Assuring a Standardized Comprehension Conversation with the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System

By Irene Fountas, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative Director/Author/Professor

irene_fountas_2.JPGAs you use the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System, do you and your colleagues have common understandings so you will have accurate information on your students? Think about how you are providing a standardized comprehension conversation and scoring it in a standardized way. The following suggestions may be helpful:

Before the Assessment:
* Be sure you have read and thought about the information in the book. When you know the text well, it will be easier to facilitate the conversation.

* Read the key understandings and prompts prior to the assessment so you are familiar with them.

* Explain to children beforehand that you are going to meet with each of them to listen to them read so you will be able to help them as readers. Explain that you will ask them to read a short book and then you will ask them to share their thinking about what they read.

During the Assessment
* Use an encouraging tone when inviting the student to talk more.

* Avoid repeating what the student says.

* Give wait time instead of jumping in to ask the question again.

* Be concise in the language of your prompts.

* Don’t ask leading questions.

* When the student has indicated some knowledge of an answer but uses only one or two words in a superficial way, you must respond with “Say more about that.” or “Talk more about that.”

* If a student is simply pasting sentences from the text together, or reading them, it shows the student knows where to find evidence; however, the student needs to be able to articulate, understanding independently. You might say, “Can you say that in your own words?”

* Try not to repeat a question or prompt unless it is necessary. Repeating a question several times can make a child confused or become “a lead” to an answer.

* Paraphrase a prompt only once. Doing so multiple times may lead the student to an answer.

* Avoid asking a question in a way that “gives” the answer. A leading question might be, “And how do these adaptations help this animal?”

* Be careful not to change the intentions of a prompt or question. For example, “What is the writer’s message?” is different from “What is the writer’s message about extinction?”

* Do not direct the student to a particular part of the book unless the prompt requires it.

* Allow the student to look back in the book if they initiate it. If the student starts to read from the book, you should say “Can you say that in your own words?”

As you become very well versed with the books and the prompts, your comprehension conversation at the lower levels will only take about 2-3 minutes and the upper levels about 4-5 minutes. Remember, an assessment conference is the time for you to gather good information, so resist the urge to teach! Discuss these points with your colleagues so your team can assure that each student is engaged in a standardized comprehension conversation that gives good data to inform teaching and document profiles through time.

Running Records- Part 2

diane_powell_2012_webby Diane Powell, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

See Part 1 of this post for questions #1 and #2 (http://wp.me/p1r9V1-tg)!

3. Are Running Records taken from unseen text or previously used readers?

That depends on what you’re trying to do as the teacher.  If you’re forming groups for guided reading in the fall of the year, you will be using a benchmark system to see what the readers can do without teaching: where they are right now and in that case, the Running Records will be taken on unseen texts. This is also the case when you receive a new student throughout the school year. Find out what they can do without your teaching or influence and take a Running Record on an unseen text.

 When taking a Running Record on a seen (or previously read) text, you’re looking to see how your teaching has influenced the reader’s ability to process the text. This is the kind of Running Record teachers use regularly during the school year.  The reader has had a chance to read the text previously with the support of the teacher and other readers in the group and you’re checking to see how he does without further instruction. That is the kind of information you can then use to make next steps for the reader: does the reader need to be moved to another group because his reading is moving forward quickly or because his reading is moving more slowly than the rest of the group? How can you work with the reader individually to teach him something else he needs to learn how to do after a Running Record is completed? 

Both kinds of Running Records are important to your teaching – what they can do without teaching and what they are able to do after your teaching.



New RR Graphic #24. What level do you start taking Running Records?  Is it beneficial to take them on a level AA or A or .5?

I’m not sure what a AA or .5 level text is since it’s not part of our benchmarking system, but I would say that if you’re gathering readers together or reading individually with readers, you’d want to capture what they’re doing when they read orally.  You can learn a lot about a reader by observing what they do and don’t yet do while reading. Having said that, I would want to be sure to say that we don’t think it’s necessary or appropriate to move guided reading instruction down to preschool classrooms. Children in preschool classrooms need massive amounts of oral language and hands on experiences and play as part of their curriculum. If, however, you realize that a student is reading, I’d have some age/grade appropriate texts available for him to look through and learn from without the push of formal instruction. We certainly want to provide opportunities for readers to learn more about reading every time they engage with a text, but we’re not advocating guided reading with 4 year olds.



5. Besides Running Records, what are some other great assessments for readers?

We feel Running Records are the best assessments to capture what’s really going on with the reader.  It’s authentic since it’s what readers do – read. It’s not artificial like some of the resources teachers are being asked to do to check on readers. Having said that, though, we’d certainly want to be talking with readers about what they’re reading to make sure they are understanding and/or learning from the text. Having conversations with readers lets you into their thinking beyond and about the text. It also let’s you know if anything was puzzling about what they read and if they didn’t get to the deeper understanding of the text.  Once readers have had lots of experiences talking about what they’ve read, they can begin to be supported to write about their reading. That would need to be scaffolded by the teacher through modeling/demonstrating how to write about reading through contexts like interactive or modeled writing.  If teachers ask readers to do this kind of work without this powerful demonstration teaching, about the only thing readers can do is retell the story – a rather surface level  understanding of a story without necessarily getting to the deeper meaning of the text. And our hope is that the reader would be responding to a text, not retelling it. How do they react to the text through their experiences? It’s important that readers have the opportunity to respond to reading as they are learning to read so that they are able to do what’s being asked of them through more sophisticated standards that are currently driving our thinking.

I hope I’ve been able to help you think more about the power, purposes and rationales behind running records.

LFA Brochure CoverIf you would like to learn more about Running Records, our upcoming Literacy for All conference (http://www.lesley.edu/literacy-for-all-conference/) in Providence, Rhode Island, November 2-4, 2014 will offer a Reading Recovery session by Sue Duncan on Running Records (session # RRB-2) entitled, Making the Most of Opportunities: Selecting the Clearest, Easiest, Most Memorable Examples on Monday, November 3: Explore the idea of noticing and capitalizing on what the child can do to extend the processing system, using examples, running records, and videos.     http://www.lesley.edu/literacy-for-all-conference/workshops/

The Power of Engaging in Genre Study as Readers

by Toni Czekanski, Intermediate/Middle School Trainer

Noticing, sorting, and classifying.  We start doing this when we are toddlers: putting red blocks in one pile and blue in another.  We call the piles by their names:  “the blue blocks,”  “the red blocks.”  Later on we notice that there are some letters of the alphabet that have tails and some that have stems.  Some have neither, and we sort them into groups as we learn to copy them and name them.  When people read to us, we begin to notice that some books have similarities, and understand that there are happy endings, villains, heroes, and magic.  We come to expect these things and even predict who will appear next or what the outcome will be.  We know it will be a happy ending no matter what.

Genre study is like that.  You collect many examples of texts within a genre and each day read one aloud to your students, allowing them time to enjoy the text and talk about what they are thinking about it.  Later, you come back to consider what they have been noticing about the books they’ve heard.  What are the similarities?  What are the differences?  You begin to create a list of common traits.  Once they begin to notice these characteristics, you provide even more texts within the genre that they can explore on their own.  They cannot help but notice even more.  You have activated their thinking and together you work to form a working definition of what a particular kind of text is.  Together, you define the genre.  How is this helpful to them as readers?

9780325028743In their text, Genre Study: Teaching with Fiction and Nonfiction Books, Fountas and Pinnell say, “Through experience with texts, readers recognize common elements, as well as ways that texts in the same genre can vary.  They use their knowledge of the predictable elements as a road map to anticipate the structures and elements of the text they are reading”  (2012, p. 11).  Think back to your own experiences as a reader.  If you loved mysteries and read a lot of them, it was not long before you were spotting clues and differentiating between those that mattered and those that were potential red herrings designed to lead you off the track.

Readers who are hooked on one genre and read many texts come to learn the bones of that genre and anticipate what they will encounter even before they begin to read.  Being able to anticipate the structure or other elements of a text frees the mind to look more closely at other aspects of the text.  For readers, this is a helpful tool that can enhance not only what the they understand about the author’s message or meaning, but also how the author crafted the text to support and develop that meaning within the structure of the text.

If you make time in your reading instruction to delve into genre study, you will be helping students to investigate texts more closely.  This close reading and rethinking will help them consider how and why authors write books.  “Knowing these features helps you begin to comprehend a text even before starting to read.  You have expectations and a kind of in-the-head graphic representation of what the text will be like – how the information will be presented and organized” (Fountas and Pinnell, 2012, p. 11).  These expectations are not only applied to this text, but to other similar texts.

When studying genre in the classroom, many teachers do so through inquiry as outlined above.  This process of inquiry in itself teaches students that they can apply these steps to analyzing other genres as well.  Students learn that if they examine several texts from a particular genre, they will begin to notice characteristics that are true across the genre.

Even without your help, they will form conclusions about how the genre works and what to look for and expect as they read other texts that are similar.  “Taking an inquiry stance enables students to learn how to learn.  They become empowered and develop a sense of agency…they believe in themselves and their ability to find out, and the process itself is inherently pleasing to human beings” (2012, p. 5-6).

Learning about genre with your students can have far-reaching benefits.  As readers it helps them to look at texts more closely, and have meaningful discussions with one another about how the author’s decisions affect the way the text works.  Students can use specific examples to support their thinking about the text as they write about it.  As a teacher, you build the confidence in understanding the genre that will help you take your students deeper through your modeling and prompting as you engage in the work together.

Professional Development in Genre Study For Teachers

If you are interested in learning more about genre study, consider attending the four-day Summer Literacy Institute, Genre Study: Teaching With Fiction and Nonfiction Books in a Reader’s Workshop, Grades K–8 with Irene Fountas and Lesley University faculty from July 15–18, 2013 in Cambridge, Mass. This is a process-oriented, hands-on literacy professional development event. The format and structure of this institute will be very different than previous summer institutes. You will leave this institute with a genre study plan that you created, ready to use in your classroom.

Text Difficulty

By Irene Fountas

Director, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

What is the role of text difficulty in helping our students learn how to read?

Over many decades teachers have attended to the difficulty level of texts. You know well when a text is too hard for a student to process and the reader begins laborious sounding and guessing that can only result in a loss of attention to the meaning of a text.  You also know well what smooth, phrased reading sounds like when the student can process a text well independently.  And you also know when you have given the student a text that is not too difficult or not too easy, so the reader can learn how to do something better.  You know that the text supports your effective teaching and the student’s ability to learn.

Over decades, many have used a variety of mathematical formulas to assess the difficulty of a text. Clay (Clay, 1991) argued for the use of a text gradient as it can support or interfere with the reader’s ability to put together an effective system for processing texts.  Of course, she argued, any gradient must take into account the student’s unique experiences and language so all gradients are fallible.

A consideration of difficulty level is essential but different readability measures are based on different elements.

The Fountas and Pinnell Text Gradient™ A-Z was designed as a tool to support classroom teachers and teachers working with small groups to select texts for small group instruction. It is a complex gradient, as it takes into account ten different characteristics of text and goes far beyond mathematical formulas that are based on word and sentence length only.  They include:

  1. Genres/Forms- the type or kind of fiction or nonfiction text (e.g., biography, informational, historical fiction, folk tale, realistic fiction, fantasy). Also, the particular form (mystery, oral stories, picture book, graphic text, short story).
  2. Text Structure– the way the text is organized.
  3. Content– the subject matter of the text­– what it is about, the topic or ideas.
  4. Themes and Ideas– the big ideas in the text, the overall purpose, the messages.
  5. Language and Literary Features– the literary features (such as plot, characters, figurative language, literary devices such as flashbacks).
  6. Sentence Complexity– the structure of sentences includes the number of phrases and clauses.
  7. Vocabulary– the meaning of the words in the text
  8. Words– the length and complexity of the words (syllables, tense, etc.)
  9. Illustrations– the photographs or art in fiction texts; the graphic features of informational texts.
  10. Book and Print Features– the number of pages, print font, length, punctuation, and variety of readers’ tools (e.g., table of contents, glossary).

When the ten characteristics are used as a composite, the approximate level of a text can be determined.  And when the teacher begins with where the learner is, it can be productive and help the student climb the ladder of success.

The following chart shows the approximate goals for each grade level.  The arrows represent the goals, not the reality.  When you begin with where the student can learn, you can provide teaching that supports continued progress up the gradient.

We hope you will continue to engage in the analysis of texts to be sure to match texts to readers for one small part of the literacy instruction   you provide.  Of course, it will be important to also offer students daily opportunities to engage with complex texts geared to the grade and age level in interactive read aloud and book discussion groups.

We encourage you so share your experiences and comments on our blog.

Clay, M. (1991). Becoming literate: The construction of inner control. Portsmouth, NH. Heinemann.

Fountas, I.C. and Pinnell, G.S. (2009). The Fountas & Pinnell Leveled Book List, K-8+. Portsmouth, NH. Heinemann.