About the Expert
Wiley Blevins, Ed.M.
Wiley Blevins is an early reading specialist who holds an Ed.M. from Harvard University. He taught elementary school in both the United States and South America. Wiley has written and edited many phonics and reading materials, and is the author of numerous best-selling professional development books, including Meaningful Phonics and Word Study.
This podcast is produced by Benchmark Education.
Are your students moving toward mastery of their phonics skills?
Or is their learning decaying? How do you know?
You can find out through good assessment.
From Benchmark Education, I’m Kevin Carlson. And this is Teachers Talk Shop.
I need to know very quickly if there are any issues with building that foundation. I can't wait to mid-year. I need to make those course corrections. I need to modify the whole group and the small group instruction to make sure every child gets to mastery.
Today, we’re sharing some easy-to-use, efficient ways to check that your students’ understanding builds swiftly and surely towards mastery.
We’re talking about phonics assessment with Wiley Blevins.
Wiley is the author of numerous best-selling books about phonics and reading, and he’s joined by Wendy Murray, publisher of the PD Essentials line at Benchmark Education.
Our first question comes from James Everett and he asks, What are the components of a strong Phonics assessment?
Well, when I think about phonics assessment, one of the things I want teachers to be really aware of is that all the assessments need to be viewed through multiple lenses. So I often see teachers, for example, provide a list of words with an array of skills that the students have been taught and they get a check if they're correct. That's really only providing you a small piece of the information you need to make some important and critical instructional decisions.
So when I look at a phonics assessment, I not only evaluate accuracy, I'm also looking at automaticity or the speed with which children are answering these questions or reading these words. Let me explain to you in a very sort of simple way why this is so important. Imagine if you are teaching kindergarten and you are doing an alphabet assessment, and you have the letters of the alphabet in random order, you call over a student and you ask them to say sound for each letter. A child gets through that assessment. All correct. You write 100 percent at the bottom. You call over the second child. The same thing happens 100 percent. What do you do next, instructionally? You might not know.
But if I told you that that first student was able to say the sound for each letter very, very quickly, it took about 30 seconds for that child to get through all of those S T F and so on. But the second child who came over still got 100 percent, but really struggled with that. It took maybe two or three minutes to get through that. Now you have a piece of information that's actually actionable. We know that that second child hasn't mastered those letter sounds. And so we know what to do with that child, what that child needs instructionally versus the first child.
So every assessment I give check if it's accurate, I you know, I circle if it's automatic. And I have all these pieces of information about what students know and whether or not they're at mastery with those skills. So for me, that's sort of the baseline when I think about phonics assessments and how I can use them to affect or impact my instruction.
Terrific. For newer teachers who are just starting out with all this. Can you define what you mean by mastery?
Yeah, what I'm talking about with mastery is, they can recognize a letter sound automatically. Or they can read a word with the phonics skills you've taught automatically. It's like "sat," "top," "rod." It's that quick. That's mastery. Because if you're at that level, we are processing those letter sounds, putting them together in words that quickly. Then you can transfer that skills to other reading experiences.
Wiley has explained that phonics assessment has to be looked at through multiple lenses—for accuracy and for automaticity.
But what kinds of assessments should be used for different measures?
And what about DIBELS?
That’s coming up, after the break.
If you have a question for the Teachers Talk Shop Podcast, you can email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can even record it as a voice memo on your phone and send that to us if you like. Now, back to Wiley.
Our next question comes from Isabel Torres and she asks, "My school uses DIBELS. Is that enough in terms of phonics assessment?"
So DIBELS is widely used and I get a lot of questions about its use. And it certainly has a place in our phonics assessment system. But for me, in terms of impacting instruction, I need more frequent and more granular information than what I can get from DIBELS. Let me explain.
When I think about phonics assessments there really two types that I use. There is one type called comprehensive phonics assessment, another called cumulative phonics assessment. With a comprehensive phonics assessment, it really is a survey of all the phonics skills. So, for example, if I have students coming into second grade, I will give them a comprehensive phonics assessment to see if there are any skills they should have mastered at kindergarten and first grade that they haven't, which tells me there are some holes in that foundation. And so part of my work at the beginning of second grade is to fill in those holes to make sure the foundation is as solid as possible. So that's the role of a comprehensive assessment. You might provide that at the beginning of the year, maybe the middle and the end as well.
But the assessment that affects instruction most readily is a cumulative assessment. And a cumulative assessment is you are each week assessing a group of students and you're looking at the week's skill and the previous four to six weeks. So over time, you're hanging on to those skills and your assessments so you can look at mastery over time. You can look at decayed learning over time and so on.
Let me drill down a little bit. I know it's sort of hard to talk about without seeing and I know that we're going to post some of these assessments for the listeners to take a look at. But imagine you've taught a skill week one. OK, so that skill would appear on the assessments for the next six weeks. So if I'm testing a group of students and I can't test every student every week, you simply don't have enough time. It's not practical. And you don't really need to if you're if you have cumulative assessments in place. So I might have maybe 10 minutes or 15 minutes at most at the end of the week.
So I'm going to call over maybe seven or eight students have them read this word list. They get a check, if it's correct, circled if it's automatic. And then I do the next week, the next week, and so on. So about every three to four weeks, I'm checking on students' phonics skill mastery. So if I tested a student week one with the week one words in a few weeks, I want to test them again because it's going to be on that assessment because I'm looking back for five or six weeks and then the next assessment, it might also be on there. So I can look at progress over time. And if they got a lot of checks that first week for accuracy, but then by week four some of those checks disappear, it tells me the learning is decayed. So I have a problem. I need to continue working on that skill for that student or a group of students. If they didn't get many checks for automaticity that first week but by week four it's. Check, check, check, check, check. I know they're at mastery.
And the reason I do this is because I need to know very quickly if there are any issues with building that foundation. I can't wait until mid-year. I can't wait until the end of the year. I need to make those course corrections. I need to modify the whole group and the small group instruction very quickly to make sure every child gets to mastery. And so these these quicker assessments and these cumulative assessments give me the simple tool to do that. And they're really easy to administer.
Wiley, I really appreciate that you define mastery for teachers because I think that a lot of teachers hear the word, but it's so helpful to have it clearly defined. And I was thinking similarly, the word automaticity is one that is talked about a lot, but would you help us define it and how it relates to accuracy, whether it's a natural follow up to accuracy or something different?
Yeah, it's a great question. It develops over time based on the amount of opportunities students have to apply the skill. So you're applying it when you're reading your decodable reader, for example. Well, you should be rereading that decodable reader and rereading previously read decodable readers to build that automaticity, to build the fluency with those skills and the words using those skills.
So with carefully constructed phonics instruction that builds on all of that review and repetition, you can get children to mastery more quickly. If you're just teaching the skill and moving on the next week to the next skill, not holding on, then it's much more difficult because some of the stories, the follow weeks might not have many words with the new skill or the words they do have. And I've done this analysis. The words that you sometimes see are really simple words that some of the students have already committed to memory, so they aren't having to use the skill. So there are a lot of issues associated with getting children to mastery, which is why so much review and repetition is necessary for much longer than what I generally see in a curriculum.
Using both comprehensive and cumulative assessments will provide the most useful and accurate assessment of whether your students’ phonics knowledge is moving towards mastery or if their learning is decaying. And that will help you make important, critical instructional decisions.
Next, Wiley shares a way to broaden your data about where students are in terms of their phonics knowledge, by going beyond simple phonics assessments. That’s coming up, after the break.
Interested in learning more? Benchmark Education is releasing Wiley’s new professional development book on phonics in September 2020, titled Meaningful Phonics, Fine-Tuning the Powerful Practices That Maximize Student Learning. This book simplifies the complexity of phonics and helps educators take their foundational skills instruction to the next level.
Go to www.benchmarkeducation.com/PDessentials to purchase your copy today.
What does the teacher look for in the student's writing? You talk about, you know, the importance of having them write in response to a decodable text. I imagine the child's writing has lots of wonderful clues, even if it's formative assessment. What are you looking for?
Yeah, I'm glad you asked that, because if we want a comprehensive look at where students are in terms of their phonics knowledge, we need to go beyond a simple phonics assessment. So, for example, when we listen to students read, obviously we get a lot of information from them in terms of the words they read with ease and the words with skills they're struggling with. But writing is one of the best tools and it's under-utilized in a lot of classrooms. We know that with our early learners writing lags behind reading.
So once I introduce a skill, I start monitoring students' use of that skill in their writing. I know it's going to take them some time. They're not going to be able to masterfully use it that first week it's introduced, but over time with the consistent work, they should be able to. So when students begin to consistently use skills in their writing, I know that they can read words with those skills with relative ease.
So one of the things that I like to do is in my students' writer's notebook, maybe on the inside back cover, I'll just post a chart with all the phonics skills for that particular year. And when I'm looking at their writing, when I start seeing consistent use of a particular skill in writing, I will circle that skill on that chart in the back of their writer's notebook. So it gives me a sense very clearly of skills that students still need work on.
So during my phonics lessons, I can in my dictation exercises, which has guided spelling, I can include more words with skills students aren't consistently using in their writing. I can more effectively monitor that. But writing is a tool that you can even use at the beginning of the year.
I did a study in a New York City a long time ago, but there weren't any assessments given at all at the beginning of the year. So I needed something that I could quickly figure out where my students are to start differentiating instruction on day two. So on day one. I gave them a five word spelling test, and the words got progressively more complicated. And when I looked at the results of that test and this is something we can provide for it for the listeners to take a look at. Children fell into five distinct categories of instructional needs. It told me which students were above level. It told me which students were having difficulty segmenting words. So I knew I needed to do some work with oral segmentation and sound boxes and more precise dictation. It told me those students who are below level, who weren't even thinking about words in the way we expect at the beginning of first grade and so on. So for each group of students, I had an instructional plan in place for day two to start meeting their needs as I continued to learn about them as readers and writers. Writing is such a powerful tool in relation to phonics instruction. We need to do more with it.
After the break, Wiley summarizes what he’s shared about phonics assessment.
If you want Wiley’s 3 takeaways from this show sent straight to your inbox, sign up for our updates at TeachersTalkShop.com.
The three things I’d want teachers to know about phonics assessment, is number one we need to look at the assessments through multiple lenses. Both accuracy and automaticity, they give you valuable pieces of information. The second thing is that we need multiple measures, we need both comprehensive assessments and cumulative assessments. And the third thing is that we need to broaden the data we use to evaluate students’ phonics knowledge, so we need to include looking at their writing and we also need to listen to them read to see the kinds of words that they might be struggling with.
Thank you, Wiley! Thank you, Wendy! And thank you for the questions, James and Isabel.
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For the Teachers Talk Shop Podcast, I’m Kevin Carlson.
Thanks for listening.