Conducting a regular reading assessment – or fluency assessment – is critical for understanding the comprehension levels of our elementary readers.
Fluency does not just mean “reading fast”… although if I ask my students, that’s what they'll often say! Rather, it's a whole package of reading skills that indicate the ability to quickly understand what a piece of text is communicating.
Reading assessment types
Conducting a reading assessment for fluency can range from quite formal to rather informal. For a formal assessment (if your district doesn’t provide one), you can simply Google “online fluency scales” and you'll find documents that lead you through a numerical scoring of the following items:
- Pauses and punctuation
* “Phrasing” means understanding the meaning of groups of words.
When should you use formal vs. informal?
The lower the grade level, the more important it is to get a comprehensive understanding of a young reader’s fluency level. In grades kindergarten, first, second and third, children are still learning to read, so a formal assessment conducted a few times a year is the most helpful.
In the upper grades, kids are moving toward reading to learn. In that scenario, the informal assessment can provide enough information to allow a teacher to keep them moving forward.
What can we do to help these struggling elementary readers?
Plain and simple, fluency comes from practice – lots of practice.
In my fourth-grade classroom, as soon as I identify a problem with fluency, I immediately contact the parents to let them know that they simply MUST read with their child out loud at home every single day.
In the classroom, this is a great way to use your volunteers. Simply sitting and having a child read out loud will do great things for increasing fluency.
Before we get into assessment tips, it's important to remember to look for all factors that may be affecting a struggling reader's ability.
Speech impacts decoding
It’s extremely important to follow a holistic approach to fluency. What I mean by this is understanding all the possible causes of difficulties a child might be having when they are reading books or other text selections.
For example, if a child has a speech issue (either diagnosed or undiagnosed) that affects their ability to sound out words, it can dramatically influence their ability to decode. The problem, of course, is they will often say words wrong, such as swapping Ws and Rs.
In this case, it is very important for you to arrange for a speech assessment after discussing the issue with the child's parents. Getting a professional to help the child work through proper pronunciation will go a long way toward increasing their fluency when reading.
Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA)
A developmental reading assessment (sometimes called a DRA) can go by many different names, depending upon the publisher of the kit that's being used.
The individual reading assessment is of critical importance for figuring out the basic question of “Who needs what?” during literacy instruction in your classroom. And – this is important – there should be NO shortcuts.
No shortcuts to effective assessments
I know of teachers who do an abbreviated approach, where all children read from the same text selection and base their opinion of student reading ability on simply that.
Of course, the proper approach is to begin at your best estimate of the correct reading level (usually based on their prior score) and work up or down from there as appropriate. This approach does take more time, which is why shortcuts are sometimes used – but it shortcuts teachers' ability to individualize.
Another shortcut approach to completing a DRA is to not assess all the kids every time. In some districts, it is acceptable to stop assessing children who meet the cutoff for the current grade level and to simply focus assessments on those who have tested below grade level.
I honestly think that this is really doing a disservice to our struggling readers by labeling them.
In this scenario, every kid in the class knows that kids who must repeat the assessment are those who are not scoring as well. This can be very embarrassing for young readers, and certainly isn't a way to encourage them to work harder.
Video tips: reading assessments
Building relationships with assessments
I really encourage teachers to do their reading level assessment as a great one-on-one teacher/student activity. The children absolutely love this individualized attention, especially if we try hard to make the most of it.
Here's how to achieve maximum benefit from a DRA.
First, it's important to set classroom expectations before you begin your DRA process. My children know that when they see me working one-on-one with a student, they have to be very quiet and not interrupt under any circumstances.
This expectation really reinforces that I’m giving individual attention, and every child knows that I will make my way to them eventually.
Second, it's very important to get excited about doing developmental reading assessments. I do mine three times a year, and I always make a big deal about it. Let students know how excited you are to see how much they have improved.
Do a warm up
Third, start by letting the student briefly talk about the book, just like two friends would do if they were sharing a few details about a story. This short discussion “warms up” their brains and allows you to get a much more accurate assessment of their reading level.
Using DRA results
So what do we do with the assessment scores when we're done?
It’s very important to step back and look at the big picture of what we have learned from our efforts and to really focus in on the data and not our “gut instincts.” Look for classroom-wide trends.
You might learn such things as your children are really struggling with comprehension, or a significant number simply aren't getting the concept of summary.
When you've identified these gaps in understanding, then you can translate them into effective instruction, perhaps by skipping lessons in areas in which they are completely solid and doubling up on areas where they need some additional instruction.
Setting students up for future success
Finally, when working on reading level assessments, I think it’s important to have children set a goal for their next score. This is a small motivator to keep them focused over the next couple of months when they're working through reading instruction, and a way to challenge themselves when selecting books for silent reading.
Informal reading assessments
Informal assessments are a great way to focus our teacher attention when listening to a child read out loud.
Simply listening to a child read for a few minutes is, of course, a great way to learn how well they are decoding text and how much they are understanding. However, adding some structure to this process can help quantify how much they are doing better rather than simply going with your gut instinct.
Hearing the big picture
In addition, undertaking informal assessments as you move about your classroom can help you gain the big picture view of how your entire class is doing with a particular type of text.
For example, if everyone is reading the same nonfiction selection, an informal reading assessment can let you know if the level is appropriate and if the kids are really understanding the meaning of the lesson that you’re teaching.
Two informal techniques
There are a couple of techniques for informally assessing reading. The first is simply using tick marks on a piece of paper and putting down a mark every time a child struggles with a word.
This approach is very similar to the way we conduct developmental reading assessments (DRAs) and can be used even if we're not filling out a formal scoring sheet.
The other approach is giving kids a quick numerical fluency score that correlates with their decoding ability. When I’m scoring fluency informally, I use the following scale:
4 = reading like the teacher with expression and smoothness
3 = some minor errors and a little bit of sounding out
2 = choppy reading with very little inflection
1 = word-by-word sounding out
The four-point scale that I use is a great way to add some context to informal reading assessments. This is particularly true if you keep a simple progress sheet. We can write these scores down by each student's name to better visualize their improvement (or struggles) over time.
Using this informal technique can indicate whether you need to dig more deeply with a more formal approach.
Instinct vs. data
There is always a place for trusting your instinctive understanding of what is happening with the academic progress of a child. However, any time we can capture data – even a little bit of data – to quantify our understanding, it will pay big dividends.
The dividend does not come from the immediate understanding of their reading level, but rather the trends that we see over time. These dividends are not possible if you are only writing down a few random notes or numbers as you listen to them read out loud.
The trends that you uncover will indicate when you need to dig in a little bit more deeply with an individual student to ensure they are staying on pace toward meeting their grade level reading expectations.