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Assessing Reading Progress: How to Make the Grade

Good teachers are evaluating all the time. At the beginning of the school year, assessments help to determine grouping for instruction. During every teaching session informal evaluation gives the student valuable immediate feedback. ("Good! You read Dad's words in a way that made us know he is proud of his new Tin Lizzie" is far more effective than a vague "Good job!" no matter how many exclamation points appear on the latter.) As each teaching day comes to a close, the teacher may look at a set of student papers to determine whether teaching has been effective and to develop the next day's teaching strategies.

But the teacher eventually faces the challenging task of determining a grade. Individual assignments, report cards, and permanent records all require grades. Grading is assigning a mark that stands for a level of accomplishment. It often involves making a comparison to an accepted standard. And especially in reading, grading goes far beyond grading papers.

How is reading different?

When a student is "reading," he is getting the message from print. When we assign a reading grade, we need to keep only this definition in mind. Most of the easily graded work is not evidence that the student has done "reading." That is the reason assigning a reading grade needs more consideration.

What evidence can we use?

Awareness of and apparent use of available cuing systems:

  1. Syntactic cues--A good reader will expect a word to fit the syntax he is familiar with. That idea will be part of what he considers when determining an unknown word. A poor reader may substitute a word that does not fit the syntax; he does not correct himself.
  2. Semantic cues--A good reader will consider the meanings of all the known words of the sentence in determining an unknown word. A poor reader may read one word at a time without regard for the other words.
  3. Schematic cues--A good reader makes the connection between what he knows and what the text says or implies. A poor reader may think only of the word he is saying without associating it with prior knowledge.
  4. Phonics cues--The good reader applies letter-sound associations almost subconsciously. The poor reader may have one of two kinds of problems. He may have underdeveloped phonics skills. He uses only an initial clue and then guesses quickly without analyzing the vowel pattern in the syllable. Or he may use phonics in isolation, becoming so absorbed in the word "noises" that he ignores or forgets the message of the print.

Reader processes information—

  1. Literal thinking shows in the student's ability to get information from the text and to store, retrieve, and integrate information.
  2. Interpretive thinking shows in the student's ability to make logical predictions and inferences.
  3. Critical thinking shows in the ability to make critical decisions about the text.
  4. Appreciative thinking reflects the student's ability to respond to the text. He may respond to the literary elements, or he may respond emotionally and mentally to the ideas of the author.

Reader judges what he knows and does not know—

  1. Does the reader know when a word did not make sense, and does he correct himself?
  2. Does he know when to ignore and read on, when to reread the current sentence, or when to reread the previous context?

Reader communicates well reading aloud—

Oral reading is easier to assess. But it is easy to observe the wrong set of behaviors during oral reading. It is important to look at the reader's ability to communicate the author's message rather than to merely display word recognition skills.

Strong oral reading—
sounds like normal speech
demonstrates phrasing and pace that match the meaning of the text
uses pitch and tone to interpret the text

How do we record this evidence?

A check sheet or an anecdotal record can record observations of "real" oral and silent reading. Both of these tools require firsthand observation. The dated, specific comments on either one become strong evidence for evaluation and grading. Most teachers can get adequate information by evaluating only a few students each day, and most teachers use one or the other at a given time during the school year.

Check sheets are lists of general reading goals for each grade level. Many administrators and teachers find that a check sheet for each grade in their school provides a way to reflect their educational goals. The teacher keeps such a sheet for each child on a clipboard or in a notebook. A sample check-sheet item might be "Logically predicts coming events. 1 2 3 4 5." On a given day the teacher might observe that one student was giggling about an event even before it is explicitly described in the text. When she asks the child to tell what might happen, he is quick to tell the inevitable outcome. The teacher circles the "5" to represent the highest level of thoughtfulness, adding a comment about the specific behavior observed and dating that item.

Anecdotal records record specific behaviors observed in an informal way. The anecdotal record provides more flexibility than the check sheet. Students' anecdotal records are being kept simultaneously. Most teachers make one anecdotal comment per reading group per day. In two weeks, the teacher will have at least one comment per child.

What does student writing tell us?

Most teachers rely on the student worktext for a portion of the reading grade. Remember, however, that written responses seldom go beyond the literal and interpretive level. For the evaluation process, select mostly pages that reflect "real" reading. Look for skills, such as recognizing cause and effect, finding main ideas, and using comparison and contrast. Also select pages done when mastery has been expected rather than pages meant for initial teaching.

Plan to place a limited number of such pages into a folder or portfolio.

What weight does each aspect have?

The teacher and administrator usually decide together what proportion of the grade to assign to each aspect of the reading process.

A reading grade might be determined from written responses (20%), language-like oral reading (20%), and comprehension of silent reading (60%).

That reading assessment relates directly to the level of the material. (To avoid misunderstandings, a teacher should inform the parent.) For example, three students in second grade may be making satisfactory progress from the point at which each began: one is reading at early second-grade level, another is reading at higher second-grade level, and the third is reading well above second-grade level.

Evaluation should never overshadow the simple enjoyment the teacher and students should get from reading. It is far more important that students leave the reading session with a desire to come back tomorrow to read more than it is that the teacher have an anecdotal record filled out for the day. Reading is, after all, getting the message from print.

by Jan Joss. Updated October 21, 2015.