Monday, October 21, 2013

Monitoring Reading: How can I Assess Student Comprehension?

An important piece of improving student reading is the constant assessment of student comprehension. Students need timely feedback on specific learning goals in order to know if they are improving their skills (and what to do if they are not). Sounds easy, but of course, it's more complex than that.

The Ministry document, A Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction, Grades 4 to 6, Volume 2: Assessment outlines the key purpose of assessment in literacy:

Assessment supports and furthers the broad goals of literacy instruction, which are
to enable each student:
• to become a strategic reader, writer, and oral communicator;
• to expand thinking skills (including metacognitive and critical-literacy skills), developing the necessary habits of mind;
• to deepen the motivation to learn;
• to develop independence as a learner.
In order to develop independence, educators need to constantly introduce new opportunities to students grow as readers by using their repertoire of strategies with increasingly complex readings (at least, this is what is suggested by the curriculum). I think the above list still applies to adolescent readers; my experiences working with reluctant readers indicate that motivation continues to be a significant challenge, but that ability is also a problem. Students in our Essential level classes (designed for students functioning below grade level) are broadly grouped into 3 groups: those functioning at grade 1/2 levels, those stalled out around grade 5/6 and those slightly behind in grade 7/8 levels. The students lack the strategic skills and/or thinking skills that define them as grade appropriate-competent. And, in many cases, students identified as MID (mildly intellectually delayed) are in our Essential classes; a common characteristic for this identification is a limited capacity for thinking, which may impact reading comprehension (as an aside, I find it odd that we still prescribe to tests that measure intellect and classify/ identify people -- often for years -- with that label).

Interestingly, a common concern for secondary school English teachers is that we struggle with knowing how to teach reading or how to effectively "diagnose" the reading levels of students. I think this translates to a difficulty understanding assessment for learning or as learning. We haven't been trained as teachers of reading and struggle to consistently monitor comprehension during reading and before reading. Additionally, it can be a challenge to find find appropriate tools for adolescents.  There are so many tools out there that it's often difficult to ascertain the most appropriate diagnostic tools to use with adolescents. Specific tests, like the Woodcock-Johnson or the Gates-MacGinitie are generally used by Special Education departments for testing, but not all students in Essential have undergone the testing. In our board, we use a range of tools from  PM Benchmarks (using Running Records) in our Primary/ Junior grades through to CASI in our Junior/ Intermediate grades through to OCA in our Intermediate grades (including grade 9). In secondary school, it's difficult to know what other tools to use for diagnostic assessments, but some teachers of Essential are able to use miscue analysis or running records. The real challenge lies in finding appropriate reading materials for adolescents functioning below grade level. Furthermore, as both the Ministry resources and Tovani argue, we have to have reading strategies fully embedded into daily practice, with constant monitoring of growth and feedback to promote growth.

"In our profession, we've come to believe that assessment is about giving credit for the right answer. If we're looking only for the right answer, then students often will not risk admitting confusion. This really puts us teachers at a disadvantage, because then we have to play the role of mind reader. Without the assessments that can guide us, we have to guess where to take our teaching. It's so much easier if we can get our students to share their thinking." - Chris Tovani, p. 115

When it comes to assessments of reading, intermediate teachers still often design language arts/English units around texts (like the novel); in our secondary schools, we often use Scholastic magazines, Orca readers or HIP books to provide appropriate high interest, low readability resources for students. While there needs to be some measurement of comprehension, more important is the metacognition - the assessment as learning. Teachers need to model (through think-alouds, for example) how to reflect on their reading; students need explicit instruction in how to reflect. Metacognitive prompts need to guide student reflection to explore new strategies as they become more proficient readers. It's a balance of activities to monitor comprehension before, during, and after reading that will help promote independent readers.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2006). A Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction, Grades 4 to 6, Volume 2: Assessment. Toronto: Queen's Printer.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2006). A Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction, Grades 4 to 6, Volume 3: Planning and Classroom Management. Toronto: Queen's Printer.

Tovani, Chris (2004). Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension Grades 6-12. Markham: Pembroke. pp 89-116.

Upper Grand DSB. (2003). Blueprint for Literacy: A Handbook of Effective Teaching Practices.