So you have a struggling reader. Our normal first “go-to” is to complete a running record using an instructional text. A careful running record analysis can give you a lot of clues as to where and how a student is struggling. One strategy you might try is to write all the miscues on a piece of paper and look at them in isolation, away from the text.
What if your student made the following miscues:
You might justifiably draw the conclusion that your student needs some work on long vowel sounds and the patterns that indicate the sound will be long (e.g. “magic e” or vowel team). To be fair, a running record analysis is rarely this clear cut. Often students are using context and structural cues to make an educated guess on a specific word. Students become extremely good at using these cues, and this strategy might mask the fact that they don’t actually understand some aspects of the written code.
Although I always recommend a running record as a first step, I also recommend some additional measures that look more specifically at the patterns in English in isolation, in high frequency words, and in low frequency words.
To begin with, I give a Sound Assessment (see attached). This has a list of individual letters, and some common letter combinations such as vowel teams (ai), digraphs (ch) and common prefixes (tion). In my experience, some students who have excelled in whole language learning actually do quite poorly on this measure. Their brains have figured out the code without ever breaking down language into its individual building blocks. They have learned the word “out”, so they can read “sprouted”. This does not mean that they can necessarily tell you the sound that “ou” makes. For learners who thrive in whole language, not knowing the “ou” sound isn’t a big deal, because they know words such as “out” and “sound”, so they can read and spell related words. For learners who are struggling with the code, the Sound Assessment gives us an insight into which building blocks they are comfortable with, and which need some targeted instruction.
Next, I give a High Frequency Word List (also see attached). I developed this list by examining words found in common, highly used levelled books that I have used with students over my years of teaching. In my experience, even struggling readers pick up these words due to massive exposure. These words are a mix of regular decodable words that follow patterns that can be taught (e.g. help, here, go, down, little, over) and irregular words that are not decodable and just need to be remembered (e.g. said, where, have, once, answer). A student’s knowledge of these words can often mask an underlying gap in his/her underlying knowledge of the English code. Many students do exceptionally well on this list, but still are not progressing with their reading skills.
The next step is to administer a Low Frequency Word List (also attached). This list is often where I gather the most information about a student’s reading skills. When I administer these measures, I’m always hoping to gather an understanding of what a student does when an unknown word is encountered. I’ve organized this list into “syllable types”, which I will go into more in subsequent posts. (For a brief overview of syllable types, check out the Syllable Types document attached.) This organization scheme allows me to see at a glance if a student understands and uses any common patterns in the English Language. For example, a student might be able to read the first 8 words which all contain a single, short vowel sound (closed syllable). They then might move onto the next words and continue to use a short vowel sound. “Pike” may become “pick”, and “fame” may become “fam”. This would be a clear indication that the student does not understand that the pattern “vowel-consonant-e” indicates a long vowel sound. By looking through the student responses, you can determine gaps in understanding and plan instruction accordingly.
A final piece of information that is invaluable is a phonological awareness screen (also attached). I like to use the PASS (Phonological Awareness Skills Screener), as it gives a wide range of information including rhyming, segmenting sounds and syllables, blending sounds and syllables, and phoneme manipulation. Although we sometimes think of phonological awareness instruction as a focus for kindergarten, it is important to understand that good phonological awareness is essential for reading. The correlation is so strong that phonological awareness can be used as a predictor of reading success even before a student begins to learn to read. The good news is that phonological awareness can be taught. Just like the Low Frequency Word Assessment, the results of the PASS can be used to inform and plan instruction.
The combination of these assessments (Letter and Sound Combinations, High Frequency Word List, Low Frequency Word List, and PASS) gives a wealth of information about the gaps that might be responsibility for a student’s lack of progression in decoding skills. In my next few posts, I will suggest ways to organize instruction in order to help students begin to recognize the patterns inherent in the English Language.