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Success Stories out of the ED/IES SBIR Program: Tutoring with the Lightning Squad by Sirius Thinking

Screen shot of Lightning Squad

Last Updated: March, 2023

Tutoring with the Lightning Squad is a mixed online and face-to-face multimedia intervention designed for struggling readers in grades 1 to 3. In the intervention, pairs of students work on tablets or laptops to read words and stories presented by the computer, with a paraprofessional educator providing feedback and targeted support. The key components include digital books, multimedia activities (for example, games, puzzles, and videos), a backend system with algorithms to track progress and adjust content, and an educator dashboard to present student progress and provide instructional resources. Much of the content in Lightning Squad is adapted from Sesame Workshop's popular public television literacy education program, The Electric Company. The platform captures student performance data and continually adjusts the pace and level of the content. Students eligible for tutoring work in pairs, alternating roles as "coach" and "player." Tutors work with students to set goals, assess mastery of skills, celebrate success, help when students experience problems, and support effective partner interactions. The platform can be implemented through short in- or after-school sessions, or for in-person or remote tutoring. The tutoring program was built on the Success for All evidence-based whole school reading model by adding video segments and gaming content.

Research and Development
The Success for All (SFA) Foundation, supported by Johns Hopkins University and Concordia University, conducted the foundational research that informed the development of Lightning Squad between 2004 and 2013, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education. Research focused on building a framework to facilitate small group models using peer partnerships and developing strategies to make tutoring a more cost-effective intervention by enabling paraprofessional educators to replace certified staff. Use of computers in the classroom provided the capacity to present a lesson that structured effective partner work. Software also allowed adaptive sequencing of materials which increased the capacity of tutors to manage groups of students. The SBIR awards from ED/IES SBIR in 2014 and 2015 enabled Sirius Thinking and SFA to build on the lessons learned and to incorporate children's media to create an engaging product.

During Phase I (completed in 2014) of the SBIR project, Sirius and SFA developed a prototype platform consisting of the user interface, a backend data system, a teacher dashboard, and activities and games designed to promote critical reading skills such as word-level decoding, letter-sound correspondence, and comprehending decodable stories. At the end of Phase I, pilot research with two tutors and 16 struggling readers in grades 1 to 3 demonstrated that the prototype operated as intended, that teachers were able to integrate the prototype within standard practice, and that students found the activities engaging.

During Phase II, the team fully developed the technological infrastructure and teacher resources and created and integrated content within the activities and games. After development was complete, a pilot study occurred in six schools with 16 tutors who delivered the program as a supplement to regular classroom reading instruction. Results indicated that tutors and students were able to use the product, that it was engaging, and that it was able to be implemented as a supplemental activity. To examine the promise of the program to lead to the intended outcomes, 150 students in grades 1 to 3 identified as having difficulty in reading participated in the study. There were 63 students assigned to participate in 25 or more supplemental tutoring sessions using Tutoring with the Lightning Squad, and 87 were assigned to a business-as-usual control condition. In comparing pre- to post- test scores, students who participated in the tutoring program showed a significant increase compared to the control group on reading achievement as measured by the Woodcock-Johnson III Tests of Achievement, Letter Word Identification, Word Attack, and Passage Comprehension subtests (see here for the evaluation study report).

At the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, Lightning Squad was adapted for remote delivery in eight Baltimore City schools serving principally low-income students. In the remote version, tutors use a video platform (for example, Zoom) with pairs of students in their respective homes. Students proceed with the activities of the software and respond verbally while a tutor types responses on the screen in real-time for each team member to see. In the 2020–21 school year, 16 Baltimore City schools used Lightning Squad with over 800 students, mainly for remote tutoring. SFA-conducted research found that students who were able to maintain consistent participation with remote tutoring gained 1.5 years of progress as measured by their initial placement and end of year placement, and doubled the comparable gain in reading during the period of school closures. An additional 1,200 students were served remotely using Lightning Squad in other states during this same period.

In 2019, SFA received an IES Research Grant award to evaluate the efficacy of Tutoring with the Lightning Squad.

Path to Commercialization
Sirius Thinking and SFA Foundation are partnering in the commercialization of Tutoring with the Lightning Squad. Since its commercial launch in 2019, Lightning Squad has been available through a direct to school or district model. Lightning Squad has been used in more than 350 schools and by 31,000 students in the US and in over 200 schools and by 18,000 students in the UK, where the product was adapted to the UK literacy standards. In 2022, Sirius Thinking and SFA entered into an agreement with Baltimore City Schools to use Lightning Squad in its schools (Read here).

Recognition and Awards

  • In 2022, Lighting Squad was selected as a finalist for two national awards in the UK, the Teach Primary Award for the Best Remote Learning Product in 2022.
  • In 2023, Lightning Squad won the Bett Award for Best Digital Primary Language and Learning Product.

Featured at IES Events and in IES Blogs

  • 2021 — Lightning Squad is featured in a 2021 ED Games Expo event, hosted by AmeriCorps and IES, focused on new models to enable remote tutoring to accelerate learning during COVID19. Watch here.
  • 2022 — Lightning Squad is featured in an Inside IES Research Blog on tutoring programs that are in use at scale for in-person and remote learning. Read here.

Follow On Funding

  • 2019 — received an IES Research Grant (R305A190180) to evaluate the efficacy of Lightning Squad.
  • 2019 — won an Abell Foundation Grant to support use of Lightning Squad in Baltimore City Public Schools.
  • 2021 — won a Richman Family Foundation Grant to fund expansion to three additional Baltimore City Public Schools.
  • 2023 — the Fischer Family Foundation and the UK National Tutoring Programme supported the adaptation of Tutoring with the Lightning Squad to UK literacy standards and its use in over 200 schools in the UK.