How do you know if a student is a struggling reader? How many ‘reading levels’ do they need to be behind before we declare them so? How long do you give them before you recommend that they go off to a reading intervention group? (presuming you are lucky enough to have one in your school). At what age should alarm bells be ringing? 6 years old, 7 years old, 10 years old?
The answer is simple and yet complex (of course!). Firstly, ‘benchmark reading levels are a terrible way to measure progress in reading. That might sound like a bizarre thing to say, but let me explain. The typical benchmark reading system used by most schools has a tendency to provide ‘false positives’ when it comes to reading progress. This is due to the fact that it isn’t timed, that it allows children to substitute words that ‘make sense’ instead of the words that are actually on the page and it limits children to a rather narrow range of ‘sight words’, especially in the early stages so that it may appear that children are reading well but they don’t actually have the skills to tackle unfamiliar words. In a previous post, I wrote about this very thing and some alternatives.
So, if the ‘benchmark reading assessment’ isn’t the best, how do we identify our struggling readers?
Firstly, one of the most important things to do is to identify children who aren’t keeping up as soon as humanly possible. This can occur in the few weeks of foundation. You will notice that some children don’t seem to remember things as easily as their peers. They struggle to form letters or speak in full sentences. They forget what they have learned and need lots of repetition to remember things. They find it very difficult to rhyme, identify the first sounds in words and blend words orally. These signs are the first indicators that you may have a struggling reader in your class. Don’t ‘wait and see’ or ‘give them time’. The time to act is now. Provide some extra opportunities for them to revise, chat with parents about what they can do at home and provide resources for them to do so (sound cards etc) and monitor their progress very closely.
Tracking student progress without a benchmark assessment is really quite simple. Up to a certain point the only data you need to collect is phonics and phonemic awareness data. These are the building blocks of reading and you really wont’ need to do a ‘reading’ assessment until they can competently manage a text at about 60 words per minute. If your reading assessment includes word level blending of both real and ‘alien’ words then you can be certain that the children are building sound skills. Of course, you will pay attention to how they are reading in your lessons and identify those children who are not moving from robotic ‘sounding out’ to more fluent word reading, but you can skip the text level assessment and save yourself some time.
Here is an informal phonics and word level reading assessment that I have written. You can download it below. I am sharing it with you as a word document so that you can adjust it to suit the progression of teaching that your school currently uses. To be on track, students should be able to complete at least the first page of the assessment by the end of the foundation year.
By the end of year 1, students should be able to read at approximately 50-60 words per minute of a reasonably complex text and by the end of year 2, read at 90 words per minute and be able to complete this entire assessment.
Aside from a delay in phonics knowledge and fluency, some other signs of a reading difficulty include:
- Slow and stilted reading
- Appears to guess from looking at the first letter of the word
- When stuck on a word will spend time looking at the pictures
- Gets the first part of the word but not the rest
- Inserts letters when reading words
- Misreads even simple words
- Incorrectly reads words even after they have correctly read them on a previous page or reads them differently each time they are encountered
- Can read simple words but not words with vowel digraphs (ow, oo, ay, ar, air etc)
- Trouble with multi-syllable words
- Requires many exposures to remember newly learned materials
- Skips words when they read
It can be easy to assume that children are reading well, but if they show any of the above signs or cannot complete the phonics assessments by the milestone points, then you really do need to take some action. Reading ‘behaviours’ such as those above will certainly impact on reading comprehension and the student’s ability to engage fully with a text.
While it is important to act quickly to support struggling readers, it is equally important to know that it is never to late to take action and help a student improve their reading skills.
Once you have identified that a student may have a difficulty or delay with reading, it is important to make provision for the teaching they need to get back on track. To find out more about my upcoming Supporting Struggling Readers Teach Along click here.
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