Whether an interventionist, tutor, parent, or classroom teacher, when we first see signs of a struggling reader, we want to gather as much information as possible. Let’s say a student is flagged as “At-risk” or “below grade level” on their state or district assessment. The scores from this test are valuable, but they are also often just one measure! As private tutors, when we start working with a new student, we always like to see if we can find which specific skill deficits could be underlying those scores.
We are not psychologists, and we don’t administer any formal assessments that can lead to diagnoses of learning disabilities. We also work independently of school districts. The assessments we give are for instructional purposes only and help us to provide Structured Literacy instruction that is diagnostic and prescriptive!
So what tasks do we use, and what are we looking for? These measures are informal, but comprehensive. Below, we have broken it down into the different foundational skills we want to examine and what types of tasks we use for each!
The phonemic awareness skills of distinguishing between individual sounds in words, as well as segmenting and blending these sounds together, are key to accurate and fluent reading. Phonemic awareness deficits are highly correlated with dyslexia (Shaywitz, 2020 ). We have used free assessments from Heggerty , as well as the Phonological Awareness Skills Test (PAST). We make note of both the accuracy and automaticity of student responses!
Letter Name and Letter Sound Correspondences
To check in on letter ID and letter sound knowledge, we generally use grids or slides with the
letters of the alphabet arranged out of order. Students go through and name the letter or state the sound, one by one. There are lots of resources like these available on Teachers Pay Teachers. Really Great Reading also has a Letter Knowledge Survey as part of their free diagnostic tools. For letter names, we go through both capital and lowercase letters. A lack of automaticity with letter-sound correspondences can contribute to difficulty with decoding. If it takes a lot of mental effort to recall a sound, it will be harder for a student to hold all the sounds in their working memory and then blend those sounds together to read a word.
Many of our students come to us with decoding challenges, so our initial evaluations involve a lot of decoding tasks! We developed our own decoding survey that progresses from VC nonsense words, to CVC words, and then to closed syllables with consonant blends. From there, we love the Really Great Reading Advanced Decoding Survey that incorporates nonsense words with more advanced vowel patterns. This progression helps highlight where the skill breakdown occurs, allowing us to pinpoint where within the scope and sequence to start instruction.
We approach encoding the same way as decoding. We begin with individual letter sounds by dictating a phoneme for students to spell on their whiteboards. Depending on the student, this may include long vowels or other advanced vowel patterns. From there, we dictate several CVC words and words with consonant blends. We dictate progressively more complex words until a student reaches frustration level. For example, if a student makes many errors with consonants and short vowels, we wouldn’t proceed to consonant blends or vowel teams. These spelling tasks highlight how well students are able to translate phoneme segmentation into writing – do they often use the wrong vowel? Do they regularly drop one of the consonants in a consonant blend? Do they drop the final sound altogether?
We generally evaluate and make note of handwriting through other tasks. We look at pencil grip and writing pressure, which can impact writing stamina and fluency. We also look for reversals, and use of capitals vs. lowercase letters. These things can all decrease writing motivation, which is another concern many families bring to us about their students.
Fluency & Comprehension
DIBELS assessments can be downloaded for free,
and they provide helpful measures in areas of fluency and comprehension. They include passages we can use to calculate Oral Reading Fluency, as well Maze passages and oral questions to monitor comprehension. DIBELS provides target scores for different grade levels as well, which can be a helpful tool for communicating with parents!
Reading speed (words per minute) is just one aspect of fluency, though. We also make note of the expression and phrasing present in oral reading. Think: does the student read primarily word by word? Do they change their intonation with questions or dialogue? These behaviors give us clues about their comprehension as well. If they are using appropriate expression, they are more likely to be comprehending while they are reading.
Vocabulary & World Knowledge
Finally, when comprehension is a pressing concern, it is worth considering a students’ vocabulary and world knowledge. These skills contribute to understanding at both the word and sentence level. It is easier to read a word that is already in your vocabulary! Additionally, many words have particular meanings when part of a phrase or larger context. Understanding idioms and multiple meanings of words impacts comprehension as well. These skills are harder to directly assess – especially because depth of vocabulary and background knowledge can change from subject to subject!
The kindergarten foundational survey from Really Great Reading has a section on “Functional” vocabulary (words like first, last, next, before, after), which could provide valuable information particularly for our youngest students.
Every Situation is Different
Sometimes the tasks we begin with or the tasks we select can vary by the age of the student. When working with students 4th grade and beyond, we often do an informal writing task where students must write a narrative or informational paragraph. This can help us evaluate things like conventions of print, as well as syntactical awareness. For our students still learning letters and sounds, we may also do an alphabet task, where they are prompted to say or write the whole alphabet (without singing!) And sometimes, we have to quickly pivot in the middle of an assessment, because age does not always correlate to skill level.
It is important to note that in our current position, we have the time and flexibility to dig deeply into all of these skills right away. We can spend 1-2 hours with each student one-on-one before beginning our intervention work. If you do not have the luxury of that time – which we know many don’t – consider short, targeted, activities at the beginning of a small group lesson. For example, one-by-one, give each student a word to segment. Or, for the first 3-5 minutes, have students read through a list of nonsense words. This might help you to quickly see where you need to explore further.
Reading is a complex process, with many different skills contributing to fluency and comprehension. Starting off with assessment tasks in these different skill areas can help paint a more complete picture of students’ reading strengths and needs and help you to create an instructional plan that is data-driven!
Written by: Rachel Draper & Taryn Quaytman
Copyright © 2023 SparkEd LLC
Our assessment measures are informal and assist us in planning for instruction. If you’re looking for information about more formal assessments related to reading difficulties, check out these fact sheets from the International Dyslexia Association about universal screening and testing for dyslexia.
Really Great Reading (n.d.) Complimentary Reading Assessments. https://www.reallygreatreading.com/diagnostics
Shaywitz, S., & Shaywitz, J. (2020). Overcoming Dyslexia (2nd ed.). Vintage Books.