This is Part III of a three-part series on developing tests for reading skills in non-major languages. Be sure to check out Part I: Decoding, Part II: Fluency and Comprehension, and How to Determine Text Difficulty in Any Language.
If you’ve kept up with the series, you are now aware of the three major components of literacy: Decoding, Fluency, and Comprehension. If you’ve studied literacy outside of these articles, you’re probably also aware of the decades-long war being waged about which of these skills should be tested for, which deserves direct instruction, and which is “last year’s/decade’s/century’s” methodology.
We’re not going to get into the middle of that messy, messy debate. The goal of this series is to let you know the components of literacy, and therefore of holistic literacy assessment. Be warned that, although these skills do tend to develop in tandem, it is absolutely possible to create young “readers” who can decode and fluently read a block of text quite beautifully while not comprehending much, if anything at all.
Like most long waged battles for the right way to do things, the answer is likely somewhere in the middle. You can’t be a good reader without all three skills and no single skill will ensure that the other two get pulled along with it.
What you assess depends largely on your goals and the resources available. If your goal is to get a snapshot of the overall progress of a school, you can likely choose one of the skills over the other two. If your goal is to get detailed snapshots and track the progress of individual students, you’ll likely need a more involved, holistic test.
If you’ve got restricted resources (and time is of course a resource), you may simply have to make some tough decisions about which skills to test. In the younger grades, emphasis should be placed on decoding and fluency, with the focus slowly shifting to comprehension as students enter the older grades.
If you’re testing students reading in phonetic languages, there will likely be a very clear point after which assessing decoding is all but useless, and that may be rather early on. For a complicated language like English, decoding can still be an issue well into secondary school (with such exciting words as foliage, bordeaux, and pyrrhic being considered English words).
For a quick and dirty assessment of a whole class at a level where decoding is still a relevant skill, the spelling test style assessment from part I will likely give you a good idea of where each individual student, and the class as a whole, stands.
If you have a bit more time, the 60 second fluency test from part II is your best bet to get an idea of the literacy level of a group of students.
For an even more complete picture, a comprehension test (also from part II) will let you know if those skills are creating truly capable readers.
Why mix and match?
If comprehension is truly an indicator of holistic reading, why bother with the others at all? Primarily, because you may not have time to design, administer, and score, hundreds of comprehension tests. Still, there’s also a time where you’ll want to test the other skills in addition to comprehension assessments.
When you ask? When students aren’t comprehending, the other tests will let you know why. If a student can’t answer questions about a text they’ve “read,” where is the deficiency? It may be that they simply can’t decipher the symbols on the page into the words they represent, it may be that the process of deciphering is so slow for them that they’re hopelessly frustrated with any text longer than a few sentences, or it may be that they simply haven’t developed the skills necessary to grapple with concepts gleaned from higher level texts.
The only way to know precisely what the problem is, and how to address it, is with a test that assesses all three areas.
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