Jacqueline Heller

Jacqueline Heller focuses on building capacity and collective efficacy with teachers, to ensure all students learn at high levels. As a literacy teacher and coach at Mason Crest Elementary, she helped the school become the first National Model Professional Learning Community to receive the DuFour Award.

Comprehension Challenge

Students who read below grade level do not think below grade level.  

Again: students who read below grade level do not think below grade level.   If we hold that misconception to be true, then it is misplaced sympathy to lower comprehension expectations for students who have decoding difficulties.

If you are still referring to some students as your “low readers,” then there is no need to wait for New Year’s Eve to make a resolution. Stop now. Eliminate that term from your vocabulary. Label skills—not children.  

As teams grapple with this challenge, I often hear questions such as, “a student who cannot even decode the grade-level passage on a common formative assessment we’re giving won’t be able to answer the comprehension questions correctly, so how can we assess their reading comprehension skills?”   Ah, now we’re getting to the good stuff.

An essential start

In a Professional Learning Community at Work, the first critical question of learning is “What do we want all students to know and be able to do?” So, teams work to identify essential standards. All students, regardless of current reading level, phonics skills, or decoding ability should be expected to become proficient at the grade level essential standards, and many of them can show proficiency for comprehension standards even while they are still working to build up their grade-level decoding skills. A student may not yet be reading on grade level because they have holes in their foundational skills, are an emerging bilingual, or show characteristics of dyslexia. Yet, they can still understand key ideas and details, analyze an author's craft, and integrate knowledge and ideas while they concurrently work to build up other reading skills they lack.  

If we believe that, then how do we answer the second critical question of learning “How will we know if all students have learned it?” If “all means all,” and we maintain high expectations for all students, then we need good data to help us know which students are showing proficiency on grade-level essential standards in reading comprehension and how to target our instruction for those not yet proficient on a specific skill. In a professional learning community, we know our students by name and by need. While every one of us has used the term “low reader” in the past, to continue to do so just shows our inadequate understanding of a child’s specific reading skills and needs. It is a reflection on us, not on the children. It is worth saying again, we label skills, not children. We use common formative assessments to determine proficiency towards specific skills, and if they are not yet proficient, we do not label a child; we change our teaching and provide additional time and support.  

That idea makes it critically important that we have reliable data, especially for students reading below grade level. But imagine how difficult it is to gather data for a 4th grader currently reading on a 2nd grade level if she can’t access the grade level passage on the team developed common formative assessment in order to show progress for standards such as:  

  • RL 4.2: Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text or
  • RI 4.5: Describe the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in a text or part of a text

Quite a dilemma, right? Many schools and teams have put their heads together and tried to figure out how to do this. In my experience, the most common three responses are:  

  • Read the passage aloud or have an audio recording for students who can not decode it.
  • Develop a second version of the assessment that asks questions on the same skill but uses an easier to read passage.
  • Give the students reading below grade level the same assessment with everyone else and see what they can do, because by the end of the year they are expected to independently show comprehension on grade level text.

What do you usually do? Is it working for you? Is it working for your students? Each of these approaches has its shortcomings.  

Approach Pros Cons
Grade level passage read aloud All students take the same assessment with the same level of rigor of questions for the comprehension standard.
  • Assesses listening comprehension as opposed to reading comprehension
  • Builds dependency on teacher to read for them
  • Difficult to manage when some students are reading themselves and some are having it read to them
Easier passage read independently Provides an opportunity for students to show what they read and comprehend independently
  • Less reliable data since easier passages often are more explicit, thus lowering the rigor of the comprehension skills
  • Extra work to create two quality versions of reading assessments
  • Difficult to find passages at various reading levels in the same genre with the same familiarity of student background knowledge
Make no accommodation Matches what they will have to do on end-of-year summative assessments
  • Less reliable data on comprehension skills for students with decoding difficulties
  • May inappropriately put students who need decoding intervention into needless comprehension intervention groups
  • Social/emotional impact may increase reading frustration and lower self-image as a reader for students who cannot access the text in order to show what they can comprehend.

So, what to do?  

Don’t hate me, but I’m not going to answer that for you. As a Professional Learning Community at Work, we first learn together. We collaborate around the right work. Figuring out how your team and your school will answer the critical questions of learning is part of your journey. Just as I believe if we steal the struggle from students, we steal their opportunity to learn, I am not going to steal that struggle from you. Honestly, my own answer to the question has morphed recently as I’ve thought more about summative versus formative assessment. I challenge you to think through additional pros and cons beyond this list with your team and experience the job-embedded professional development that comes from collaborating with people who know both your standards and your students. As you do, I am confident you will have some “a-has” about this dilemma, but if you’re dying to compare answers, just email me at jacquieheller@gmail.com.  

Rely on your team and use technology

I can tell you that the decision can not be left up to individual teachers, or else your common formative assessment data will not be “common.” This is a discussion and decision that needs to be done at the team level, if not at the school level. Also keep in mind your purpose for giving the particular assessment. What are you going to do with this data? (Hint: hopefully not “assigning a grade,” but instead using the data to improve our individual and collective practices and to design interventions and extensions for students—a blog topic for another day.) Remember: technology can be your friend. If you decide to try audio recordings, there are lots of text-to-speech options that allow students to pause and replay sections so the teacher does not have to actually read it live while other students are taking the assessment. There are also online resources for leveled passages if you are searching for new text for your assessments.  

Finally, think of your students first, last, and always. Put yourself in the shoes of the students reading below grade level at the time of the assessment, and think about how you’ll explain to them what they’ll be doing, why it’s important for them to persevere and show their best thinking, and how you’ll use the information to help them grow as readers. Being able to do that is your own self-assessment of your current assessment practices, and may help your team better comprehend this comprehension challenge.

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