Many schools within Australia are implementing Structured Synthetic Phonics (whether with fidelity or not), yet are still implementing out-dated methods to assess reading. There are still so many schools around the country (and the world for that matter) using running records (such as PM Benchmarking) to assess novice students’ reading ‘levels’, when these students are yet to even learn the phonics code. The validity and reliability of running records is highly questionanable, particularly when used to assess the abilities of novice readers. They reflect a whole-language approach to literacy instruction (think the outdated Three Cueing System).
The importance of teaching decoding:
If we follow the widely supported and well-researched theory of the ‘Simple View of Reading’- students must first become fluent decoders so they can sound out new words they encounter (even the tricky ones which have less common phonic patterns). Using semantic and syntactic information to work out a word is essentially guess-work. Encouraging these strategies in novice readers (who have not learnt the basic phonics code) leads to poor reading habits. Have a read of this research summary by Kerry Hempenstall which explains this in further detail.
Consider this excerpt from The Hobbit:
“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”
Let’s pretend, a student is reading along and all of a sudden they are unsure of the word ‘gruesome’. They don’t have an orthographic representation for this word and therefore cannot access the meaning.
If the student had not been taught how to effectively DECODE (and instead was taught with the Three Cueing System whole-language approach), they would most likely look for clues in the meaning (semantics) or sentence structure (syntactic) to try to ascertain what the word is. Basically, they would be guessing.
If they were to use a word-attack/decoding approach, they could recognise that the word contains the ‘ue’ grapheme and has the word ‘some’ in it, allowing them to get the word off the paper! So they now know how to say the word ‘gruesome’- FANTASTIC. This should always be the first strategy anyone uses to avoid guessing the word. So they still may be unsure of the meaning of the word if they have not read or heard it before. Now is the time where contextual (semantic and syntactic) information can be used to determine the meaning of the word.
How about the word ‘uncomfortable’? What knowledge should I draw upon before trying to guess the word using semantic or syntactic information? If I have been taught morphology, I could recognise the prefix ‘un’ meaning ‘not’ and the base word ‘comfort’. I could also identify the suffix ‘able’, making the word an adjective. This form of decoding using morphological information is a perfect example of how we can establish the meaning of certain words without having to resort to guess-work.
The problematic nature of running records
Running records are based on the 3-cueing whole-language approach to literacy instruction. As we know from the Simple View of Reading, we know that Reading Comprehension is the outcome of sound decoding/word recognition processes and oral language comprehension. So when breakdowns occur in reading, a running record can not inform the teacher or assessor the cause BEHIND this breakdown. Running records do not inform us of the phoneme-grapheme correspondences a student does or does not know. They also do not tell us if the child has the oral language/vocabulary to support the comprehension of the text. The running record doesn’t tell the assessor if the student is spending most of their cognitive load simply decoding the text due to their limited orthographic representations, which in turn could be restricting their comprehension of the text.
So why are so many schools continuing to use running records to assess reading fluency and comprehension for students who are still learning the phonics code? I think it comes down to habit. And the fact that teachers do like assigning ‘levels’ as it makes grading and reporting so much easier. Rather than running record assessments, we need to employ reliable and valid assessments to measure phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary.
Novice readers, decoding, orthographic representations and cognitive load:
If a child is still learning the phonics code (which graphemes represent which phonemes), they have not yet acquired sufficient orthographic representations to read fluently. If a child is spending all of their cognitive load sounding out and decoding words, how can we possibly make a judgement on their comprehension skills? Reading comprehension problems rarely occur in isolation- usually we can boil it down to one of two things. Either the child isn’t a fluent decoder so they are spending their cognitive load trying to sound out the words rather than making meaning, OR, they may be fluent decoders but their oral language and background knowledge is inadequate to comprehend/make meaning from the text. This is why we must assess their phonemic awareness and phonics SEPARATELY to comprehension and vocabulary. If you are not sure how to tell if a student has finished the phonics code, use a screener/placement test such as the Phonic Books Placement Test (www.phonics.co.uk) and The Diagnostic Reading Test for Nonwords (www.motif.org.au).
There are a range of assessments and monitoring tools to track phonics knowledge and decoding, but comprehension is a little trickier. Reading comprehension monitoring has to come from checklists and anecdotal notes from student observations when reading a passage they can comfortably decode. These two comprehension models are useful to scaffold your comprehension teaching and assessment:
These are two other assessments you can use in order to gauge whether a child is performing below or above children of similar age:
Diagnostic comprehension assessment
- The Test of Everyday Reading Comprehension (TERC) – available from motif.org.au
Formative comprehension assessment
- Progressive Achievement Tests in Reading (PAT-R) – available from www.acer.org