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.

Are You Teaching or Testing Comprehension?

irene_fountas_photoby Irene Fountas, Author and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University

All too often, successful comprehension has been regarded as a student’s ability to answer a teacher’s questions (which is one way of assessing comprehension), but it does not enhance the reader’s self-regulating power for processing a new text with deep understanding. Think about how your teaching moves may be focused on testing when you continually pose questions, or how you can shift to teaching or helping students learn how to comprehend texts for themselves.

Teaching for comprehending means supporting your students’ ability to construct the meaning of the text in a way that expands their reading ability. You can help them learn what to notice in a text and what is important to think about, how to solve problems when meaning is not clear, and provide scaffolds to develop their in-the-head systems for working through the meaning of the text. These abilities are generative, so students will be able to transfer what they learn how to do as readers before, during, or after reading to a variety of increasingly challenging texts in every genre.

Introduce the text to readers

When you introduce a challenging text to your students, be sure to help them notice how the writer constructed the meaning, organized the text, used language and made decisions about the print features. Help them know how the book works and get them started thinking about the writers’ purpose and message and the characteristics of the genre.

Prompt the readers for constructive activity

As students read orally, interact very briefly at points of difficulty to demonstrate, prompt for, or reinforce effective problem-solving actions that they can try out and make their own. Your facilitative language is a call for the reader to engage in problem-solving that expands their reading strengths.

Teach students how to read closely

Take the readers back into the text after reading to notice the writer’s craft more closely. Select a phrase, sentence or paragraph, or focus on helping them notice how the writer organized the whole text. Revisiting the text calls the reader’s attention to particular features.

Engage students in talk about texts

Talk represents thinking. When students talk about a text, they are processing the vocabulary, language and content aloud. This enables them to articulate their understandings, reactions and wonderings. When they learn to be articulate in their talk, they can then show their ability to communicate their thinking about texts in their writing.

Engage students in writing about texts

Writing about reading is a tool for sharing and thinking about a text. When students articulate their thoughts in writing, they confirm their understandings, reflect on the meaning and explore new understandings.

Testing is a controlled task for measuring what students can do without teacher help. Teaching is the opportunity to make a difference in the self-regulating capacity of the learner. Reflect on your teaching moves and engage in a discussion with your colleagues to shift from testing to teaching. When students focus on meaning-making with every text they read, they will be able to show their competencies on the test.

For more information about the Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative’s events and trainings, visit

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 (!

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 ( 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.

Running Records- Part 1

by Diane Powell, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

Josh's rrI’m going to share some thinking from the questions that were posed by teachers on previous Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative Twitter chats and could be a help to educators everywhere.  I’ll be using Marie Clay’s text An Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement and Fountas & Pinnell’s The Continuum of Literacy Learning, PreK–8 as resources so you’ll know of appropriate resources to use in your continuing search for guidance around the use of Running Records.

1. Can you share strategies for helping teachers see value of Running Records as formative assessment rather than an event at the end of the term?

Teachers are very busy these days and unless they understand the power of Running Records and the rationales for using them, they will see them as optional or mandated a few times per year. One thing that often helps teachers see their value is to have them follow one reader over time by capturing the reading behaviors the reader demonstrates during oral reading. Looking across records of oral reading begins to show the teacher the ways in which the reader’s processing power is changing over time. It also allows us to think about how our teaching is impacting the learning of the reader –or not. The Running Record allows us to see how the reader is using strategic actions for thinking within the text – those he is using and those he is neglecting to use. How is the reader working in a balanced way to gain meaning from a text? What does he do when he comes to an unknown word? How is the reader showing us he’s monitoring his reading? How does his reading sound with respect to aspects of fluency? How does the reader search for and use information sources to read or self-correct? How does the reader adjust his reading depending on the text and the purpose for reading? All of these kinds of information can inform our teaching and the student’s learning. Yes, it takes some time, but the teaching becomes so much more powerful based on what we find in the Running Records.  Using them only occasionally is like taking only a portion of a prescription a doctor gives you – it doesn’t reach the problem to provide long lasting improvement for the reader!


2.  How often should readers be assessed with Running Records? How often should teachers be doing Running Records, besides benchmarking?

That depends on the reader. If a reader is making steady progress in his reading, it makes sense to check in with him every 2-3 weeks to be sure his trajectory continues in the right direction and he’s taking on new learning as well as strengthening his reading powers. High progress readers should probably have a check in about every 4-6 weeks to be sure they, too, are continuing to progress.

 On the other hand, if the reader is reading below grade level, he needs more frequent checks. A teacher should plan on capturing his reading every two weeks to see if any of the teaching that you’re doing is impacting his learning. If not, you need to adjust the teaching to work from the reader’s current strengths and move him forward. That’s often easier said than done and it may require help from a colleague who works with struggling readers or a coach who can see things you might be missing. Make sure you reach out for help in working with readers who are not making progress. They may be taking on the learning differently than you imagine and your teaching might be missing them where they are.

Part 2 of this post (next week) will answer some of the remaining questions on Running Records from our previous Twitter chats!

The Observation Survey

by Diane Powell, Primary Literacy Trainer

I’ve been reading about how Dr. Marie Clay’s Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement has received the highest possible ratings for scientific rigor from National Center on Response to Intervention (NCRTI). The ratings are intended to inform and assist educators as they select screening tools for RTI. There are several links from the Reading Recovery Council of North America website that I will include at the end of the blog.

We have known for years about the quality of the instruments that allow us to capture current understandings of students and then can use that information to plan for our next instructional moves. All six tasks, Letter Identification, Word Reading, Concepts About Print, Writing Vocabulary, Hearing and Recording Sounds in Words, and Text Reading capture authentic data that aligns with real life classroom experiences rather than testing items of knowledge in isolation.

The National Center defines screening

as brief assessments that are valid, reliable, and evidence-based. They are conducted with all students or targeted groups of students to identify students who are at risk of academic failure and , therefore, likely to need additional or alternative forms of instruction to supplement the conventional general education approach

and now the tasks of An Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement can be used as one of the screening tools that schools involved in RTI can select. If you have trained Reading Recovery teachers on staff, they can work with other faculty to learn more about the tasks and avoid the additional expense of purchasing other screening and progress monitoring devices. Thank goodness someone has finally realized how powerful this work is.

View the NCRTI ratings for the Observation Survey.

Read the RRCNA press release [pdf].

Learn more about the Observation Survey.