Category Archives: assessment

Why is the Vic Ed Dept promoting a Fountas and Pinnell assessment?

Last year, Victorian Education Minister James Merlino said the Education Department did not promote or endorse specific programs, and schools were best-placed to make these decisions.

This year, the Victorian Education Department is inviting schools in the North-East region to apply for up to $2000 to be spent on either Fountas and Pinnell or PAT Reading assessments, or a choice of three maths assessments:

The extra funds and emphasis on data-driven instructional decision-making are welcome, but not if they help teachers gather data on how well children can memorise and guess words, or identify children who are struggling with reading comprehension, without clarifying why (decoding? language comprehension? both?).

I’m no expert on mainstream educational assessments for typically-developing older students, but literacy assessments for beginners and strugglers (such as the ones listed here) should assess the skills that matter most for learning to read and spell.

These include phonemic awareness and letter knowledge in beginners, and phonological memory, rapid automatised naming, word and pseudoword reading and spelling in strugglers. These assessments can identify word-level reading/dyslexia-type difficulties, and thus powerfully inform effective instructional decision-making.

Children who seem to have oral language comprehension problems, which also affect reading comprehension, should be referred to a speech pathologist. Children whose comprehension problems arise from pedagogy that prioritises form over content need their teachers to read The Knowledge Gap by Natalie Wexler.

I have only once administered a Fountas and Pinnell assessment, and it left me scratching my head. I just don’t get the whole balanced literacy/guided reading headspace, which has its roots in the now-debunked idea that reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game.

You might already have watched the US Reading League video of psychologist Steve Dykstra unpacking the statistics in the “gold standard” study on Fountas and Pinnell’s Leveled Literacy Intervention program, showing the program was ineffective, though since most teachers don’t know how to read the statistics, they believe the marketing materials, and keep buying it. This doesn’t exactly build my confidence in the validity or reliability of Fountas and Pinnell assessments.

On the assessment page of the Fountas and Pinnell  website, you’ll see that the Benchmark Level Assessment assesses “students’ independent and instructional reading levels according to the F&P Text Level Gradient™“. The last time I looked, this gradient did not reflect the sequence of sounds, spelling patterns and word parts being taught in literacy lessons.

Fountas and Pinnell books for beginners are predictable/repetitive texts, which don’t simplify spelling patterns, and thus tend to encourage children to memorise and guess words, not decode them. I’d be (pleasantly) surprised if their assessments don’t reflect the same logic.

The PAT is the other reading test North-East region schools are currently allowed to buy with this new funding. The Australian Council for Educational Research sells the PAT tests, and its website says that the “Progressive Achievement Tests in Reading assess students’ reading comprehension skills, vocabulary knowledge and spelling”. It doesn’t say anything about word-level reading or phonemic awareness.

The PAT Reading test might be just what schools in the North-East region most need right now, but it might not be. Schools teaching children phonemic awareness and systematic, explicit phonics, and with a strong Response To Intervention approach, are very likely to need other assessments to document the progress of some students, for good, scientifically-based reasons.

Education Minister James Merlino should clarify that he meant what he said last year, and let schools propose other valid, reliable assessments for purchase with this additional funding. Taxpayers’ money should only be spent on valid, reliable assessments that are consistent with current scientific knowledge about how children learn to read and spell.

Last chance to register for LDA’s David Kilpatrick seminars

Registrations close shortly for this month’s LDA seminars by David Kilpatrick. I’m not sure exactly when they close for Perth and Cairns, but Melbourne’s close on 8th August. Adelaide & Sydney are already sold out. The seminar on the 19th at Melbourne Town Hall will include 17 supplier displays (details below) to browse from 8.15-9.00am and during the breaks.

Dr Kilpatrick is the author of the excellent Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties and Equipped for Reading Success, and you might have also seen him talk online (e.g. here, here, here, here and here).

I recently assessed a teenager with the kind of reading and spelling difficulties I hope these seminars will soon help stamp out. He’s a classic Compensator. Intelligent, hard-working, with good oral language skills, but very poor phonemic awareness and proficiency (<1st percentile on the CTOPP-2 Elision subtest) and thus weak word-level reading and spelling.

He finds it hard to sound out unfamiliar words, tending to look at the start and end of words and guess the middles. If you give him a wordlist including similar-looking words like “complete” and “compete”, he probably won’t notice they’re different.

His teachers aren’t aware of the extent of his reading difficulties because they don’t test word-level reading or phonemic awareness, and when this student reads connected text he gets most of the words right, by compensating for his poor decoding with his good oral language. They notice his poor spelling, and try to help him with it, but it’s not really their area of expertise. Continue reading

Ros Neilson on the Foundations of Early Literacy Assessment (FELA)

Last month at our office we had the pleasure of hosting Speech Pathology legend Roslyn Neilson for a talk about her newish early literacy assessment, the FELA.

The FELA is intended to supersede two of Ros’s previous tests, the SPAT-R and SEAPART, and help teachers, therapists and others assess phonemic awareness and alphabetic knowledge, which are vital, teachable early literacy skills.

The FELA can be used in preschool screening as well as progress monitoring through the early years of primary school.

On the day, we decided to video the session, as we could only fit 30 people into our biggest room (which Ros scarily called a Conference Centre), and had to turn a few people away, plus many other interested people were too far off or too busy to come.

Here’s the video, with my apologies that it’s blurry at the start and there is a short break and you might need to turn up the volume towards the end (camera malfunction). Ros’s slides can be downloaded here.

Thanks so much to Ros for freely sharing her time and expertise so generously, and for the chocolates, which we are still enjoying. The FELA is available from Ros’s website, takes up to 30 minutes per child and I think is very reasonably priced at $198 inc GST. If you’d like to take a look at it and you’re in Melbourne, Ros has left us a copy, and you’d be welcome to browse it.

Thanks also to fab Spelfabet staff Renee Vlahos, Caitlin Stephenson and Tessa Weadman (yes, I am going to put them on the website soon) for their help, and to my brother for the huge bag of apples that got me making easy, delicious apple cake (here’s the recipe, but I microwaved and drained the apples, and beat the eggs). After I bought my Goodwill Wine I found out they raise funds for Code Read Dyslexia Network. Please consider when next ordering wine.

My brother just gave me ANOTHER huge bag of apples, so maybe that means I should invite another speaker. Ros is a pretty hard act to follow, but let me know if you have ideas/suggestions.

Running Records are an uninformative waste of teacher time

I’ve been doing lots of assessment of my clients’ skills in the following areas lately:

  • Receptive and/or expressive language
  • Articulation
  • Phonological awareness
  • Phonological/auditory memory
  • Rapid Automatised Naming
  • Word and pseudoword reading accuracy and efficiency
  • Spelling.

These allow me to identify problems in their reading and spelling systems, and work out how significant/severe these problems are, and what to do about them.

I use the robust, evidence-based Simple View of Reading (SVR) to guide my decision-making. A new, plain-English explanation of the SVR by retired US teacher Stephen Parker can be found on Pamela Snow’s blog.

Wherever possible, I use valid, reliable, standardised tests for assessment. However, I once administered a Running Record to a child with selective mutism, because she would talk to me, but not other adults at school (we were working on it). Her class teacher thus asked me to administer the assessment required by the school, which (sad face) used a multi-cueing model of reading and a text level gradient approach to reading assessment. Continue reading

The nature of reading development and difficulties

Last day of the school holidays. Time to summarise David Kilpatrick’s third excellent seminar, “The Nature of Reading Development and Reading Difficulties”, presented at the 2017 Reading in the Rockies conference.

Here it is on Youtube, if you just want to cut to the chase:

Numbers in brackets refer to the time on the video clock, to help you find sections of particular interest.

(2:14) Tens of millions of dollars are spent on reading research, and the findings go into journals, never to be heard of again, unless you’re a reading researcher.

Working as both a school psychologist and a university lecturer gave Dr Kilpatrick access to these journals, and made him think about their practical application to kids sitting across the table from him in schools. Continue reading

Low frequency word spelling test

I’ve just made up a free, low-frequency word spelling test which you can download here and use to explore learners’ spelling skills and knowledge.

It’s not a standardised test, so won’t tell you whether a learner’s spelling skills are behind, on a par with or ahead of peers. Its purpose is to focus your attention on the things that matter most for spelling:

  • speech sounds (phonemes),
  • letter patterns that represent these sounds (graphemes),
  • word structure (positions and combinations of sounds in words/syllables),
  • parts of speech e.g. “pact” is a noun, “packed” is a verb,
  • meaning (especially for homophones like see/sea),
  • meaningful word parts (morphemes such as prefixes, suffixes and word stems/roots).

This should help you work out which key skills and knowledge learners already have, and which they need to learn, and thus help teach them to spell explicitly, systematically and effectively.

Don’t do the whole test with anyone, it’s far too long (390 items). Start at your learner’s estimated current skill level, and work forwards if they get words mostly correct, and backwards if they don’t. Stop when you hit a floor (most words too easy) or ceiling (most words too hard). Continue reading

PIRLS 2016 results

The 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) results came out yesterday. They show that Australian Year 4 kids are better at reading than they were in 2011. Excellent.

However, only 81% reached the “proficient” benchmark, and about 7% of kids are still reading very poorly*, a number unchanged since 2011. Far too many of them are indigenous.

What did PIRLS 2016 involve?

One Year 4 class plus all indigenous Year 4 students in 286 schools (6341 kids in total) across the country took part. The school sample was selected to represent all states and territories as well as Australia’s geographic, school sector and socioeconomic diversity. Continue reading