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How Literacy Specialists Can Avoid Simplistic and Inaccurate Solutions

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Skirting Questions” by Deborah Wolter in Literacy Today, November/December 2016 (Vol. 34, #3, p. 10-11).
In this Literacy Today article, Deborah Wolter (Ann Arbor Public Schools) says that when literacy specialists finish assessing a student, a parent or administrator often asks, What level is he? Does she have a learning difficulty? Will he qualify for special education? At such moments, she says, it’s important to gently skirt giving a simple reading level or label and “provide a complete portrayal of the processes, strengths, and weaknesses of an emerging or developing reader.” Specifically:
• Explain how proficient and fluent readers actually read. They select books and other material to expand their own interests and knowledge; read for a clear purpose; adjust their reading according to the readability of the text and their background knowledge; are aware of the vocabulary needed for a particular text; self-correct, re-read, infer, or look up definitions when the meaning is unclear; and read and think deeply in both linear and nonlinear fashion to understand and learn new information.
• Explain the ins and outs of assessment tools. Many tests, says Wolter, “go against the grain of what proficient and fluent readers normally do, particularly among students of diverse cultural, economic, linguistic, and academic backgrounds.” For example, a test might ask students to read words in isolation – words they can read accurately in context. Most tests are composed of isolated fragments of text and measure narrow subsets of reading skills. Some assessments don’t give students credit for self-corrections or word substitutions that make sense. And some tests are timed, require oral reading, and don’t let students look back at the passage when answering questions. Because of these and other characteristics of reading tests, literacy specialists need to use interviews, observations, and professional judgment to see if test results are an accurate reflection of a student’s true reading proficiency.
• Work to get individualized and well-matched literacy instruction for each child. “Too often,” says Wolter, “parents and administrators take an arbitrary and direct route to some sort of ‘evidence-based’ core reading program as a result of simple scores.” Without a more thoughtful diagnosis, this program may not be the best match for students – for example, subjecting them to phonics instruction when they really need support with vocabulary and comprehension. Students need “an inclusive and language-rich literacy block with plenty of opportunities for listening to teachers reading aloud, shared reading with peers, guided reading, independent reading, and writing workshops.”
• Provide tools for progress monitoring and coaching for the teacher. After doing an assessment of an emerging or developing reader, literacy specialists should provide blank graphs for data collection, a record-keeping system, and confidential coaching that addresses the specific needs of each student as the student grows.

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