharing plans so that a cart of Chromebooks or tablets can be shared from one classroom to the next,” says Stein. “Using a cart of 30 devices, LightSail can help schools provide access to 120-150 students each day.” This summer, LightSail plans to upgrade to an HTML5-based platform so students can access the app from a browser on any internet-connected device.

Because LightSail is set up like a video game, students are encouraged to beat their Lexile high scores in order to advance to the next (book) level. They earn badges for reading more often, doing well on assessments, reading a variety of genres, finishing a title, and other activities, which keeps them engaged. Stein says the most important determinants for Lexile growth while using LightSail are how long students spend in the app (a minimum of 10 minutes of reading each day should show improvement) and how much effective feedback teachers are giving. If teachers use the app to interact with students and track their progress, the students will be held more accountable and learn more from their incorrect answers.

Brandi Scardilli is the editor of NewsBreaks and Information Today.

Email Brandi Scardilli

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