Decoding, Comprehension … And What Else?

As many of my blog readers know, I’ve struggled with reading assessments in the past. I’m not always convinced that a formal assessment is better than the day-to-day observations and conversations that we have with kids. I truly believe that we know where our kids are at in terms of reading levels, and as I’ve sat down to do more formalized assessments with kids lately, the standardized data is definitely aligning with our day-to-day documentation. While there were no surprises in terms of the scores, my surprise came in the form of something else this year. 

A few days ago, I sat down to do a reading assessment on a child. Instead of selecting the level of text for the child, I gave him three texts to choose from: one that I thought would be slightly too easy, one that I thought was just right, and one that I thought would be slightly too hard. I asked him to look through all three and choose the text that he thought would be “the hardest one that he could read independently.” One of the questions on the DRA scoring sheet is if the text was “teacher or student selected.” I think it’s important for kids to be able to self-select books, so if there’s time to do so, I prefer an approach where children try to pick the book that they think is right for them. I’m always curious to hear how they reach their decision. In this case, the child sat down and look at the words. He scanned the pictures and the amount of text on each page. Then he told me about which book he thought was easiest and which one he thought was hardest. He felt as though he could read “the hardest book.” We started with this one then. I went through the previewing questions with him, and then he started reading.

In theory, this child was right. He read most of the words correctly, self-corrected some errors, and on the scoring page made it into the “independent level.” His reading was choppy though. He picked up speed as he started to read more, but his fluency was more word-by-word or in short phrases. I wondered about his comprehension, but he did have fantastic retell. When I asked him to make a connection to the text, he told me, “I can make one, but it’s not very good. I can make a much better connection to this book.” That’s when he pointed to the one that I thought was at his independent level. Now I had a decision to make. I could have just scored him on this level and moved onto another child, but I really felt as though he would meet with more success at the level below. Should I have him read another text? 

This is when I thought of how we decided on the book in the first place: I got him to do so. I did the same thing now. I asked him, “Would you like to read this book?” He enthusiastically said, “Yes,” so I replied, “When you do, I want you to think about which book is a better fit for you. We can talk about this afterwards.” He agreed. The child read this next book with far better fluency and fewer errors. He was still in the independent level, but with a slightly higher score. This is a student that always pushes himself to do more and be better, and I wondered if the draw to the harder text would make him select the other book as the better fit. Technically, I could have assigned him this higher level, but my gut said that the second book was the right one for him. Both texts were above the benchmark level for Kindergarten, and his next steps remained largely the same, with increased sight word knowledge and higher level comprehension skills being the key areas for support. In the end, how much does the level really matter?

When he finished reading though, and we went through the comprehension questions together, I asked him my question from before: which book is a better fit for you? He thought for a minute and said, “The second one. I could read both, but my reading was slower with the first book, and I really had to work on it. I could also connect much better with the second book. I think I’m almost there, but this last book is a better one for me.” Wow! What a great understanding of his strengths and needs. I was so moved by what he said, that I wrote his words down as soon as he finished so I wouldn’t forget them. 

This is a child that gets it. This young child — this kindergartener — knows where he’s at and what he needs to do to move forward. He made me realize that as we work with students on decoding and comprehension, we cannot forget about the importance of metacognition and reflection. As our youngest students develop their reading skills, we also need to continue to build their thinking skills. There’s not always going to be an adult there to pick the book, tell the next steps, and set the program. As our Kindergarten Program Document explicitly states, we need to view the child as “competent and capable of complex thought.” This reading experience, to me, was a perfect example of this. Kids regularly do amazing things, and when we believe in them, support them, and develop their thinking and self-reflection skills, even more children can do what this child did. 

How do we support the development of decoding, comprehension, metacognition, and reflection? Do we always remember to listen to kids enough to find out just how much they do know? I’ve done the DRA, or similar reading assessments, for too many years to count, but never before have I asked the question that I asked this child on Wednesday. I wonder how much I could have learned if I did so more often, but I also wonder, if before this year, I always provided the conditions to make this kind of answer the one that I would have received. I can’t change what I did in the past, but I can change what I do — and how I teach — from now on. What about you?


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