LightSail: A Middle School Digital Library That’s Changing The Way Kids Learn To Read By Sandy McDowell

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

LightSail Education, students, reading, literacy, teachersDid you use SRA in school? I did in 5th grade. SRA is an independent, interactive reading program. It’s a box with color-coded tabs that denote reading levels. In my day, the early colors were primary like red and green, and more advanced boxes used exotic and multisyllabic colors like chartreuse and aquamarine. You read a short passage, answered questions, graded yourself, and eventually got to move up to the next color. I loved it, as long as I didn’t get stuck in a color too long before advancing. Today, however, many supplemental school reading programs are digital.

In fact, there are 100s of digital reading programs available for schools, with varying functions. Many are “adaptive reading platforms,” which seems to mean “digital library available through an app.” For this blog, I’m taking a look at LightSail, which is at the top of the digital “adaptive reading” platforms. It has 5 star ratings from both teachers and Common Sense reviewers. is a comprehensive site for parents, teachers, and advocates for kids.

How LightSail Works

School Districts purchase a LightSail package with a starter library of 1,600 titles, which they can enhance by buying from the 80,000 K-12 texts, tagged by grade and Lexile levels, the gold standard for assessing literacy. Those 80,000 titles come from LightSail’s curation of books and texts from many trade publishers, The Washington Post, and Antares Reading, a new publisher in partnership with LightSail. Schools can buy a 12-month license to help motivate students to read over the summer. (Check out this overview of several public, digital summer reading programs.)

The Antares titles are more like booklets since they’re 9 to 11 pages with custom illustrations on most pages, and they keep their print-like, page-turning format. One of the reasons they remind me of SRA is because they feel more like something you’d read in school than just for pleasure—indeed, they were developed specifically for school use. Still, Antares’ focus is to have appealing titles for readers and to provide lots of titles to allow for broad selection. Selection is the number one motivator for reading according to some experts.

New Titles for Reluctant Readers and Spanish Speakers

The goals of the 350 new Antares titles just added to LightSail (for a total of 1,200 Antares titles) were to create reading experiences that were:

  • Specifically for upper elementary kids who may read at a 1st or 2nd grade level, covering topics like friendships, bullying, and others relevant to the diversity and complexity of being a kid today. (FYI: eReaders get wide acclaim for the privacy they allow students—primarily for lowering the chances of being teased, like for reading something “easy.”)
  • Visually engaging with custom illustrations showing cultural and geographical diversity, like the grandparents image on this page.
  • Offer texts in Spanish.

Assessments Embedded In Texts

LightSail isn’t just a digital library like OverDrive or Hoopla, which also come in school versions. LightSail’s greatest differentiator in this new, yet vast market of digital reading products is that they embed assessments throughout the texts, every 2 to 3 pages. Those assessments drive several features:

  • Instant feedback to students.
  • An opportunity for teachers to not just track a student’s progress, but also to comment on it and on their answers to the open-ended questions in the assessments.
  • Assessment results power the algorithm that populates the student’s library with new titles selected to specifically promote Lexile improvement—this is the “adaptive” aspect of the platform. (Students can also choose their own titles that meet their Lexile needs.)

A study using LightSail over the summer found that the more assessments readers took, the more their Lexile level improved. Length of time spent reading by itself didn’t significantly improve Lexile scores. However, one thing that made students increase their reading time was positive feedback from their teacher, and the longer students read, the more assessments they’ll run into.

New Benefits for Teachers and Students

As a children’s book writer (not a teacher, parent, or reluctant reader), I’m most interested in how to create books that kids will love and how to help all kids be enthusiastic readers.

With so many digital learning platforms available, teacher or school administrators must set aside time to keep up with them. I’m not surprised transitioning to digital texts and programs is a slow process. I can imaging that that by the time research is publicized about how well a program works, it’s already at least 2 years old. And reading on Ereaders (tablets, Kindles, or phones) is still novel enough to entice many young readers.

Digital libraries in schools benefit teachers in many ways. Below are three intriguing benefits of these platforms:

Benefit 1: More Time for Meaningful Teacher-Student Interactions

Teachers may have more time for meaningful reading interactions with students because the app’s algorithms save them time from assessing and hand-picking reading lists for 30 students. One teacher spent time with her students to help them gain confidence on answering assessment questions, which transformed their experiences with LightSail. Another teacher set up reading discussion groups with kids who read the same titles, prompting enthusiastic discussions. One obstacle I see so far is a lack of digitally confident teachers—which takes a commitment from school districts for time, training, and compensation.

Benefit 2: Less enthusiastic students increase their “reader behaviors.”

The studies I looked at didn’t show a difference in the students identities as readers, based on their responses to the Reader Self-Perception Scale (RSPS). But this is where a standardized test doesn’t tell the whole story. Students’ identities as readers weren’t noticeably changing, but their reading behaviors were. Just carrying around the eReaders prompted discussions about reading with family and friends. And those ongoing meaningful interactions with teachers helped them develop close reading skills. The “middle” readers, those not the “best” or the “worst,” seemed to gain the most benefits.

Benefit 3: Digital technology may make personalized learning more efficient.

This is where new digital teaching programs sound like sci-fi. Some of these futuristic (Because, really, who knows how long it could take?) capabilities fascinate me, like the concept of heutagogy, which is “self-determined” learning that values knowledge sharing and interactive groups (How does “collective intelligence” resonate with you?) It includes TEAL—Technology Enabled Active Learning—using interactive white boards, digital textbooks, 3D animations and simulations, and interactive presentations. Other aspects of futuristic digital capabilities send a chill down my spine, like “learner profiling.” On the surface, it sounds great—using analytics to learn exactly how to improve learning for each individual and to develop competence for future jobs. But what if my learning profile got in the hands of evil-doers who were dead set on keeping me ignorant?

What’s your reaction?

I’m a children’s book writer, not a parent or a teacher. But I know everyone involved in educational reading has a unique perspective on digital learning tools. of What do you know about digital school library apps or heutagogy (self-determined learning)? What aspects most excite or frighten you?

Additional Sources

If you want to know more about the state of digital learning and educational reading platforms, check out these sources.

Herold, Benjamin. (2016, January 16). Digital Tools Aim to Personalize Literacy Instruction.

LightSail Education App Descriptions.

Mauran, Cecily. (2016, November 17). Lightsail and learn: A digital library that helps kids love reading.

Mitchell, Christine Cooper. (2016) 55:1, 67-90. Learning from rising sixth grade readers: how nooks shaped students’ reading behaviors during a summer independent reading initiative, literacy research and instruction.

Morrison, Jennifer R., Ross, Steven M., Cheung, Alan C.K., Eisinger, Jane M., Toner Rhianna K. (2016, April). Evaluation of LightSail in the New York City Department of Education: SummerSail 2015 Program. Center for Research and Reform in Education (CRRE) Johns Hopkins University.

Press Release. (2017, April 6). From exploring mars to making friends, digital children’s book publisher, Antares Reading, adds 350 fiction titles to LightSail Education Platform.

Railean, E.A. (2017) Chapter 3: Digital screens and issues of multiliteracies’ learning. User Interface Design of Digital Textbooks. [Note: The translation of this is abysmal. But if you can manage to wiggle through, there’s some interesting stuff.]


Scardilli, Brandi. (2017, May 2). Turning students into readers with the LightSail Literacy Platform.