When It Comes To Reading Assessments, What Do You Do?

Our school is part of the Board’s Early Literacy Inquiry, and I’ve really enjoyed my new learning thanks to this project. Not only am I learning more about different assessment and intervention tools, but this project is making me think more about how I develop literacy skills with our students and what else I could be doing. Conversations that have happened as part of the professional development are also forcing me to look more critically at our choices … and sometimes even reconsider them.

As part of the Early Literacy Inquiry, our primary team has been doing some thinking and having some discussions around Dibels and DRA and what the best option(s) could be for each grade. It’s these decisions that I keep thinking about and these conversations that I keep coming back to, and since these thoughts won’t leave my mind, I wondered if a blog post might help.

Here are some of my struggles.

  • On the one hand, in the lower grades (particularly JK and SK), I question how much DRA tells me about what a child can read. The beginning texts are pattern books, and usually the children read the texts just based on the picture cues. Dibels at least gives me a better understanding of a student’s letter-names and sounds knowledge, but it does so out of context. I don’t see how a child tracks print (in terms of left-to-right and one-to-one correspondence) and what reading strategies he/she uses (i.e., picture cues only, letter-sounds and picture cues, initial sounds and picture cues, or just letter-sounds and/or familiar words). 
  • On the other hand, once students get into at least Grade 1, Dibels helps me understand what a child can decode. The decoding section is a one page story, where a child starts at the beginning and reads as far as he/she can in one minute. You can give a child a word if he/she does not know it. Depending on the level of success, depends on if a child can go to the next text. There are a total of three texts for each assessment period. These are truly “decodable texts.” Compared to DRA, Dibels really forces the children to use phonics skills to read words, but I struggle with this too, as reading is about more than just putting letter-sounds together. What about contextual cues? What about the use of a picture or a graphic to help the child read an unfamiliar word? I also think of readers that could be well below grade level. DRA tells me their reading level, but Dibels just tells me how far below grade level they are, and based on the look of the text, both the child and I know that he/she cannot read it. How does this make the child feel as a reader? What impact might this have for future success?

I can’t help but think of myself as an adult reader. If the ultimate goal of both of these assessment tools is that we use the data to program for students so that they do become confident and capable readers, then I start to think about what that means as they grow up. I’m an avid reader, and after these literacy inservices, I am looking more closely at how I read. What strategies do I use when I get stuck on a word?

  • Sometimes I use phonics. I look at letter-sound combinations, vowel rules, and smaller words found within larger ones that may help me read an unknown word.
  • Sometimes I use contextual cues. I read until the end of the sentence, the paragraph, or the page. I try to understand what the author is saying, and then I go back to figure out the difficult word.
  • Sometimes I use a visual. This is especially true for non-fiction texts. I find a picture or a labelled diagram that might help me figure out what the word says and what it means. Comprehension also matters.
  • Sometimes I use technology. I read almost all of my books on the iPad, and if I’m really stuck, I highlight the word and use the “Speak” function to have the iPad read it to me. Then the dictionary function defines the word, which helps with the understanding component.

With this in mind, I go back to the assessment piece of this Early Literacy Inquiry. Dibels helps with the phonics component. DRA is better for the contextual cues and visual components. Maybe the technology piece is something that happens more at an instructional level … when children are ready for it. I also wonder if Dibels paired with a good running record that does contain some comprehension components would also be beneficial. Could this be an option instead of DRA? I don’t want to spend all of my instructional time, assessing, but I do want to complete assessments that inform learning and create a true picture of a child’s strengths and needs. The more that I read, the more that I listen, and the more that I learn, the more that I wonder if just one assessment tool (i.e., Dibels or DRA) can do this. What do you think? What do you use and why? I’m hoping that this blog post will help me work through my uncertainties and pick the best option(s) for students.


And Now I’m Thinking …

After tweeting out my blog post today, Lori St. Amand, a Grade 1 teacher in our Board, sent me this tweet.

Screenshot 2016-03-05 at 16.32.34

Her message gave me more to consider. The truth is, I have yet to be surprised by the results of any of these standardized tests. Listening to children read in the classroom, watching their interactions during small group mini-lessons, and seeing what they do on a day-to-day basis, gives me a good understanding of where students are at and what they need to move forward. This is the formative assessment that I use to make my plans for next steps.

If this is the case though, I can’t help but wonder, what is the purpose of a formal assessment? While it will give me a definite level, what if these level results consistently align with my day-to-day in-class assessments? Could my observations, conversations, and daily work samples (this sounds much like Growing Success to me) be the formal assessments, or do we need more than that? (This is making me think of the discussion that often happens with inquiry about assessing the “process” versus the “product,” and the question about a need for a culminating task.) How do you decide? 

Thank you, Lori, for continuing this conversation and giving me a lot more to consider!


10 thoughts on “When It Comes To Reading Assessments, What Do You Do?

  1. Aviva I believe that one assessment does not give us all the information we need in this case. Maybe the combination of the two can benefit fill the purpose. We recently had a couple of kids who according to our DRA was not moving however the Dibels showed movement with PSF & NWF. Using the 2 together helped us determined best next steps. I must add though that using the word analysis kit when doing the running record piece of DRA can also give us valuable information about our student’s reading and the type of errors they are making. It also provides many worthwhile tasks that we can use in the classroom during small group or one -on-one activities.

    • Thanks Jo-Ann for chiming in here and sharing your thoughts on this. I haven’t used the Word Analysis Kit in a while, and I would definitely have to look more closely at it. Do you think it would be beneficial for Kindergarten children, or do students need to be decoding more for this resource to be more beneficial?

      I always appreciate your help!

  2. I think reading assessment needs to be a combination of things. Reading is so complicated. It’s just not about memorizing sight words, or being able to decode or just comprehending. It’s everything put together. The best thing we can do for our kids is listen to the them read while we take quick anecdotal notes about their strategies they are using (or not using yet) and let them talk about the book. We want to hear if they are truly understanding what they are reading independently. Can they start relating to characters? Can they “see” the story in their minds as they’re reading? Do they really know the text or are they just reading the words with out thinking about it? These of course are things we are looking for once kids are beyond that basic pattern book. For those students (usually JK/SK) you want to see if they know the difference between words and letters, direction of your finger as you read, etc. Does your board use Marie Clay’s CAP (Concepts About Print) books? Those can be great to see what students know about reading. Again, if they’re not as the only assessment. I think we need to keep in mind that reading is complex, so our assessments need to be as well. We need to use a variety of assessments to really ‘get inside our students’ heads’ to understand what they actually know and what we need to focus on next.
    Definitely something to be thinking about, thanks for starting the conversation. I would imagine the inquiry is a great learning opportunity!

    • Thanks for your comment, Jenni! I’ve never heard of Marie Clay’s CAP books before, but I’m going to check into them now. I agree with you about the complexity of reading, and the value in these multiple assessments. The interesting thing about your comment is that many of the assessments you’re discussing involve the day-to-day conferences with students. This makes me think of Lori St. Amand’s tweet, and my addition to this blog post. Maybe it’s these daily, formative assessments that give us the most knowledge about our kids and where to go next. So much to think about here!


  3. Aviva,

    I read your blog this morning and have been thinking about it most of the day – love the addendum as well.

    I agree with the notion that there is not one assessment that best serves our students or our needs as teachera for developing programming for them. I have used the DRA mainly because that is the “data collection method” prefered by my school board. I have also used the Word Analysis components with my more difficult students – when I needed to piece together more about why they were not progressing or where they wete struggling most. I have also used Marie Clay’s Obersvational Survey of Early Literacy Acheivement. I would say it has more elements that can be applied to te kindergarten set, although it can be used with any struggling reader. The Canadian norms are not age specific.

    Ultimately which assessment we use as teachers needs to be based on what we are needing to piece together for our students. As I mentioned I used the DRA because it is what my board has purchased and it is that data that is tracked for each student from JK-grade 6. I am not completely sure how they use the data (if it is comapred to EQAO results or if it is simply used to track reading develipment over time), but that is the assessment we are required to complete.


    • Thanks for your comment, Sarah! I find it very interesting to hear about what you use and why. I wonder if we need to ask more questions about why Boards use specific tools, and maybe even question, are they best for the job? (This could lead to some very rich discussion I think.) I have used DRA for years, and this is the first year (in a very long time), that we’re looking at just using Dibels instead. I’m not sure how useful DRA is for JK and SK (especially for the very beginning readers), but then again, does it give me more information than just Dibels? Reading Lori’s tweet though, I wonder if what it gives me is what I already know from reading with students each day. So in that case, could my formative assessment be used as more formal assessment, or is this formal assessment still worth doing?

      I haven’t used Marie Clay’s assessment tool before, but I will be checking it out. I wonder where it might fit in. This Early Literacy Inquiry coupled with this blog post (and the questions and comments here) are giving me even more to think about. I may be even more uncertain than I was when I wrote this post, but I think in a good way. The suggestions shared here (as well as the questions and comments) may be good ones to share with my colleagues, as we continue to make sense of what is best for kids.


  4. Dear Aviva
    I was lucky to have been a trained
    Reading Recovery teacher for 7 years in my board before returning back to the classroom as an FDK teacher. As a kindergarten teacher I use what we call Primary Reading Assessment. I do running records on familiar PM books to assess what strategies children already have in place and which ones we need to teach them. I also use Marie Clays assessments (CAP, Hearing and Recording Sounds in Words, word Test, Writing Vocabulary etc ) this gives me a very clear picture of the child.

    • Thank you so much Maureen for sharing what you do! You are the third person that has mentioned Marie Clay’s resources to me. I’ve done some investigating online, and I’m going to ask at school to see if we have any of her assessments. It sounds like they may be a good complement to Dibels, which we are currently using as a Primary Division.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *