Assessing Literacy Effectively

    Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell see assessment as the gateway to responsive teaching

    Using sound instructional approaches within your classroom community enables you to make moment-to-moment teaching decisions that respond to each child’s learning needs. You can plan your instructional moves and interact with your students in a way that supports their successful processing of increasingly complex texts. This responsive teaching allows you to situate instruction in the “learning zone,” so that the children can use what they know successfully to stretch their reading and writing abilities. Responsive teaching is the most sophisticated and difficult task in literacy instruction, but the payoff is great. It begins with your use of effective assessment to guide your teaching.

    Assessment is not something you do to please your administrators or coach. It is more essential. Without detailed and accurate information on the specific individuals you teach, you cannot make sound instructional decisions and detect evidence of learning. Teaching without it is like “teaching without the children.” While knowledge of literacy processes (reading, writing, talk) gives you a vision of what to teach, assessment is the guide to knowing how to teach and when to teach it for maximum impact.

    Let us examine three essential elements of any effective reading assessment: (1) your use of authentic texts, (2) your focus on each student’s text-based conversation, and (3) your understanding of what literacy progress looks like over time for competent readers and writers.

    Use Authentic Texts to Acquire Behavioral Evidence

    If you are expecting your students to read continuous text with accuracy, fluency, and deep comprehension, it makes sense to assess their progress by observing them as they do exactly that.

    You can find the information you need by carefully observing, coding, and analyzing reading behaviors as students process real texts that are written, edited, and field tested to ensure they reflect the characteristics of texts for and demands on the reader at specific levels. Through conversation and sometimes writing, you gain additional information as to how they think, comprehend, and articulate their understandings.

    Assessing your students’ response to authentic, carefully leveled books will help you identify each reader’s independent, instructional, and hard reading levels. All three pieces of information are useful. Finding the instructional level of text is key to planning and implementing effective teaching that will move students forward. An instructional-level text is one that is more complex than a child can read independently but can be successfully processed with the support of skilled teaching. In this zone, the greatest learning takes place. The independent level is important because, in addition to texts that stretch them, students need to clock up a great deal of reading on their own in order to explore genres and content in depth.

    The hard level is important to know because, while effective reading work takes place when students are challenged, the benefit is lost if a text is far beyond the student at this moment in time. The process breaks down, and the student cannot experience any proficiency. It is a bit like beginning climbing lessons on a 100-foot cliff. The real value of a gradient of text (from easiest to hardest) is that it helps you find the learning zone and provide for each student’s successful reading experience.

    Observe the Competencies of Each Child with Conversation Rooted in Text

    Much can be learned from observing students while they read, but much more information is available in the talk they do about their reading. Through conversation, you find the best evidence of comprehension. (Writing is also revealing; however, many students understand more than they can articulate in writing, so you want the full picture.) Your students’ talk about a book reveals their thinking about it. Every day, you can gather information from their discussion of texts in small groups, in individual conferences, and in whole-class discussions. This kind of assessment is informal and ongoing.

    When conducting systematic assessment, you will want to engage individual students in meaningful conversation about a book. This “comprehension conversation” begins with an open-ended prompt or question, such as “Talk about what happened in this story” or “What important information did you find in this book?” so that you can get an idea of what is foremost in the student’s mind. From there, you can prompt and probe for more evidence. But this kind of conversation is not an interrogation nor to check whether a reader remembers every detail. It is designed to help students express their thinking—what they are able to notice about texts and what deeper messages they are gleaning.

    Use Your Understanding of Literacy Progress for Proficient Readers and Writers as a Guide

    In order to evaluate each student’s unique strengths and needs, it is helpful to understand what progress in literacy learning looks like over time.

    You need clearly defined instructional levels and a roadmap of precise reading behaviors to notice, teach for, and support at each text level and grade so that you know how to identify teaching goals for each student.

    We created the F&P Text Level Gradient as a teaching and assessment tool representing 26 points on a gradient of reading difficulty. Each point on that gradient, from the easiest at level A to the most challenging at level Z, represents a small but significant increase in difficulty over the previous level. By using texts at precise levels in assessment, you are able to build a clearer picture of how your students are constructing meaning as they process texts.

    You can also use The Fountas & Pinnell Literacy Continuum to categorize the strategic in-the-head actions that students bring to their comprehension of what they are reading: thinking within, beyond, and about a text.

    Systematic observation nested in a deep understanding of the reading process allows you to see what your students have learned, what they need to learn next, and what teaching moves will support them.

    Using Both Interval and Continuous Assessments to Guide Teaching and Document Progress

    Continuous, systematic observation and assessment are the heartbeat of responsive teaching.

    When planning assessment, it is helpful to think in terms of interval assessment and continuous assessment. Conduct interval assessment near the beginning of the school year to determine the approximate level of text at which to begin instruction with each student and again at the end of the year (and possibly near the middle) to document each student’s learning over time.

    Use continuous assessment, on the other hand, every day as you observe students reading. Establish a schedule for coding, scoring, and analyzing a reading record for each child. The frequency with which you collect data for a child depends on how the child is responding to your teaching. With both types of assessment, you step out of teaching to take an objective look at students’ progress and evaluate the effects of your teaching.
    The single most important factor in students’ literacy success is skillful, informed teaching. While assessment is not teaching, it is still essential, because it is gathering information for teaching. It makes evidence-based, student-centered, responsive teaching possible.
    When you respond precisely to each student’s observable behaviors, you meet students where they are and lead them forward with intention and precision. With effective assessment, you are able to teach—not a book, not a program—but the children before you.

    Irene C. Fountas is the Marie M. Clay endowed chair in reading recovery at Lesley University, and Gay Su Pinnell is professor emeritus in the School of Teaching and Learning at the Ohio State University. Fountas and Pinnell’s collective and comprehensive literacy work includes a cohesive classroom literacy system (Fountas & Pinnell Classroom™), an intervention system (Leveled Literacy Intervention), an assessment system (Benchmark Assessment System and Sistema de evaluación de la lectura), an extensive professional book base, and professional learning opportunities. To learn more about Fountas & Pinnell Literacy, please visit www.fountasandpinnell.com.

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