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.


by Dr. Emily Dexter, Researcher at the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

Fill in the blanks: 

“I’ve been a  teacher   for eight years.  For the past couple of them, my performance in the ______ room has reached a plateau.  I’d like to think it’s a good thing—I’ve arrived at my professional peak.  But mainly it seems as if I’ve just stopped getting better….

During the first two or three years in _________, your skills seem to improve almost daily…. Mastery is about familiarity and judgment.  You learn the problems that can occur during a particular _________ or with a particular _____, and you learn how to either prevent or respond to those problems….

Say you’ve got a  student  who needs ________.  These days, teachers  will typically ________________________. …

Even before you start, you need to make some judgments.  Unusual ___________, severe ______________, or ___________ could make it difficult to  teach this student.  You have to decide which ___________ method to use—there’s a range of options—or whether to abandon the high-tech approach and _________ the  lesson   the traditional way….

Over time, you learn how to head off problems, and when you can’t, you arrive at solutions with less fumbling and more assurance.  After eight years, I’ve taught more than two thousand ________________.  I’ve gained confidence in my ability to handle a wide range of situations, and to improvise when necessary.

As I went along, I compared my results against state  data, and I began beating the averages.  My rates of students failing the state test   moved steadily lower and lower.  And then, a couple of years ago, they didn’t.  It started to seem that the only direction things could go from here was the wrong one.

Maybe this is what happens when you turn forty-five.  Teaching  is, at least, a relatively late-peaking career.  It’s not like mathematics or baseball or pop music, where your best work is often behind you by the time you’re thirty.  Jobs that involve the complexities of people or nature seem to take the longest to master: the average age at which S.&P. 500 chief executive officers are hired is fifty-two, and the age of maximum productivity for geologists, one study estimated, is around fifty-four.  Teaching   apparently falls somewhere in between the extremes, requiring both physical stamina and the judgment that comes with experience….”

As you might have guessed, the paragraphs above are not from an article about teaching, but rather from an article in The New Yorker by Atwul Gawande about his experiences as a surgeon.  The article is called, “Personal Best: Top Athletes and Singers Have Coaches. Should You?  In this article, Gawande describes how he found himself a surgery coach when he felt his surgery skills had stopped improving.

While some of the article is about coaches for athletes, singers, and surgeons, a good third of the article is about coaches for… guess who: classroom teachers.  Gawande finds a trainer of classroom coaches and the two of them visit schools to observe and interview coaches and teachers.   Gawande, polymath that he is, gets it right: “Novice teachers often struggle with basic behavioral issues… good coaches know how to break performance down into its critical individual components… elite performers, researchers say, must engage in ‘deliberative practice’—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires.”  Here’s my favorite quote from his article:

“Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.  The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short.  This is tricky.  Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended.  So coaches use a variety of approaches—showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance.  The most common, however, is just conversation.”

So, if you want to learn more about classroom coaching or share a great essay about coaching with one of your colleagues, read Atwul Gawande’s  article in the October 3, 2011 volume of The New Yorker.