Informal approaches to the evaluation of literacy have developed in response to the demands for greater accountability and the influence of national, standardized testing. The strength of informal approaches to evaluation is that it provides immediate feedback to both the student and the teacher. The teacher can use a set of assessment tools to measure student learning while the student can receive specific guidance on what to do to improve her/his reading skills.
This essay will explore four informal approaches to reading assessment: teacher observation, teacher-student conferences, workbooks and worksheets and reading portfolios. The first approach, teacher observation, is multi-faceted. It builds on the daily interaction between teacher and students. The purpose of the observation is diagnosis. Teachers “place students in appropriate materials; assess readiness for a given task; determine reading interest, assess attitudes; and make decisions about decoding, comprehension, and study skills (Pikulski and Shanahan, 1982, p.
2). Although McKenna and Stahl (2003) would agree with Pikulski and Shanahan (1982) about the importance of teacher observation, they would disagree about the purpose. McKenna and Stahl (2003) refer to the process of diagnosis as “The Deficit Model” (p. 2) and what emerges from such a model is terms like “remediation” and “remedial reader” (p. 2). Instead McKenna and Stahl (2003) prefer “A Cognitive Model” (p. 8) where the teacher observes the capacity of students for “automatic word recognition” (p. 10), “language comprehension” (p. 15), and “strategic knowledge” (p.
19). Taking “automatic word recognition” as one example of how teachers apply their observation skills, teachers examine students’ abilities to predict or judge the appropriateness of a word in a given context, the fluency with which students read aloud passages in class, how quickly and accurately students recognize the most common words in the English language, whether students can use their language skills to decode new, unfamiliar words, and whether students understand the sounds associated with letters and words, not just the contexts.
The second informal assessment technique, teacher-student conference, provides an opportunity for the teacher to assess student perceptions of their own progress. Rather than using the conference like a teacher-parent conference where the parents receive updates on the child’s progress, the teacher-student conference provides an opportunity for teachers to understand a student’s reading interests, attitudes towards reading, and the meaning-making strategies a student uses in the process of reading various kinds of materials (Pikulski and Shanahan, 1982, p. 3).
Caldwell (2002) identifies three purposes of reading assessment: identify good reader behaviors, determine student reading level, and document student progress (p. 5). Some of what Caldwell (2002) identifies as good reading behaviors can be gauged during teacher-student conferences, especially in how each individual student makes meaning from any given text. Some of Caldwell’s (2002) reader behaviors are to “connect what they know with the information in the text, determine what is important in the text, recognize the structure of the text, and summarize and reorganize ideas in the text” (p.
8). Standardized tests do not allow students to use their personal backgrounds in interpretive reading, nor does it allow for exploring more than one important idea (the main idea) in a text. By using teacher-student conferences in a way that all students can express themselves, teachers create a space for increased learning. This idea touches on what McKenna and Stahl (2003) call “The Contextual Approach,” one distinct from a learning style model (p. 3).
The third informal reading assessment, workbooks and worksheets, enable teachers to focus on individual students and their needs in practicing a specific skill (Pikulski and Shanahan, 1982, p. 8). The numerous workbooks on the market and worksheets on the internet make this approach a relative quick and time-saving way to assess student learning. None of the informal instructional methods should be used alone and this particular assessment method highlights the danger of approaching one method as a singular way to help students improve their reading skills.
Reading instructors want students to not only improve their facility with recognizing and constructing words, sentences, and paragraphs, we also want students to make inferences, ask questions about the implications of a particular way of thinking, and synthesize multiple sources of information on an issue (Caldwell, 2002, p. 8). The ability to perform these latter tasks is consistent with what McKenna and Stahl (2003) describe as strategic reading knowledge (p. 19). Finally, the fourth assessment technique, reading portfolios, enable students to develop an informed perspective about their own reading and writing.
Documenting student progress is one of the three reasons for assessing reading (Caldwell, 2002, p. 11). The benefit of this approach as an informal technique is that is shows the student the specific kind of improvement made in any given area. Unlike standardized tests, which compare students to a national norm or a cutoff score (Caldwell, 2002, p. 12-13), records of student progress assess a student’s learning in the area of reading over time. It also provides feedback to the instructor about teaching strengths and weaknesses.
Specifically, reading portfolios “help the student keep track of books read, favorite stories, scores on workbooks/worksheets, or progress in various learning centers” (Pikulski and Shanahan, 1982, p. 8). In summarizing the value of informal reading assessments, Caldwell (2002) states it very succinctly when she says, “informal instruments are authentic than formal measures. They are similar to the actual task of reading. Reading a passage and retelling its contents are more authentic than reading a short paragraph and answering multiple-choice questions by filling in little bubbles on a scan sheet” (p.
13). The word “authentic” refers to an assessment’s ability to measure reading. Caldwell (2002) describes the value of informal assessment tools in their ability to mimic the reading process. Informal assessment techniques return control of the learning process to the teachers and students who interact on a daily basis within a classroom. In many ways, they are more important than formal reading assessments because they provide qualitative feedback.
Caldwell, J. S. (2002). Reading assessment: A primer for teachers and tutors. New York: The Guilford Press. Johns, J. L. (1982).The dimensions and uses of informal reading assessment. In J. J. Pikulski and T. Shanahan (Eds. ), Approaches to the informal evaluation of reading. (pp. 1-11). Newark, DE: International Reading Association. McKenna, M. C. , and Stahl, S. A. (2003).
Assessment for reading instruction. New York: The Guilford Press. Tierney, R. J. (1991). Portfolio assessment in the reading-writing classroom. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers. 9 November 2008. http://library. gcu. edu. Yancey, K. B. (1989). Reflection in the writing classroom. Logan, UT: Utah University Press. 9 November 2008. http://library. gcu. edu.
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