Digging Deeper to Better Inform Your Literacy Instruction @StenhousePub #litessentials

As a reading interventionist, I am required to administer a universal screening tool to kindergarten through second grade students three times per school year.  Screening tools are considered an important part of Response to Intervention (RTI)/Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS).  The idea is that when we screen all students we are able to see the impact of our instruction and identify students who are not progressing at the same rate as their on-grade level peers.

Regie Routman, in her book Literacy Essentials:  Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners, writes that information from assessments should “improve the quality of teaching and learning” (p. 312).  Most universal screening tools are not able to give specific diagnostic information that can inform our instruction.  In order to effectively plan for intervention services, we need to use other tools to help us to dig deeper to find out more specific information about the strengths and needs of our struggling readers.

The following are some of the skills frequently tested on screening tools and what I do to gather more information.

Letter Sounds

Rather than relying solely on an assessment that times students as they attempt to quickly make letter sounds, I like to administer a dictated sentence.  A dictated sentence allows me to see how the child works with sounds within a more authentic task.  A dictated sentence also allows me to see what the child understands regarding concepts about print such as writing left to right, top to bottom, putting spaces between words, etc.

Nonsense Words

I am not going to go into the many reasons why assessing students using nonsense words is utter nonsense in this post.  I will say that I want all of the interactions children have with text to be meaningful.  To take a closer look at how students are able to use their letter-sound knowledge and problem solve unknown words, I find that taking a running record while the student reads an authentic text to be very useful.

Timed Reading Passages

Timed reading passages are supposed to be a measure of fluency but let me be clear- they are not.  They measure the speed of the reading and neglect all other areas of fluency.  Some major flaws with timed reading passages are:

  • they do not value meaningful comments made by the child or productive problem-solving, multiple attempts (perseverance)
  • they send the message that reading is about speed not meaning
  • they under-value other important dimensions of fluency such as intonation, reading the punctuation marks, and reading in meaningful phrases
  • they can falsely inflate the number of students in need of support

While listening to a student read I observe and jot down anecdotal notes about how their reading sounds valuing all of the dimensions of fluency.

In regards to standardized testing Regie feels that there are two larger issues at hand:

  • Lack of trust of teachers leading to a need for “accountability”
  • Standardized tests lead to big bucks for companies

I worry that our assessing and focus on isolated skills sends students mixed messages.

“Not to be minimized, an overemphasis on isolated skills, teaching-to-the-test often crowds out teaching for understanding.” 

~ Regie Routman, p. 312

Standardized tests can lead to many problems:

  • Teaching to the test despite knowledge of best practices
  • Unfair distribution of services – services directed to those students who are closest to passing the test, rather than those who need it most
  • “Quick fix” programs that focus on skills, not meaning, to be followed with fidelity

I think that we need to ask ourselves what our priorities are for our students.

Do we want students who might be able to speed read, decode like a pro, but have no true value for reading?


Do we want students who love reading and always engage with text in a meaningful way?

Frequent on-going formative assessments that are based on students’ needs and interests can inform daily instruction and improve student learning.  To be effective teachers we need to be observing, questioning, and responding to students’ needs as we teach.

Please re-think practices like teaching to the test!!  I am just astounded by the amount of test prep materials available on websites like Teachers Pay Teachers.  There are actually worksheets available for early readers to practice reading nonsense words and even practice speed reading passages galore.  Our students need us to teach with a sense of urgency and not waste precious time with these purposeless tasks.  I promise you that an increased amount of authentic purposeful reading and writing (along with intentional & thoughtful teaching) will help your students to enjoy reading and writing and be career and college ready.

While universal screening tools are considered an important component of RTI/MTSS,  most commercial screening tools will not go deep enough to inform your instruction.  Our students are counting on us to dig deeper past the numbers and fancy graphs.  Take a moment to consider how you might take a closer look at your students’ reading and writing by providing them with more authentic tasks.  Daily formative assessments will allow us to teach responsively while addressing each of our student’s needs.  When thinking about assessments keep Regie’s words in mind,

“Our assessment mindset needs to be this:  instruction and assessment must go hand in hand, and they must improve the quality of teaching and learning.  Question any assessment that does not ultimately benefit the learner” (p. 312).


Why I Dropped Out of My First MOOC

I am in the midst of final edits for my first eBook, to be released on July 31. After sending these to my editor, I realized that lately I have not completed any work for this Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) I enrolled in this summer. The topic of learning was teaching and assessment in the 21st century.

So why didn’t I complete it?

It was a lot of sit and get.

There were a series of videos for each of the five weeks (I got through the first three weeks). Each video ranged from seven to twenty minutes long, with five or more videos each week. While the content being shared was fine, I had a problem with the way it was delivered. It was just the two main professors, speaking to the text that was shown on the screen. I was wondering how this is any different that sitting in a lecture hall. This is not how I would choose to spend my summer.

The content lacked context.

This is unfortunate, because I felt the people who developed this course have some interesting thoughts on the topic of 21st century instruction. However, not at one time did we see a piece of student work nor students actually working. The best that was shared was listening to two high school students trying to collaboratively solve a computer-based story problem, which leads me to my next concern…

I felt there was an agenda.

I cannot verify this. But there were too many examples that led me to believe that a large standardized assessment organization was involved in this MOOC. The company’s name was referenced more than once. In addition, the collaborative problem solving example just mentioned distinctly resembled how new computer-based tests might look like next year. There was a whole lot of talk about assessment, but very little about teaching. The title of the course was misleading.

It lacked relevance.

I went back and forth about whether I should continue to stay active with this MOOC. What would I miss that others might gain? Would I be seen as another “MOOC dropout”? In the end, it came down to how ready I was (or wasn’t) to absorb this information, in addition to applying it to my current school context. I can see how collaborative problem solving in online spaces might be a part of the future of assessment. But we are not there yet. Are you?

This topic is not being discussed within my personal learning network.

I consider the educators I follow and connect with to be the most up-to-date learners. To my knowledge, they are not discussing on Twitter or Google+ how to best assess students as they collaborate with peers to solve contrived story problems with computer access only. My PLN is like a bellweather for me when it comes to issues I need to develop more awareness of.

So what has been your experience with MOOCs? Is it similar or different than mine? Should I give MOOCs another shot in the future? Feel free to share your thinking in the comments.