Using Assessment Results to Guide Instruction: Some Dos and Don'ts
by Julie Russ Harris, M.Ed., Elementary Curriculum Specialist
Using assessment results to guide teaching is a hallmark of effective reading instruction. Indeed, today’s schools and classrooms are replete with data reflecting students’ reading strengths and struggles. But data can be both an opportunity and a challenge. The big question often is: How do I link what I know about students to how I teach them? Here, we describe a few common assessment scenarios and explore some dos and don’ts for instructional responses.
Scenario 1: Students demonstrate low scores on a reading comprehension assessment
Don’t respond solely with comprehension strategy instruction
If reading comprehension appears to be a struggle, strategy instruction is all too often seen as the answer. For some learners, a concerted focus on how to actively draw inferences or make predictions will make a meaningful difference. However, “low” comprehension does not necessarily signal that a learner is struggling to put active-reading strategies to use. After all, a reader may know how to draw an inference, but if she is struggling to decipher the words on the page or is unclear on what those words mean, striving to arrive at a reasonable inference will not help in terms of achieving accurate and deep comprehension.
Do dig deeper
Before jumping to a solution, we need more nuanced information on sources of reading comprehension difficulty, as reading comprehension is the outcome of many different integrated skills. At the broadest level, two skill categories go into reading comprehension: code-based skills (e.g. alphabet knowledge and decoding) and meaning-based skills (e.g. vocabulary and topic knowledge). Therefore, how a teacher responds to “low” reading comprehension scores has everything to do with the profiles of readers in her classroom, so when a reader’s comprehension appears to be low, the first step is to find out why.
Scenario 2: Students demonstrate low scores on a language assessment
Don’t solely emphasize definitions
When a reader experiences language-based difficulties such as knowledge of vocabulary or syntax, the intuitive response is to teach language. However, building up students’ language is a complicated enterprise that demands a comprehensive effort. Teaching vocabulary lists might be part of an effective instructional approach, but on their own, these may not translate into stronger language or improved reading comprehension.
Do provide robust language and knowledge-building opportunities
When students require more opportunities to develop their language skills, the best instruction often feels more like enrichment than remediation. This is because effective vocabulary instruction—that is, instruction that builds deep knowledge of words and concepts—is organized within content-based units of study that involve reading, writing, and dialogue. These units offer opportunities to deeply study a small set of useful and complex words, and include complementary instruction focused on word-learning strategies. Instructional methods combine explicit teaching with project-based learning rooted in conceptually rich texts and talk.
Scenario 3: Students demonstrate low scores on a word-reading assessment
Don’t leave connected texts behind
When readers demonstrate difficulties with word-reading skills, many strong teachers reach for letter tiles, make good use of a word wall, or gather materials for word sorts—and rightly so! But we cannot stop there. Our struggling readers need and deserve opportunities to put their growing decoding skills to use in connected texts. It’s important to find texts with controlled language, such as decodable texts, where students can directly apply and practice their developing word-reading skills. Moreover, their language and knowledge must be continually honed and enhanced through rich read-alouds and text-based discussions. Without these opportunities, learning to read the words on the page will lack meaning and purpose.
Do provide systematic and explicit code-based instruction
When students struggle with cracking the “code” of English print, an explicit and systematic approach is crucial. Ideally, this approach begins where a reader is on the reading development continuum and moves forward at a responsive pace. The reader might need to build letter-sound correspondence knowledge; gain an understanding of syllable types or spelling rules; or practice putting decoding skills to use in isolation and in context. To be sure, teaching and learning the code system of written English is not easy, but there is a solid body of evidence behind its instruction. In fact, research with diverse learners shows that with structured, systematic, and explicit instruction, automatic and accurate word-reading is within reach.
A final do: Start with strengths
No matter the scenario in which you find yourself, remember to step back from focusing on where difficulties might lie and consider the many strengths each and every student brings through the school door. The best data-driven instruction celebrates and builds upon these strengths.
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