With parent-teacher conferences around the corner, you may hear that your child has gone up a level or two in reading based on the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System (F&P BAS). What does this actually mean in terms of your child’s skill in learning to read? It might surprise you that your child can show improvement all year and yet still not be reading at a proficient level.
First, let’s be clear on what the F&P BAS is and how it is used. The F&P BAS uses books leveled from A to Z and measures reading progress against grade level criteria. The letters, A to Z, representing reading levels from easiest to hardest, are designed to individually assess a child’s independent and instructional levels for placement into reading groups. Suggestions of books for children to choose on their own are also based on these levels so that the children are matched to books they can comfortably read. The assessment consists of oral reading fluency, followed by “comprehension conversations” to gauge understanding. The starting level for each child is based on prior results, and text difficulty is increased until a level of frustration marks the end of the assessment. It can take twenty to thirty minutes to complete the assessment for each child.
Once a reading level is determined, the reading material might be manageable, but it will not necessarily prepare students for more challenging text like that which appears on standardized ELA assessments. Moreover, comprehension conversations can be boring to children, and frequently they gain little in learning how to handle complex reading. Another problem involves how reading levels are chosen. Readability is measured using formulas that do not take into account the influence of the reader’s prior knowledge and motivation. Text difficulty is more than length of words and sentence structure; background knowledge and motivation can make something more palatable to read and more understandable. Having no knowledge or interest in a subject can make it extremely difficult to comprehend. Keeping children in leveled groups and only exposing them to instructional leveled text can be limiting, as evidenced by the number of children appearing to be making progress and yet not closing the achievement gap.
Another inherent problem with the F&P BAS can occur with the administration of the assessment; it can be administered incorrectly and produce results that are not accurate. It is not easy to administer individual assessments and keep the rest of the students in a class doing something productive for thirty minutes. Some teachers lose patience with how long it takes to administer the F&P BAS and will rush to complete it. Others merely use the levels from the year before and do not bother taking children up to their frustration levels, instead approximating where they think the children should be. Consequently, I have lacked confidence in the F&P BAS reading levels of my students and supplement the assessment with other assessments. As you can imagine, this leads to more testing which is not very efficient.
Most importantly, the F&P BAS does not have a specific trajectory for students to reach a goal. Since the teacher is observing reading behaviors rather than tracking reading skills, the teacher is left to figure out which underlying skills are causing a child to stagnate. Although the teacher is aware of the letters representing the actual level and the desired grade level, just determining a reading level does not pinpoint the skill deficits which need to be addressed. Some students may move up in their reading levels naturally as they progress in the classroom without the teacher doing anything specialized to assist them. Progress, however, does not equate with proficiency, and parents should be asking what the teacher or reading specialist will do to specifically address their child’s needs.
Faith Borkowsky, Owner and Lead Educational Consultant of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching, is a Certified Wilson Dyslexia Practitioner, is Orton-Gillingham trained, and has extensive training and experience in a number of other research-based, peer-reviewed programs that have produced positive gains for students with dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, ADD/ADHD, and a host of learning difficulties.
High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching is located in Plainview, Long Island. Read about what we can offer you and your child: http://highfiveliteracy.com.
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