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Hoarding All the Glitter Since 2001.

02 January 2013

Reading Assessment Rant: Nonsense Words

The present reading assessment in Kindergarten for my District is Fountas and Pinnell.  Teachers are to give the concepts about print, phonemic awareness, letter recognition, letter sound, and some high-frequency word assessment at the end of each trimester until the child masters the task.  At the end of the year, the teacher also reports the child's reading level via running record and leveled readers.  There's also a decoding words  task I believe is given only at the last trimester and a spelling assessment that doesn't seem to be required (it's a decent one and I will probably give it anyway, along with a Hearing Sounds in Words from the Observation Survey).

I have quibbles with this assessment.  I didn't complete the blending and segmenting assessment portion in November because informal assessment of these skills informed me it would be a big waste of time.  I hadn't taught much of either and certainly not enough for children to blend and segment three and four sound words. In-class activities on the topics were just starting to "click" with a few kids.  To make sure that my post-it notes were largely accurate, I pulled a high reader with good phonemic awareness (able to rhyme and to say if a sound is first, middle, or last in a word) and ran the assessments.  The results were what I had predicted.  In essence, these aren't skills we expect Kindergartners to master in November.  Assessing them formally isn't assessing much and cannot inform instruction if you have good observation skills.  I do.  End of story.

I am also not a big fan of the fifty-item high frequency word list, which has some oddities on it; schools like mine that already had 50+ word lists for Kindergarten as an assessment can apparently substitute their list though.  And the last of the decodable words is "day", which involves a non-Kindergarten spelling pattern (to the extent kids get this one, it's from calendar activities).

However, overall it's an okay assessment, and it has no nonsense words.

Many common assessments like DIBELS give students a list of nonsense words to decode.  This is purported to tell you how fluently kids decode, and since decoding is important to reading, it's supposed to be a measure of reading skill.

It is a measure of nonsense.  It's not just that the research on nonsense word reading is mixed at best.  The key thing is that real reading is more than decoding.  I teach decoding.  I also teach using context clues like the picture, chunking the word, cross-checking, contextualizing, and deleting/re-reading.  All of these skills together tell readers that their job is to make sense of what they read.  In the end, that's what we want readers to do: read and understand.  (Also, to read and enjoy, but it seems like most ed reform is about sucking enjoyment out of school, so never mind that.)

So the well-taught child handed a list of nonsense words is having the rug pulled out from under her.  A number of children will decode the nonsense, come up with nonsense...and then answer with a similar actual word (say, reading cat or case for caz).  Some of the children will answer correctly, and what you've just taught them is that decoding is the key reading strategy.  For a nonsense word assessment, decoding is all that matters.  I can assure you that their first and second grade teachers will not appreciate you instilling this belief.

The fact that these tests exist and are defended boggles my mind.  There is no other subject or field in which such an assessment is given.  A road test for a driver's license takes place on real streets and requires that you monitor for all real-world conditions.  The DIBELS version would test on streets empty of other cars, signs, and so on where you only have to pay attention to your speedometer (which reports your speed only in kilometers).

If a class needs to ace a nonsense word assessment at the end of the year, I can tell you there's going to be a lot of context-free phonics drill filling the day.  I don't think Kindergarten should be like that.  Kindergarten should be like real reading: rich, multi-faceted, and purposeful.

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