Assessing Reading

Identifying specific reading difficulties can be done through a formal assessment. There are many different assessment measures that are available but many of them are not normed for South African children which means that a skewed reading age is given. These test are normally done with a remedial specialist or educational psychologist. Formal assessment is not always possible but ‘testing’ a child’s reading does not necessarily need be done with a formal standardised test. Teachers know what the grade expected level of reading is and therefore should have a general idea if a child is reading below or above expectations. If the teacher feels that the child’s reading is not developing as expected, they can assess the child informally to determine which specific area of reading they are having difficulty in.  A teacher can simply give a child a paragraph or a few sentences to read and observe the child’s reading. Note down the following:

  1. Does he decode each word?
  2. Can he read sight words and which ones is he still struggling with?
  3. When he is presented with an unfamiliar word, can he use decoding skills? Is his vocabulary proficient enough to recognise the word even if he mispronounces it slightly?
  4. Is he guessing words based on the first two sounds?
  5. Is he reversing any words or letters?
  6. Is he omitting words or letters?
  7. Is his fluency impacted by having to decode every word?

Other things to consider are: what has the child’s exposure been to reading so far? Did he have a good grade R and grade N grounding? Is there possible lowered intellectual functioning? What is the child’s home environment and socio-economic status (this can impact language and pre-reading skills). What is their first language? Are there possible attention difficulties? The different types of reading issues (click to go to full description of dysphonetic, dyseidetic and dysnemkinetic dyslexia)can not necessarily be formally diagnosed with informal testing by a teacher but the they can begin to identify which areas are needing specific support.  

Informal assessment approaches:

(sourced from Reading Rockets ).

There are several informal assessment tools for assessing various components of reading. The following are ten suggested tools for teachers to use.

Most of the assessments here should be given one-on-one. It is important that you have a non-distracting, comfortable testing environment for students, and that the rest of the class is engaged in a task or assignment and working quietly. It’s even better if you can arrange for another teacher to be present while you are performing assessments.

This list of informal assessments is not all-inclusive; there are components of reading that these tools do not assess.

Letter Sound Recognition
About this assessment Familiarity with the letters of the alphabet is essential to the development of reading skills. Instruction should be geared towards unknown letters and their sounds. Students should be able to recognize the letters in both uppercase and lowercase forms. What it measures Ability to recognize letters and sounds. Examples of assessment questions Show student one letter at a time and ask:

  • Can you tell me what letter this is? (Record the student’s response)
  • Can you tell me what sound it makes? (Record the student’s response)

Age or grade typically mastered Many students enter Grade R with the ability to recognize letters. Fewer students recognize the letter sounds. Both are taught in Grade R. When should it be assessed? Assess letter/sound recognition three times during Grade R, at the start of school, at mid-year, and at the end of the year.

Phonemic awareness
What it measures

  • Phoneme matching is the ability to identify words that begin with the same sound.
  • Phoneme isolation is the ability to isolate a single sound from within a word.
  • Phoneme blending is the ability to blend individual sounds into a word.
  • Phoneme segmentation is the ability to break a word into individual sounds.
  • Phoneme manipulation is the ability to modify, change, or move the individual sounds in a word.

Examples of assessment questions Remember, when a letter appears between slash marks, you should say the letter sound, and not the letter name.

  • Phoneme matchingWhich words sound alike? man, sat, sip (Correct response: sat, sip)
  • Phoneme isolation – initial (first) soundWhat’s the first sound in sat? (Correct response: /s/)
  • Phoneme isolation – final (last) soundWhat’s the last sound in sat? (Correct response: /t/)
  • Phoneme isolation – medial (middle) soundWhat’s the middle sound in sat? (Correct response: /a/)
  • Phoneme blendingWhat word do these sounds make? /h/ – /o/ – /t/ (Correct response: hot)
  • Phoneme segmentationWhat sounds do you hear in hot? (Correct response: /h/ – /o/ – /t/)
  • Phoneme manipulation – initial (first) soundSay mat without the /m/ sound. (Correct response: at)
  • Phoneme manipulation – final (last) soundSay mat without the /t/ sound. (Correct response: ma)
  • Phoneme manipulation – substitution

Say pig. (Correct response: pig) Now change the /p/ in pig to /f/. (Correct response: fig) Age or grade typically mastered

  • Phoneme matching: The middle of Grade R
  • Phoneme isolation – initial (first) sound: The middle of Grade R
  • Phoneme isolation – final (last) sound: Late Grade R or early first grade
  • Phoneme isolation – medial (middle) sound: Late Grade R or early first grade
  • Phoneme blending: Late Grade R or early first grade
  • Phoneme segmentation: First grade
  • Phoneme manipulation – initial (first) sound: First grade
  • Phoneme manipulation – final (last) sound: First grade
  • Phoneme manipulation – substitution: Middle to end of first grade or early second grade

When should it be assessed? Phonemic awareness assessments should be done three times during the Grade R and first grade years to help guide instruction.

Reading fluency
What it measures How many words a child reads correctly in one minute. Examples of assessment questions Choose an appropriate passage for the student to read aloud. As the student reads, complete a record for one minute. Age or grade typically mastered Students should be expected to master age-appropriate material. When should it be assessed? Fluency assessments should be completed throughout the year to help guide instruction.
About this assessment Portfolios can be used to document students’ achievement and progress. Portfolios give an accurate picture of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Instruction on how to pick a piece of work to place in a portfolio (does it show a concept that was struggled with then understood, does it demonstrate an understanding of a concept? Is it something you are proud of?) is beneficial for students. This type of instruction engages the student to reflect on his or her own work. Portfolios encourage students to take an active role in learning information they feel they have not yet mastered. Portfolios can help guide instruction. Through looking at a piece of child’s work, a teacher can quickly see what lessons are further needed. For example, by looking at a student’s writing a teacher may determine lessons in using commas correctly need to be revisited. Types of portfolios

  • Collection – The collection may consist of a folder that holds samples of a student’s work. The collection should include representative examples of the various types of student work, such as tests, writing samples, and homework assignments.
  • Display portfolio – A container or box containing a selection of work documenting a student’s progress may hold work in this type of portfolio. This type of portfolio may be used to share with parents at conferences. Pieces of work are carefully selected by both teachers and students to show and share with parents/guardians during conferences.
  • Teacher/student assessment portfolio – A collection of documentation including copies of work in the student’s display portfolio, tests, anecdotal notes, conference summaries, contacts made with parents, etc. This portfolio is used by the teacher to aid in discussions with administrators, other teachers, parents, etc about a particular child.
Concepts of Print awareness
About this assessment Concepts of print are usually learned incidentally as children are exposed to books and story readings at home and at school. Concepts of print include an understanding that: print carries meaning, that books contain letters, words, sentences, and spaces. It also includes understanding what books are used for, and that books have parts such as a front cover, back cover and a spine. Eventually, students learn more sophisticated ideas such as understanding that we begin reading on the left and read across the page to the last word on the right, and then we got to the next line, begin reading on the left, and so on. What it measures If a student understands:

  • That print has meaning
  • That print can be used for different purposes
  • The relationship between print and speech
  • There is a difference between letters and words
  • That words are separated by spaces
  • There is a difference between words and sentences
  • That there are (punctuation) marks that signal the end of a sentence
  • That books have parts such as a front and back cover, title page, and spine
  • That stories have a beginning, middle, and end
  • That text is read from left to right and from top to bottom

Examples of assessment questions Give the student a book and ask the following questions. “Can you show me:”

  • a letter?
  • a word?
  • a sentence?
  • the end of a sentence (punctuation mark)?
  • the front of the book?
  • the back of the book?
  • where I should start reading the story?
  • a space?
  • how I should hold the book?
  • the title of the book?
  • how many words are in this sentence?

Age or grade typically mastered Some students enter Grade R with an understanding of print concepts, but other will master it as the school year goes on. When should it be assessed? Assess concepts of print twice during Grade R, at the start of school and at mid-year. In addition, as you model story reading techniques to help guide instruction, identify students who need additional support, and determine if the pace of instruction should be increased, decreased, or remain the same.

What it measures

  • Grade level reading
  • Fluency
  • Comprehension
  • Vocabulary
  • Oral reading accuracy

Examples of assessment questions Choose a grade level passage for the student to read. As the student is reading complete the oral reading accuracy and reading fluency assessments. After the student finishes the passage, check for understanding through explicit and implicit questions. Also, ask open-ended questions about the vocabulary found in the passage. Age or grade typically mastered This assessment can be given to students in grades one through twelve. Students should be expected to master age-appropriate material. When should it be assessed The informal reading inventory is an on-going assessment, and should be completed several times throughout the child’s schooling. In Grade R, perform the informal reading inventory twice per year, at mid-year and at the end of school. In first and second grades, it should be done three times, at the beginning of the school year, at mid-year, and at the end of the year. If a child is struggling, the inventory should be done more often in order to have an accurate picture of the child’s progress.

Word recognition
What it measures Sight word vocabulary at a given grade level. Examples of assessment questions Ask a child to read from a list of words. Age or grade typically mastered Students should be expected to master age-appropriate material. When should it be assessed? Word recognition should be assessed three times during the year for students in kindergarten through second grade to help guide instruction.
Phonological awareness
About this assessment Phonological awareness is a necessary part of reading instruction. Children can show you they have phonological awareness in several ways. It is necessary as the classroom teacher to determine strengths and weaknesses to plan instruction. What it measures

  • Recognizing a word in a sentence shows the ability to segment a sentence
  • Recognizing a rhyme shows the ability to identify words that have the same ending sounds
  • Recognizing a syllable shows the ability to separate or blend words the way that they are pronounced
  • Understanding onset-rime shows the ability to blend the first sound in the word (onset) and the rest of the word (rime)

Examples of assessment questions

  • WordHow many words are in this sentence? “I am happy.” (Correct response: 3)
  • Rhyme

Do these words rhyme? big, fig(Correct response: Yes) What about key, tree? (Correct response: Yes)

  • Syllable blendingI am going to say a word in parts. Listen: o…pen What word did I say? (Correct response: open)
  • Syllable segmentationCan you tell me the two word parts in open? (Correct response: o…pen)
  • Syllable deletionSay open without the -pen. (Correct response: o)
  • Onset-rime

What word do these sounds make? /s/ – /ee/ (Correct response: see) How about /h/ – /op/? (Correct response: hop) Age or grade typically mastered

  • Word: Age 3
  • Rhyme: Age 4
  • Syllable blending: Age 4
  • Syllable segmentation: Grade R
  • Syllable deletion: Grade R
  • Onset-rime: The middle of Grade R

When should it be assessed? Typically, phonological awareness is assessed during Grade R and throughout Grade 1. During the beginning of kindergarten, assessment should be limited to recognizing words, rhyme, syllable blending, and segmentation to help guide instruction.

Reading Comprehension
About this assessment Reading comprehension assessments are the most common type of published reading test that is available. The typical type of reading comprehension assessment involves asking a child to read a passage of text that is leveled appropriately for the child’s age or grade, and then asking explicit, detailed questions about the content of the text. An example of a common reading comprehension assessment is the Informal Reading Inventory (IRI), also known as the Qualitative Reading Inventory (QRI). There are variations on the basic reading comprehension assessments. For example, instead of questions about facts found directly in the text, the child could be asked to answer questions about information that is implied in the text, or the child might be asked to retell the story in the child’s own words.
Phonic elements
What it measures Phonic elements at a given grade level. Examples of assessment questions

  • What sound do the letters ‘s’ ‘h’ make? (Correct response: /sh/)
  • How can I turn cap into cape? (Correct response: Add an ‘e’ to the end of the word.

Age or grade typically mastered Students should be expected to master age-appropriate material. When should it be assessed? Phonic elements should be assessed several times throughout the year in grades one through three to help guide instruction.

Oral Reading Accuracy
About this assessment This assessment provides a measure of a student’s oral reading accuracy by giving teachers insight into a student’s individual reading level. It allows the teacher to listen and record reading behaviors such as the number of errors a student makes, if the student substitutes words, or if the student needs prompting from the teacher. The information offered by this assessment is limited. For example, it does not measure phonological ability, vocabulary, or comprehension. This is why it is often given in conjunction with other assessments such as the informal reading inventory. It should never be used in isolation. Note: When children read orally, they usually concentrate on reading accurately and do not pay as much attention to comprehension of the content. It is also important to remember that if this assessment is used with students who are new to learning English, it should be given both in English and the child’s primary language. What it measures Oral reading accuracy. It also provides the teacher with insight into a student’s ability to use strategies to decode unfamiliar words. Examples of assessment questions Choose a passage for the child to read aloud. As the child reads, take notes on words read correctly and incorrectly. Age or grade typically mastered First through third grade. When should it be assessed? Reading accuracy assessments can be given as part of an informal reading inventory or combined with a comprehension assessment to yield more information. Reading accuracy should be assessed several times throughout the year to help you plan on-going instruction. Are students reading on grade level? Do some students require additional support? Do your students have rich vocabularies? Are your students able to read age-appropriate material? Steps in administering this assessment

  1. Choose a book that is age appropriate, but unfamiliar to your student. (This gives a more accurate picture of a child’s ability in handling texts.)
  2. Ask the student to read the story aloud to you and then at the end tell you what the story was about.
  3. You should familiarize yourself with the following scoring information prior to administering this assessment:


Reading behavior How to score
Read correctly (no error) Check mark over word
Omission (one error) Long dash over word omitted
Insertion (one error) ^ at point of insertion with the inserted word written above it
Repetition of a word (no error) Mark above word with a capital R
Repetition of a phrase (no error) Capital R with a line and an arrow stretching across phrase repeated
Self correction (no error) Capital SC above the word to indicate child has self-corrected
Unable to read word (one error) T for Teacher prompt
Decodes a word in an obvious manner (no error) Mark individual sounds read within the word followed by a check mark if eventually read correctly or a circle if read incorrectly
Read incorrectly (one error) Circle word

What should you count as an error when giving this assessment?

Substituting a word Passage reads: The tall fir tree. Student reads: The tall far tree.
Omitting a word Passage reads: The tall fir tree. Student reads: The tall tree.
Inserting a word Passage reads: A dark and stormy night. Student reads: A dark and stormy winter night.
Needs prompting (if the student has to be told a word by the person administering the running record) Passage reads: I wish that people… Student reads: I wish that… (pauses) that… (teacher prompts “people”)…


  1. As the student reads, mark each word on the form by using the symbols above. Place a check mark above the words read correctly.
  2. If the student reads a word incorrectly or substitutes a word, record what is said above the actual word.
  3. As the student reads, pay attention to his or her behavior. Is the student using context clues (from the sentence or pictures), structure (language sounds correct) and visual cues (using beginning sounds, familiar word chunks, etc.) to read words and gather meaning?
  4. Intervene as little as possible when a student is reading.
  5. If the student is stuck on a word, wait 5-10 seconds before you tell him or her the word.
  6. After the reading, ask the student to tell you about what he or she has just read. Make notes on the following:
  • Can the student tell you what happened in the story in his or her own words?
  • Does the student include the different parts of a story (the characters, setting, events, problem and resolution)?
  • Can the student identify the main idea and supporting details?
  • Does the student use some of the vocabulary found in the text?
  • Is the student’s retelling minimal, adequate or very complete?

What do I do with the information obtained from this assessment? The information gathered while completing an oral reading accuracy assessment can be used to determine error, accuracy, and self-correction rates. To calculate a student’s reading accuracy rate, divide the total words read correctly by the total words read. For example, if a student read a passage containing 100 words and made 5 errors: 95 (total words read correctly) / 100 (total words read) = 95% word accuracy Use the accuracy rate along with the information gained in the student’s story retelling to determine whether the text the student read was too easy, just right, or too difficult for the reader. Below is a general breakdown to use to help guide you when choosing texts for students:

Oral reading accuracy What this says about the text
95-100% Too easy; the text does not present a challenge
90-94% Just right; the text is challenging but manageable
89% and below Too difficult; the text is frustrating for the reader

If a student can read a book with 100% word accuracy but can only give a minimal retelling of the story, do not choose a higher leveled book. We read to get meaning; if a child is not getting meaning from a text they must be instructed on comprehension strategies. Word accuracy without comprehension is not acceptable. What should I be looking for when I give an oral reading accuracy assessment? Giving an oral reading accuracy assessment and asking a child to retell reveals many things about a child’s reading ability. There are other things to be on the look out for and can be taught in the moments following this assessment:

  • Has the student mastered directionality, letter-sound correspondence, return sweep, etc?
  • Did the student make “good errors” when phonetically reading a word (i.e., reading island as “is land” instead of “eye land”)?
  • Was there an attempt to self-correct errors?
  • Did the student attempt to decode an unknown word?
  • Was the student’s reading slow and labored, or fluent?
  • Did the student use expression while reading?
Norms for Reading fluency

Jan Hasbrouck and Gerald Tindal have completed an extensive study of oral reading fluency. The results of their study were published in a technical report entitled, “Oral Reading Fluency: 90 Years of Measurement,” which is available in The Reading Teacher in 2006 (Hasbrouck, J. & Tindal, G. A. (2006). Oral reading fluency norms: A valuable assessment tool for reading teachers. The Reading Teacher. 59(7), 636-644.). The table below shows the mean oral reading fluency of students in grades 1 through 8 as determined by Hasbrouck and Tindal’s data. You can use the information in this table to draw conclusions and make decisions about the oral reading fluency of your students. Students scoring 10 or more words below the 50th percentile using the average score of two unpracticed readings from grade-level materials need a fluency-building program. In addition, teachers can use the table to set the long-term fluency goals for their struggling readers. Average weekly improvement is the average words per week growth you can expect from a student. It was calculated by subtracting the fall score from the spring score and dividing the difference by 32, the typical number of weeks between the fall and spring assessments. For grade 1, since there is no fall assessment, the average weekly improvement was calculated by subtracting the winter score from the spring score and dividing the difference by 16, the typical number of weeks between the winter and spring assessments. For the PDF version – click here Oral Reading Fluency norms

2006 Hasbrouck & Tindal Oral Reading Fluency Data
Fall WCPM*
Winter WCPM*
Spring WCPM*
Avg. Weekly Improvement**
90 75
81 47
111 82
1.9 2.2
25 10
12 6
28 15
1.0 0.6
90 75
106 79
125 100
142 117
1.1 1.2
25 10
25 11
42 18
61 31
1.1 0.6
90 75
128 99
146 120
162 137
1.1 1.2
25 10
44 21
62 36
78 48
1.1 0.8
90 75
145 119
166 139
180 152
1.1 1.0
25 10
68 45
87 61
98 72
0.9 0.8
90 75
166 139
182 156
194 168
0.9 0.9
25 10
85 61
99 74
109 83
0.8 0.7
90 75
177 153
195 167
204 177
0.8 0.8
25 10
98 68
111 82
122 93
0.8 0.8
90 75
180 156
195 165
202 177
0.7 0.7
25 10
102 79
109 88
123 98
0.7 0.6
90 75
185 161
199 177
199 177
0.4 0.5
25 10
106 77
124 97
124 97
0.6 0.6

* WCPM = Words Correct Per Minute **Average words per week growth Sourced from Reading