Assessing the Invisible

Reading is a personal, internal process that so often happens at the edge our of thinking. Even as advanced readers, adults don’t usually stop and think – I just made a prediction or I am visualizing this scene.  We just do.  As young readers learn reading strategies and skills they approximate, attempt and try to integrate new strategies into their reading. It is almost impossible to capture that in authentic ways to assess their true learning. Instead, we often rely on external measures to evaluate this internal process.  Running records, fluency rating scales, comprehension question can measure the outcomes of reading, but how do we get a clear understanding of each reader’s thought process?

  1. Conference and Observation NotesI am often more interested in what a reader is doing, instead of not doing.  Every conference I start with “What are you working on as a reader?”  The closer a reader can get to articulating a reading strategy and showing me how they applied that, the clearer I can see the thinking.  In the beginning of the year I teach my readers how to start a conference and how to access our reading strategies.  If they have the language to share their thinking out loud, they are beginning to internalize reading habits.img_2928
  2. Video Snapshot – Toward the end of our unit I asked each student to record a strategy they feel is becoming a habit from our anchor charts in the classroom or their individual strategy cards.

    As I conferred with each reader, I video recorded their thinking.  I asked prompting questions to get more information, but did not teach toward the strategy.  This performance task evaluated if a student could identify and apply a strategy, articulate the thinking, and use it to successfully read the text.  Check out a short example here

  3. Written Reflection – At the end of our reading unit, I asked each reader to take the strategies they felt were becoming good reading habits and write about them.  I wanted to see how much of the strategy they could internalize outside the context of applying it to a text.  Some readers could say why the strategies were helpful, others just regurgitated what was already written down.  Their varying levels of sophistication demonstrated how much learning they internalized.

    Combining these techniques with more traditional running records and comprehension questions provides a clearer snapshot into each reader’s thinking.  Is is difficult at best to know what any elementary aged student is thinking, but encouraging children to articulate their thoughts orally and in writing helps to both document their learning and develop more reflective practices when learning to read.

The Beginnings of my Reading Life by Caroline Petrow

Nerdy Book Club

I am an ambivalent reader.  I always have been. That is, until a few months ago. As a child I learned to read with little difficulty and fondly remember childhood books. Examples of avid readers fill my life including my librarian grandmother carrying a book everywhere, my mother pouring over novels during summer nights on our back porch, and a former literacy coach starting a book club just to get teachers reading. But I failed to ever reflect on and expand my reading life. Even as an adult, I admire friends who easily engage in multiple books at a time and gush with tales from their journeys.  I start many books and finish some.

The truth is, for the past decade I’ve taught children how to read.  At least 200 elementary students have learned from a teacher who could take or leave books.  Yes, I’ve worked to help them become…

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The Space Between

Something magical occurs in the moments a teacher and a reader interact.  It is often difficult to detect and even harder to quantify, but the space between the teaching and the learning is where the reader grows.  This interaction is less about what I can teach a student and more about recognizing, naming and extending what they are already doing.  Let me give you an example.

I have a reader with some bad decoding habits – she mumbles over words and makes nonsense guesses at others.  She started off with minimal strategies to read tricky words.  After my mini lessons on “Drop those bad reading habits” and specific strategies to figure out tricky words, I did the teaching – but she had yet to do the learning.  In the following days, as we conferenced one-on-one, I helped her recognize the strategies I taught and supported her to apply the skills.  Yes, this term scaffolding is often thrown around in education, but what are the specific steps to scaffolding learning where the student is in control?  Where the student constructs the learning?

First, the student does all the work.  As a teacher, I am watching her reading behaviors to identify what she is already trying and looking to link it to something she needs to learn.  In this case, my reader was not mumbling over a word (progress), but instead tried two attempts to read “right” as “reet” and “rit” then she kept going.  I stopped her and said “Whoa! Does that make sense?”  She had to do the thinking.

Secondly, name the strategy or skill the student is already trying.  She was trying multiple different vowel sounds to figure out a word, so I told her what she is doing and encouraged her to keep trying until she found a word that made sense.  Having a list of strategies or skills you want your students to accomplish can help you name the reading behaviors.  Think about all the lessons you will teach in a unit and all the lessons you previously taught .  Think about the specific skills you want your readers to master by the end of the year.  These are all possible things to recognize in their reading.

Finally, extend what the reader is doing by staying in the conference until she successfully complete the task. In this case, I stayed with the reader through the end of the page.  I restated the learning she just accomplished and encouraged her to keep doing that when she is stuck again.

This type of scaffolding for readers develops the growth mindset.  They are able to recognize what they are doing, work to keep doing it with support and overtime internalize their reading strategies into habits.  By articulating what happens in that illusive space between teaching and learning helps me understand why individual conferences with students are crucial to growing independent readers.

Set Reading Goals, Not Reading Levels

Recently, I commented about removing the levels from my classroom library on a post from Irene C. Fountas and Guy Su Pinnell’s Facebook group.  Their post was about using reading levels as a tool for teachers, not a tool for students. One teacher responded that giving children reading levels at least ensures they have books they can read.  And I couldn’t agree more.  That is exactly why many teachers use this practice in their classrooms.  I did for years, knowing that if I assigned children levels from my diagnostic reading assessments I could assure they had books they could read.  This works for many students.  But for some kids, it doesn’t.  Here are some potential situations readers find themselves in when assigned levels.  These kids are the reason levels should not be a tool for students.

Setting unrealistic goals – “I want to read the highest level in the class because I want to be the best in the class.”  But right now, that reader is reading below grade level and reaching that goals is not only unattainable, but it is also a hinderance to the work he needs to do.

Having an screwed reading identity – This happens in two ways.  “I want to read level x books”instead of “I want to read more nonfiction or mystery books.”  OR (and I’ve had this exact conversation) “What is wrong with my reading, why can’t I read level x?” When in fact the reader is above grade level, but not reading the highest level in the classroom.

Reading less challenging books – Readability is only one measure of text complexity and does not take into account the reader’s motivation, interest or background knowledge.  Struggling readers will surprise you when they choose books just beyond their assessed levels and are motivated to read them.

So, how can reading teachers find a balance? Removing the scaffold of telling readers the levels they can read does not mean you leave them to read any book freely.  It means you must replace that scaffold with other supports.  Working with individual readers to set realistic and specific reading goals is one way to help them.  Teaching strategies to work toward those goals means they must pick books they can read to practice the strategies.  Here’s how I rolled it out with my first graders.

  1. Explicitly teach the options for reading goals.  I use the Reading CAFE goal setting framework including Comprehension, Accuracy, Fluency or Expanding Vocabulary.  Your students’ goals would match whatever reading benchmarks or goals you have in your curriculum.  Heinemann shared a great goal setting sheet created by Jennifer Serrevallo.  After sharing the goals, I ask students to think about what is tricky and decide what they would like to work on.
  2. Individually conference with each student to co-set a goal.  This take some preplanning.  After conducting reading assessments with my students I have a predetermined goal they each need to work on.  Usually in our conference, my goal matches theirs.   But when it doesn’t, I have two options.
    • Ask why they want that goal.  Recently, a six year told me she wanted to work on fluency while I thought she needed support in accuracy.  Her rational was that another student told her she read smoothly, but with little expression.  We went with her goal – she is motivated, has a clear focus, and fluency will also support her work in accuracy.
    • Listen to the child read, notice something he is already doing with your goal in mind and lead him toward it.  For example, a student who needs support in comprehension but is already making connections I name what he is doing and guide him toward the goal of comprehension.  This identification of one thing he is already doing it attainable and authentic.
  3. Use visual tools to teach strategies to habits.  img_2828I learned this in a workshop from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.  By recording the goal and teaching specific strategies to work toward that goal students are empowered in their own learning.  Over time these strategies will become habits and we will co-create a new reading goal together.  This is an example of strategies to support a student’s goal of reading accurately.

Taking away reading levels does not equate to letting kids read whatever they want.  Setting reading goals and purpose behind reading ensures students select books they can read.  They know where they are headed and naturally begin to select books that are challenging, engaging and readable.