For the past two weeks I have been consumed by assessment. For me this means a roller coaster of emotions: overwhelmed at first, elated at some points, hit by an oh no, what do I now feeling at other moments, and then coming to terms with the realities of what my students can do and where we need to work. Assessment is uncomfortable, so is growth. This is good I tell myself.
Assessing readers has been a dance revolving around student work in small group, independent reading, as well as Running Records and SRI assessments. Students’ Fountas & Pinnell and lexile levels gives an indication as to where a student’s “just right” reading exists, but it isn’t perfect. Students will sometimes be able to work well in books above their assessed levels and sometimes won’t be able to understand a book leveled where they were suppose to fit. Writers’ work is as varied as are students’ abilities. A level on a book or a student doesn’t say it all. Figuring out what the barriers are for a student in a particular text, and how to overcome them, is the daunting task teachers face. A reading level is a starting point.
Two weekends ago, I rediscovered Jennifer Seravallo’s comprehensive book on assessing readers in fiction. The concept of this work is to assess students’ understanding of an entire book across major literature components: Plot/Setting, Character, Language and Theme/Symbolism. Two texts, per Fountas & Pinnell level are available giving students choice — I need to add the texts are excellent, high quality, engaging reads. The intent is to assess what readers do and think as they read a text unassisted. Approximately 12-15 questions are placed throughout the text. The end result is an assessment of where the student has understanding by component and to what extent: exceptional, proficient, or approaching.
I jumped into this task wanting to know what my students could do. The results were sobering, and they made sense. Most students did well in character analysis. No surprise. Our school has spent an inordinate amount of effort working on understanding character, and the results showed. This is good news. Now the flip side: where we need to work. Across the grade level, regardless of ability, we saw a weakness in understanding the importance of setting and theme, particularly determining symbolic meanings. Here’s me thinking… Come on why don’t they see the deeper meaning here? Then I stop myself, wait they are ten. So for some, understanding themes may be developmental, but setting? I’m betting that if we focus on this aspect we’ll see results. Students have not been paying much attention to the impact of setting on characters and the problems they face largely because teachers weren’t focusing as much on it. This is a huge aha, and it sends not only a message to the 5th grade teachers but all teachers at our school. And maybe, with a better understanding of setting and how it ties to character, the themes/symbols will be more apparent. Hope springs eternal.
When the results of this assessment first started trickling in, I had to do some adjustment in my thinking. Initially, my reaction was oh no what do I do now?! I’ve overestimated their abilities. I had to resist the desire to take the books they were loving, but not really understanding, out of their hands. So, I talked myself off that cliff and realized something big: I now have a clear direction as to what students need, individually and as a group. While they won’t read everything with complete understanding across every literature component, they will be moving toward it. And honestly, do I always read everything with complete understanding? Absolutely not. Sometimes I pick up a book, and I know I’m not working hard enough. Then I make the choice to either be satisfied with a limited understanding, or I set that book down and pick it back up when I’m ready to do the work. With this in mind, I’m hoping to teach my students not only the skills and strategies they need for understanding text, but also the knowledge of when they are really understanding and when they are not ready to do that work.
I celebrate this tool that moves us closer to understanding our students (what they do and what they don’t do as readers), and how to move them closer to what they need to do. Thank you Jennifer Serravallo.
As a post script, the Independent Reading Assessment for non fiction is on order. Can’t wait for that ride!