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Wednesday / October 23

The Role of Assessment in Balanced Literacy

Balanced literacy is more than grouping students, as my colleague Doug Fisher pointed out in his blog. But grouping for instruction is important and, sadly, neglected. If our goal is to ensure that students can read and comprehend texts independently, then we need data about the barriers each student faces so that we can address those barriers before it’s too late. Assessment information, used formatively, allows teachers to make adjustments in real time to keep learning moving forward.   

There are a couple of problems that get in the way of teachers making evidenced-based instructional decisions. We’ll explore two of them in this blog posting.   

First, and probably most commonly, a problem is that groups are static and assessment data is not used to design learning experiences. To ensure learning, students should be grouped and re-grouped based on their instructional needs, not their current reading levelsWe were all taught to group students based on their reading levels, but what if that’s not right? Meeting with a group of four students all of whom read at a Lexile level of 450 will probably not move their learning forward. There are many reasons that students are reading at a particular Lexile level. Understanding those reasons allows teachers to customize learning for students. Imagine one student in this group needs work on vocabulary and background knowledge but two others are below the 50 percentile in fluency. And one student seems to read just fine but doesn’t take his time on the comprehension questions. Each of these students needs different support to move forward. 

Second, it’s time-consuming to analyze assessment data (even if it is collected) to determine needs. Thankfully, there are several systems available that analyze student assessment information and provide ideas for teachers. At our school, we use Literably. Students read aloud to a device (e.g., tablet) and submit the digital file. Twenty-four hours later, the system returns a running record with scores for accuracy, fluency, and comprehension. There are many systems that do this and they all save time for teachers. When teachers have this information, they can make strategic decisions about instructional needs. Unfortunately, in some locations, teachers spend all of their time collecting the data and trying to find time to analyze it. Systems like Literably provide the information and it allows teachers to use their time to determine instructional needs. 

When teachers have good assessment information, they can make appropriate decisions.  Imagine a class of students, all of whom need help with comprehension. In this case, the teacher might decide to engage students in a series of whole-class think alouds in which she models her own comprehension and how she thinks about the questions she is being asked. Alternatively, if the class is struggling with fluency, the teacher might plan some partner reading tasks and readers’ theater activities.   

But what if there are only six students who need work on accuracy or fluency? Then the teacher might form some groups, based on the patterns identified in the data, and design small group learning experiences for the students who need that type of learning. As an example, if 80% of the class is above the 50th percentile in oral reading fluency, it may not be a good use of whole class time to focus on this element of literacy learning. Instead, the students who are below the 50th percentile might participate in small group lessons that build their fluency and comprehension.   

This logic applies to all aspects of literacy. There is no reason to teach a grammar rule to the whole class when there is evidence that a majority of them already use the rule in their writing. There is no reason to teach a sound-spelling relationship to students who have already mastered it.  

But, given the diversity of our classrooms, there are likely students who need this type of learning. Assessment information identifies the needs, but then teachers need to use the structure of the balanced literacy classroom to meet those needs. Along the way, they should not sacrifice some students learning because others have unfinished learning. The flexibility of the balanced literacy classroom allows teachers to engage students in meaningful collaborative and independent tasks while meeting the unique and diverse needs of students. Seize the data and make wise decisions that ensure all students progress toward independent reading (and writing) success. 

Written by

Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California. She has been a prominent Corwin author, publishing numerous books including The Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12Engagement by DesignRigorous Reading, Texas Edition, This is Balanced Literacy, and many more.

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