Think about a time when you’ve been really lost. How did you get to your destination when you didn’t know where you were going? You probably tried different directions, asked a passerby, used a map or navigation system (if you were lucky to have one). 

Now, consider which approach was the most efficient. Trying different directions is always an option, but there is the potential for becoming even more lost (I’ve been there) or adding travel time onto a trip that wasn’t supposed to be quite that long (kind of like Gilligan’s Island). Asking a passerby can certainly work, provided that the individual actually has a “lay of the land” and can give you the best advice. Meanwhile, the map or navigation system will almost always provide you with a defined route and sometimes, it can even shave time off by showing an even more efficient path!

How Do You Get Your Students “There”… If Maybe You’re Unsure of Where You Are Going? 

This idea of knowing which directions to take and finding a sense of efficiency while doing so can also be applied to identifying and understanding the needs of your students. Meaningful assessment tools will lead you to clear learning pathways, travel time or pacing and endpoint goals for each individual in your class. Reflecting upon, and maybe even questioning, your current assessment practices will allow you to eventually form a satellite view of the streets on your class’ reading map.

Many years ago as a newer classroom teacher, and prior to making critical shifts in my practices, I found myself planning “guided reading lessons” based on the one assessment we all used. Despite my diligent planning, I slowly but surely had the feeling that I wasn’t really sure of an emergency plan in the event of a breakdown on our learning highway.

Sure, getting kids to move up a “level” seemed like the next logical step and I used the outlined “reading behaviors” highlighted in the program. Even with this information, I began to feel like we previewed books, worked on strategies (that weren’t helpful), discussed the text in random ways (that weren’t connected to any other content in the classroom) and then moved on. Lather, Rinse, Repeat as we seemed to circle around the periphery of more meaningful reading instruction. I also wasn’t left with confidence that, in the absence of the boxed books, I would innately know what to do and with accurate precision.

Maybe there were some phonics lessons thrown in there too, but they were incidental, not assessment driven and didn’t necessarily follow a scope and sequence. Rather it was all based on what the guided reading plan told me to cover and often, for a very short amount of time, sometimes only one day before on to the next! A reality is that the majority of students need far more time practicing a concept before it sticks.

In hindsight, it was all one big hodgepodge of instruction with little cohesion and this showed through the imbalance of students’ performances across different areas of reading along with their level of transferral. I relate this experience because I think we have all felt this way at some point in time with reading instruction. There is so much to consider and it’s so immense to wrap your head around. How do you really determine where your time is best spent and to the benefit of each child? Can you rely on one measure to provide an absolutely valid view of all of a child’s strengths and weaknesses? There is no shame in admitting maybe not, especially as scripted programs lure us into a false sense of security and teacher preparation programs have not exactly focused on actual reading instruction.

Creating Reading Profiles to Set a Course

So, how do you really know where to go?

Assessment is absolutely necessary as a starting point for conversation and to further practice implementations related to your findings. It’s difficult to set an efficient course forward in the absence of really informative assessment data. It can be done, to be sure, by just following a program or its scope and sequence, but the likelihood of veering off course for some of your students is much higher. 

To be most effective in reading instruction, and avoid traveling in all different directions or even in the wrong direction (it happens), we need to really know our kids inside and out. We can do this by creating literacy profiles based on data collected from multiple measures or assessment tools. You may find that your current assessment practices need a little fine tuning.The key is to not throw every assessment tool possible at the creation of these profiles but to streamline a system of tools. There are a lot of measures out there and not all are created equal. Looking at your options with a critical eye is integral as what works for one school may not necessarily work for yours.

One type of assessment protocol that can be used to identify student needs.

There are also many variations of assessment protocols to create profiles once you’ve chosen your tools. Ideally, you will engage in the process of developing one that works within the context of your school. When considering assessments, you want access to those that provide you with the most useful information about students’ understanding and levels of proficiency in relation to the components of reading illustrated by Scarborough’s Reading Rope.

This is where I can step in as it can be incredibly powerful to have a guide to facilitate these conversations with your team and across grade levels. I can help you to peel pack the layers as you consider the essential questions: Why are we assessing our students? What do we hope to target or find through the collection of data? How will we use the information to drive our instruction?

Sometimes, we become emotionally attached to our traditional practices and this tends to present challenges, not to mention impedes our growth. An impartial and outside point of view can correct this. We also don’t want to fall into a trap of collecting the data and then not having it transfer into great learning. Let’s face it, sometimes, we have the best of intentions and plans only to have documented outcomes collecting dust in our file cabinet. The process of assessment and using it is multi-faceted and multi-stepped. Identifying actionable next steps is just as important as getting the assessments and a system in place.

Additional Information / Tips:

  • On the example protocol, which I’ve used, DIBELS (now Acadience Reading) and Core Phonics are highlighted because one can act as a “screener” meaning all kids are assessed with it and regardless of proficiency level during your entry point assessment and the other is more diagnostic. Thinking you can skip a screener? I strongly recommend otherwise. In many schools, I have observed a pattern of younger elementary students listed as “meeting or exceeding” grade level who actually score as “at risk” or “intervention” levels on fluency and/or phonics measures. The scary part is that if these students continue on the same road, without the necessary interventions, their reading will break down in the upper grades when stakes are higher, the reading is complex and the student is more likely to shut down emotionally. Equally alarming is that 1 in 5 students may fall on a spectrum of dyslexia, even stealthily. Can we risk assuming a student is a skilled reader?
  • DIBELS is highly beneficial for screening and progress monitoring. It gives you a temperature check as to foundational skill areas that may have gaps in them and can indicate if your instruction is working. Also, students, generally, don’t have the opportunity to fall through the cracks when a tool like DIBELS is used as a screener. (Again, it’s one such tool – we can explore others!) Personally, I find that using both DIBELS and the diagnostic assessment like the Core Phonics Survey is the most beneficial route. The small investment in time that it takes to do both measures yields exponentially easier instructional planning thanks to rich data and, even better, your kids find greater levels of success because you become way more efficient in directing them to where they are going! 

When in doubt or unsure of which direction to turn in, reach out! While I may be considered a “passerby,” I happen to be one who is also really passionate about assessment, knows the lay of the land, and can help you navigate and pave the road ahead. I have seen, firsthand, the magic that can happen in all aspects of learning when we know our kids on such a deep level.

Links to Additional Assessment Resources:

PAST – Phonological Awareness Screening Test

Informal Decoding Inventory

6 Syllable Types Plus!

Basic Phonics Skills Test III