When it comes to assessment, precision instruments are required.
The key to teaching children who are struggling is detailed, fine-grain assessment. Without the information derived from such assessment, teachers cannot target and teach the necessary skills and knowledge. For secondary-age students, who may be working some years behind their peers, effective assessment is absolutely necessary if they are to make rapid progress and catch up completely.
What people often comment on when they see Thinking Reading in action is the extent and depth of assessment. After initial screening, we systematically check students’ knowledge of sound-spelling combinations for both reading and spelling. This information is used as a basis for teaching and it also serves as a cross-reference when the student is reading prose.
These days, much is made of student progress and accountability, but claims of progress are meaningless unless there is objective, measurable evidence of what the student can do now, compared to what they could do at a previous point. For this, we need a permanent product of their reading, along with an assessment of their accuracy and fluency. A record of prose accuracy builds in accountability as well as providing valuable evidence for making teaching decisions. It also helps the leader of the literacy team to monitor and evaluate the work of individual tutors, and their students’ progress.
Providing a record of reading accuracy and fluency is not the same thing as miscue analysis. It is entirely possible to create a permanent record of a student’s reading without any reference to misleading and ineffective Whole Language ‘strategies’.
If a student reads incorrectly, but we know from the sound-spelling assessment that they ‘know’ that sound-spelling combination, we can deduce that there is a need for more practice, that they haven’t yet become fluent or that there is an issue with motivation – a common problem at this level. Depending on whether the error is occasional or regular, we will respond differently.
The three pillars of assessment are validity, sensitivity and reliability. How does a record of prose accuracy measure up as an assessment tool? Reading prose aloud, especially if comprehension is checked, has very strong validity as it provides information about the student’s decoding accuracy and their understanding of the words that they have read. It is also an extremely sensitive measure as the exact errors that a student makes can be identified and an overall accuracy percentage can be calculated.
The most common concern about assessment of students reading aloud is that of reliability. Because of the speed and the complications of students’ hesitations or self-corrections, it can be difficult for observers to decide whether what was read constituted an error. For this reason, it is imperative that assessors are proficient through practice, comparing their initial assessment against a recording, and through inter-observer feedback.
Students need their teachers to be trained and equipped with a full range of tools to conduct detailed on-going assessment. Simply because adherents of Whole Language have appropriated a tool for their purposes does not render the tool itself invalid. What matters is that students make progress that is substantiated by objective evidence. This evidence is most powerful for the students themselves, because it shows them how far they have come.
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