What Makes A “Reading Assessment” Better?

There are so many reasons that I should be happy right now … and I am happy. I am proud. But this week, something’s really been bothering me, and it revolves around reading assessments. It’s almost June, and as the year comes to an end, many Ontario educators are starting to do final reading assessments. We can choose the assessment that we use, and there are different options out there. I’ve used various ones in the past, and I’ve liked many for different reasons. I think that my issue right now is deeper than the assessment tool itself. Here’s my struggle.

I’m currently about half-way through my SK students, and there have been no surprises. I’m not expecting any either. Yes, there were a couple of times that I vacillated between two levels, and so I tried one, and if needed, I tried another one. But in the end, our students are getting basically the level that I anticipated, and their needs, are the ones that we knew. 

  • The assessment is showing us which children need to continue to develop their sight vocabulary. We also have numerous video recordings that show us this.
  • The assessment is showing us which children need to continue to work on blending sounds to read unknown words. My teaching partner, Paula, and I have identified some similar needs through daily reading experiences with our students. 
  • The assessment is showing us which children need to check for understanding, and use different strategies to problem solve and correct errors. Again, we notice this through regular reading with our students.
  • The assessment is showing us which strategies students use when they get to difficult words, and which ones they do not use. We notice this as well when we read one-to-one and in small groups with students.

Then comes my even bigger concern: does a level change how we view students? Let me give you an example. There are two children: Student A and Student B.

Student A reads a text one level below our Board benchmark. She tracks each word as she reads it and sounds out unknown words: linking the sounds with the picture cues. She attempts the next level, and uses many of the same strategies that she used for the one before. She does not have a quick recall of sight words, and has not picked up on the pattern in the book yet. Since she’s trying to sound out each word, her reading sounds disjointed, and while she is close in the number of errors, you can tell that the text is slightly too hard for her. She knows how to decode though, and with continued practise of sight words, the use of a few more reading strategies, and regular oral reading, she will meet benchmark. Will it happen before the end of the year? Possibly … especially with continued practise.

Student B reads the benchmark level text. She sounds out some words, but not with the same confidence as Student A. She has a slightly better sight vocabulary though, and she quickly picks up the pattern in the text. She continues with the pattern then, which helps with fluency. She also makes excellent use of the picture cues. Student B scores just within the “independent” range for this text. While Student B technically scores higher than Student A, both students are decoding text, and the first student is actually more confident at blending sounds together. 

I think of this because next year’s teacher is going to receive a list of levels. Without knowing the child yet, how might these levels impact on his/her view of the child as a reader and his/her strengths and needs? I ask this question because one of the most powerful parts of doing this reading assessment so far has been one of two comments that I have heard repeatedly from students as I speak to them about their reading behaviours: either “I’m a reader!” or “I can read now!” These words matter. Every child saying them is right. 

  • They understand that pictures and words have meaning.
  • They are using letter-sounds, picture cues, and/or contextual cues to read words.
  • They are tracking print.
  • They are independently correcting most errors using different strategies.

These children are ALL readers! Will all of us — myself included — remember to view these children in this way, and communicate these thoughts to them, so that they continue to build confidence in their reading skills?

I can’t help but connect this thinking to a wonderful VLOG that I saw tonight by Susan Hopkins and her daughter, Siena. 

In this VLOG, Siena talks about her experience with EQAO. While I realize that this standardized test varies from a short reading assessment, what I think is similar and important to note, is that this is only one assessment. Our view of the child — and even the child as a reader — has to be greater than this one assessment. How do we ensure that it is? I think about my experiences in the past, and I wonder if I always remembered the importance of not seeing and inferring information about children as readers through the lens of only one assessment, no matter how standardized it may be.

I know that there’s a lot that I should be celebrating.

  • All of our students have made incredible gains: some of the best that I’ve seen in my 16 years teaching with the Board.
  • The percentage of students that have met benchmark will exceed our school target. 
  • All of our SK students, and even many of our JK students, have learned how to decode. 

But maybe the most interesting thing is the fact that I can write all of these words without having finished this reading assessment, and yet, I KNOW that each of these points are true. I’m then left wondering, in our reality of ongoing documentation and reflection, how might our need for standardized assessments change, or is their greatest value, in the fact that they are “standardized?” I know that there are many people who view these tools differently, so tonight I’m hoping to start a conversation and deepen my understanding.


Fidget Spinners, Take 4: New Learning Thanks To Some Recess Friends!

You would think that at this point, I would have worked through my fidget spinner thoughts, but I’m not done … yet. Some interactions with a couple of students during an indoor recess have me thinking more about the problems with “banning them.” And yes, I realize how hypocritical I sound, when my last post was about the very idea of imposing a ban. When we listen to — and really hear — kids though, sometimes our thinking changes. This is what happened to me.

On Thursday, we had a very rainy day at school, and with the rain steadily coming down, there was an indoor recess in the afternoon. I was on duty. As I wandered between the classes, two students came up to me. They asked if they could walk with me. Their class was listening and dancing to some music, and these two did not like the song choice. They were hoping to get out of the room, but also have a little movement time of their own. As a Self-Reg advocate, I was so proud of these students for recognizing their needs and approaching me with a solution, so of course, I had to say, “Yes!”

I noticed that both of these students brought fidget spinners with them, so I asked them why they needed the spinners at this time. It was their answer that caused me to pause and think. They said, “We don’t … but we’re not allowed to use fidget spinners during class time. We can use them at recess time though, so we’re using them now.” Before I comment, let me start by saying, I get it! On Tuesday, I made a similar comment to students when the use of these spinners dysregulated me and a number of children that were both watching their use and using them. But sometimes when we hear somebody else say what we’re thinking, we view these words differently.

This conversation stuck with me for the rest of the week, and made me think again when I commented on Doug Peterson‘s blog post from yesterday

Here is where I’m stuck: it all revolves around the question of, why would, or should, children be using these spinners? If it’s because it helps them focus, then when would they need them? I would think that would be during class time, and particularly, group meeting times, as this is when it’s often the hardest to pay attention. It’s also when students may not be able to easily use other focusing strategies, such as moving around, as this could distract others more and make it harder to see teacher and student demonstrations. And if I were to think back to my first experience with these fidget spinners — just over a week ago now — when they were used by children that needed them, they actually worked well. 

Maybe my biggest issue here is that these spinners are being embraced by everyone as a “self-regulation tool,” but are they truly needed by everyone? There are lots of other fidget toys out there: from squishy balls to elastic bands. I’ve had students use many of them in the past, and some have really benefited from their use. Initially, other students are intrigued by them, and some want to try them out as well, but it doesn’t take long for those children that don’t need them to lose interest in them, and the children that do, to find a way to use them well. The fidget spinners have changed what “fidget toys” look like in the classroom, and by marketing to everyone, are they losing their value to those that could benefit the most? 

This brings me back to thinking about my role as an educator: to support and teach students. 

  • If I ban the use of fidget spinners in the classroom, am I helping students understand why they might benefit some children?
  • If I only allow children to use them at recess time (which we don’t actually have in Kindergarten), am I making a statement that these spinners can only be used as “toys” and not “tools?” Is this truly the case? 

I still believe that these spinners were not the right tool for the children that used them this weekbut maybe, through questioning, I have to help students understand this as well. I also believe that the toy/tool distinction is an important one, and maybe fidget spinners can be both, but is it valuable to help children understand which way they’re using them, and why that might impact on when they can use them? I’m still not convinced that these spinners are the best tool for Kindergarten children, but after this week’s recess conversation, I’m reconsidering how I might respond the next time that I see them in action. I’m hopeful that I won’t have too many opportunities to practice this response, 🙂 but maybe a different outlook is exactly what I needed here. What do you think?


Fidget Spinners, Take 3: Could “Banning” Sometimes Be The Right Thing To Do?

Fidget spinners have been a popular blogging topic for me lately. My thinking on them continues to grow, and I think was further modified today when two more students came in with them. Today, I really started to question if these spinners belong in a Kindergarten classroom.

Like with any tool, I think we have to consider “why” we’re using it. This why question is important for educators to contemplate as well as for students. I think it’s one thing when a child tells me that he/she is using the fidget spinner to “feel calm,” and it’s another thing when a child doesn’t know why he/she is using it. Then is it really a good self-regulation option?

Last week, two students used these spinners with some success. They were able to spin them on the carpet, stay focused on the speaker, and participate in the class discussion. This was not the case today.

  • Children around the “spinners,” were more focused on them than on the conversation.
  • Children that were spinning the fidget spinners were distracted by them and unable to effectively join in on the conversation. Sometimes they didn’t know what we were talking about. 

This was when we suggested that the fidget spinners go away. These students were fine with putting them in their backpack, and they did not go to bring them out again or ask to do so.

At this point though, our group meeting time was over for the day, and this would be the most logical time for students to use these spinners. So now I’m left wondering …

  • Were the spinners just not for them?
  • Can we enjoy these spinners as a toy instead of a tool, but at least realize that this is why we’re using them?
  • When any tool distracts another child’s learning, do we need to reconsider this tool or just the location for its use?
  • In a Kindergarten classroom where we only meet as a group for a short period of time (or any classroom that’s similar to this), are fidget spinners really necessary? When else might children need them?

Today I was ready to ban fidget spinners, and I feel incredibly hypocritical for saying this. I know through Stuart Shanker‘s work that what dysregulates one person may be used to self-regulate another one, but when a tool distracts to the extent that this one does, can it really be used effectively in a classroom? If so, how? I hope that somebody can give me a new perspective.


A Pinecone, A Stick, And A Little Magic!

Over these past couple of weeks, an amazing thing happened during our outdoor learning time: students invented stick baseball. And while playing baseball with a stick and a pinecone may not seem blog post-worthy, it’s the very thing that’s had my teaching partner and I continuing to discuss and question classroom materials.

It all started on May 11th, when a JK student found a baseball out in the forest. When a few SK students saw him with the baseball, they all began to play catch together. This lasted for a little while, until they decided that they wanted something more: they wanted to play baseball. But nobody had a bat outside, so these resourceful Kindergarten students thought that they could use a stick instead. They quickly realized that the ball was too big and too heavy to hit well with a stick. My teaching partner, Paula, questioned them on what they could use instead. One student thought that a burr ball might work, but another student thought that it would hurt if it got stuck in someone’s hair. This child suggested a pinecone instead, and with that, stick baseball was born.

What was truly incredible about this game is that it lasted, and evolved, over multiple days. Students continued to reflect as they played.

More students got involved in the game, and they began to offer feedback to each other.

There was problem solving, teamwork, and thinking involved in this game.

Math skills — from keeping track of the score to considering the thickness of the bat and the weight of the ball (measurement) to using directional language through play — all made its way into this stick baseball game. Not once did Paula or I suggest that the students continue playing, but each day, they ran out to the forest with the intention of doing just that. They easily spent over four hours playing stick baseball, and the thinking, discussion, problem solving, and teamwork were incredible to witness, and far exceeded even what I shared here. When I think of the finalized Kindergarten Program Document and the Four Frames model, I could say that all of the Four Frames were addressed in some way through this game.

There is so much about this stick baseball game (and experience) that I love, but one of the biggest things that has caused me to reflect the most, is that during this same time that the students ran out to the forest to play with a stick and a pinecone, there were more conventional toys (or items) available for use in our outdoor classroom. The children never once thought about staying to play there though, and almost all of our students make the same decision that these boys did. In fact, even those children that do stay in our outdoor classroom space, play the most with the wood pieces and tires. Even when they use conventional items, such as chairs, they use them in very unconventional ways.

This makes us wonder more about the materials that we use in our classroom.

  • What outdoor items could we bring indoors?
  • What materials should we reconsider in our indoor and outdoor classroom spaces?
  • Even though we’ve highly reduced the number of items in our classroom, could we reduce them even more, and how might this impact on the play and the learning?

I can’t help but think again about John Spencer and A.J. Juliani‘s book, Launch: Using Design Thinking To Boost Creativity And Bring Out The Maker In Every StudentIn it, they mention that it’s often through boredom that creativity happens. Maybe when we put out a little less, provide a long enough time for exploration, and follow-up with enough questioning and support to extend learning, we see more of the “incredible,” like stick baseball. What do you think? What could be possible in all grades? It’s after an experience like this one that we’re tempted to replace all toys with open-ended natural materials, and wait and watch for the “wonderful” to occur. 


Fidget Spinners Take Two: Living By My Words!

Last weekend, I wrote this post about fidget spinners, which Doug Peterson later reflected on in his This Week In Ontario Edublogs post. I share this here because the day after writing the post, I had an opportunity to see if I was really willing to do what I said. One of our Kindergarten students came to school with a fidget spinner. It was then that I realized that words are easy to write and harder to live by.

This child happened to be sitting in front of me with the fidget spinner. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. He had it spinning for almost all of our meeting time. We only meet as a full class once during the day, and I never really thought that a child would want (or need) this fidget spinner during this time … but he did. I’ll admit that I constantly had to remind myself to think of my blog post and resist the urge to tell him to put it away. While it had my attention, I noticed that none of the other students even turned around to look at him. Nobody asked any questions about the fidget spinner. 

  • Maybe it was because it wasn’t loud enough to distract others.
  • Maybe it was because the student was sitting by me, and the “teacher presence” deterred others from saying anything.
  • Maybe it was because he brought this spinner outside in the morning, so many children already saw it. The “newness” was lost now.

While I had to fight my own battle to keep quiet, I managed to do so. The truth is, the spinner did help him focus. He listened to the speaker and contributed to the group discussion. Maybe the spinner wouldn’t be such a big problem after all.

Fast forward to the afternoon: a group of students cleaned off our creative table and brought out the Perler beads to do some beading. This is usually a quiet and calm activity for many students, but it seemed surprisingly loud today. Why? The fidget spinner was out at the table, the child was showing everybody how it worked, and students were passing it around to see which person could make it spin the fastest. Ummm, I was no longer loving this tool quite so much.

I walked over to the table, while trying to figure out what I wanted to say. I’ll admit that I was tempted to respond with, “Put the spinner away,” but then I thought of my last blog post again, and I decided to respond differently. I sat down at the table, and pointed out the fidget spinner to the students. I asked, “Why do we use this tool?” The child that brought it in said, “It makes me feel calm.” A great reason … So then I asked, “Is what we’re doing now with the fidget spinner, calming?” Everybody at the table agreed that it wasn’t. That’s when I asked, “So how could we solve this problem?” The owner of the spinner said that he could, “put it away,” and I suggested that he put it in his backpack so it would be safe. The fidget spinner didn’t come back out for the rest of the day. 

The next day, another student brought in a fidget spinner, and we had a similar conversation at a similar time. In both cases though, I was thrilled to see that asking some simple questions led to students solving the problem on their own. Once the students solved the problem on each day, it didn’t occur again during that day. It’s now been three school days, and no more children have brought fidget spinners into our classroom. Could more be coming soon? Likely, yes. Could we need to have some more similar discussions? Possibly … but I’m happy to do so!

The fidget spinner may not work for me, and it may distract me at times, but I’m an adult and can deal with this distraction. Students were not bothered by it on the carpet, and it really did make a difference for some children. I keep thinking about Doug‘s comment on my last post, and wondering if we need to let some things go while addressing other concerns. Do questions allow students to draw their own conclusions while still addressing the areas of need? I wonder how a “question approach” might work in older grades, where the draw of the spinners and the number of students that have them, could far exceed our Kindergarten numbers. What are other educators choosing to do?