Standardized testing for reading level or 'reading age'. How does this fit in with systematic phonics instruction?

Across the globe, international comparisons including PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) are used to assign scores and rankings to students’ literacy achievement in different countries. Because standardised reading tests focus on only two types of student outcome—cognitive strategies and skills and content area learning—using test scores to evaluate programs is restricted to these areas.

According to late education researcher Gerald W. Bracey, PhD, qualities that standardized tests cannot measure include "creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, persistence, curiosity, endurance, reliability, enthusiasm, empathy, self-awareness, self-discipline, leadership, civic-mindedness, courage, compassion, resourcefulness, sense of beauty, sense of wonder, honesty, integrity."

Good standardised tests have also undergone investigations which provide an understanding of how valid and reliable they are (assessment providers should be able to describe these aspects of their tests clearly). Those which are delivered by computers (and don’t use human marking) can reduce bias considerably, and increase the reliability and objectivity of the assessment process.


Bear in mind that:
1. Standardized reading tests are used with considerable frequency, although there is no research that links increased standardized testing with increased reading achievement.
2. Standardized reading tests are limited in their ability to describe students’ reading achievement and reading development. 3. Standardized reading tests can be detrimental to the development of students’ self-efficacy and motivation.
4. Standardized reading tests confine and constrict reading curriculum and can disrupt high-quality teaching.
5. Standardized reading tests demand significant allocation of time and money that could be otherwise used to increase students’ reading achievement.


School leaders and policy makers really seem to like 'data'! And those selling standardised testing and 'levelled' readers always appear to have 'research' to back up their marketing claims. But let me explain what we have found, after looking at the data collected in schools across Australia, who are using the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach. All of those teachers, working in the public school education system, have to 'benchmark' students. Each state will have an expectation regarding PM 'level' for example, for each grade.  As they are comparison charts some use F&P (Fountas and Pinnell)  
This expected 'level' does seem to vary a LOT ! 

We want children learning to read and spell (we can't separate the two, and actually take a speech to print/ spelling to reading' type approach) as quickly and easily as possible. One of the reasons SSP is 'different' is that there is no handbook that includes daily, weekly or even termly 'lessons' for the whole class; we don't know the students you will have. How can we plan your Speedy Six Spelling activity words, when we don't know what they will need? YOU (the teacher) will know that; and our activities, and training, will help you develop the skills needed to analyse writing samples, understand which strands of the 'rope' they need to work on etc. 

We see the learning process as a continuum, and each can travel along it at their pace. It is a 'skills acquisition' process, with all learning what they need, when they need it. Even though the Rope 'ends' with comprehension
; learning, understanding, wondering, and enjoyment are some of reading’s true goals. (Hirsch, Pondiscio, and Catts)

The purpose of literacy instruction is well-represented at the top of Shefelbine’s Literacy Framework:
Motivation (success, pleasure, relevance, purpose).

What we see happening in these 'ready-made lessons' is that too many children take too long to reach this stage. We want every child engaged, and working at their level; activities are created to allow that to happen. 'Less teaching, more learning!'

So we have 4 'Code Levels' during which we teach the high frequency phoneme to grapheme links, and so can start using

'decodable readers' in Australia from the first few weeks of kindergarten. 
We have been using these for over a decade - well before they became more widely recommended. SSP teachers 'reading level' data shot through the roof.  

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Smiling Girl with Book
Girl Reading

But many teachers do like 'lesson by lesson' planning, and some leaders want 'scripted' lessons, perhaps as they do not trust their teachers to independently produce great learning outcomes for all students. Many also say they like to know a relief teacher can open up a page and lead the lesson. Our focus is on best outcomes for all students, not ease of teaching. Those who choose SSP feel the same way; they understand their role as teacher. SSP is an approach that allows parents and educators actually teach to the needs of their class. Some of the teachers I have visited have blown me away !

he ideal scenario is that the Prep and Year 1 teacher work as a team, sending 90 - 95% of children into grade 2 no longer learning to read, now reading what they choose (for pleasure as well as to learn) There will always be a few children who have missed a lot of school, or may already have had a learning 'challenge' identified. If all children, who are able to do so, can start grade 2 already 'reading to learn' then this changes the whole culture of the school.  

But how does a systematic approach to teaching reading align itself with reading schemes that do not scaffold from phonemic awareness, and enable children to practise decoding, gradually adding in more and more graphemes, with time to reinforce and consolidate at each 'Code Level'? For example, we analysed the PM Levels 1 - 10 readers and found over 100 commonly used words, which would traditionally be taught as whole words to be memorised by sight. The other words would need to be guessed from first sound or illustration. So if we are not teaching in this way; we are focused on oral language, phonemic awareness, phonics taught systematically, fluency, vocab and comprehension (but through scaffolded decodable readers that align with the grapheme teaching order, and our HFWs) then how could children possibly read PM Levels 1 - 10 in the beginning stages? The 'readers' are so different !     

We use a 'systematic phonics' approach. That can look very different, in different classrooms; teachers and students everywhere are different. It's why educational research is arguably many variables !

However, when taking on the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach the following are included.
The outcomes will vary, depending on a wide range of factors (those pesky variables again)    

Phonemic Awareness
We start from the phoneme level, with a HUGE focus on phonemic awareness. This refers to the isolation, segmentation, blending and manipulation of the smallest units of spoken words (phonemes)

Note that these can be identified using a universally accepted code, with a symbol to represent each 'speech sound'.
Here we have put those symbols next to our Speech Sound Monsters. You may or may not be familiar with the IPA (yet) but it is used by speech pathologists and ESL teachers around the world. 


Although we may all use different accents when teaching reading and spelling we map phonemes to graphemes (more or less) in line with the British transcriptions. Please visit and try it out! We are not saying that people need to speak with British accents, but we have found that it is easier to map in this way, and then 'translate' to our accents. So students 'follow the sounds, to say the word' but then say the word in their accent!   



Systematic Phonics Instruction (with a continuation of this intensive phonemic awareness and a focus on fluency) and use of aligned decodable texts, with 'Snap and Crack' (comprehension activity) Speedy Six spelling (working memory, vocab knowledge) and Code Mapped high-frequency words

We chose this grapheme teaching order (s a t p i n m d g etc ) as I'm from the UK and knew we'd have lots of free resources that we could slot in eg decodable readers that align. So I more or less used the order from Letters and Sounds but grouped them to ensure the children learn new skills and concepts in a realistic and manageable way.  It is worth noting that we don't teach spelling 'rules' (the students learn them all, while exploring 'how words work, but we don't teach them) and we do not segment into anything but graphemes (ie no analysis of syllables) So it's really straight forward fully differentiated approach and they are given opportunities to APPLY this knowledge throughout the day.
It's a lot of hard work in the first two terms for the teacher, but by term 4 she is more or less guiding the children as they are 'self-teaching'. Life, then, is pretty amazing for SSP teachers! Many cannot believe that children are capable of learning so much, so quickly.  

We hold off using the F&P/ PM benchmarking / testing until students get to the end of the Yellow Code Level. Then the teacher can start using the benchmark tests, with text unseen, and read with fluency and comprehension. Children can start using the readers as 'home readers' (and also books they choose) 


We've tracked over 100 schools and the correlation between that achievement and 'reading level' is consistent; the only difference is the pace at which they get there (which depends on organisation of teachers, oral and phonemic awareness skills on entry, whether the leaders are fully supportive etc) It can take a bit longer for some teachers to 'get the hang of it', and change expectations regarding what they are capable of.

With regards to skills learnt using systematic phonics they will be reading at around F&P F/G Lexile 1.4 when they are at the end of yellow and transitioning to blue.

In Australia we have 4 terms. 85% of the reception class are generally at this stage by the end of term 3, and this is actually the 'level' expected at the end of Prep (so most are there a lot earlier, which means their end of year 'level' is generally an average F&P J, lexile 400.

Compared to students using the most 'traditional' approach the gains appear statistically significant, however, this data is simply used for our internal analysis and not made public. We were going to publish the PM data of around 100 Prep teachers a year ago, however, a lot of school leaders 'chickened out', as worried their school names would be used. There has been some 'resistance' to SSP in certain camps, and some schools have (in the past) been asked to justify why they would choose it, and drop a well known synthetic phonics program. Data demonstrates why. All schools submit data to their education dept, who are also aware of which schools have seen positive changes with regards to NAPLAN testing.  They love data in AU.

By the end of term 2 the Prep teacher has usually identified the 5% or so of the class who need additional support (we teach all as if they have dyslexia from day 1; so these are students who may have been absent regularly or have an II) So students are getting the help they need earlier. This means that the children still not reading in grade 2 are not instructional casualties.  


If we start benchmarking earlier than this we have found that they can't actually 'read' the text with fluency; working memory is either caught up trying to figure out the words from their code knowledge (but the text is not appropriate) or they try three cueing strategies. So some will 'benchmark' but painfully; and it is potentially damaging if reading (and spelling) quickly and as easily as possible is the goal. (I often ask leadership if that is, actually the goal) The two approaches are different, and it's confusing to the children.

You can see, hopefully, that by the end of the Yellow Code Level its not just that they have been using these high frequency graphemes  and can map the phonemes to graphemes in the 100 or so most commonly used words, but are now starting to 'self-teach'; and they now know what 'reading' is. They aren't searching for clues in illustrations, trying to guess..and there is no learned helplessness (looking to the teacher to see what they're think they're supposed to say or know)

We speed up up the process for Aussie children, and they can move onto PM readers quickly. As stated earlier, we analysed all commonly used words across the levels and the children map them from early on (the words are visually segmented, and they have videos they can watch at home where they watch the screen and see the segmented words, while hearing the graphemes (isolated and segmented) So they do actually read those commonly used words (which make up a huge percentage of the early texts) by 'sight' (ie automaticity)

So the question we get asked a lot is 'how long will it take for children to move onto the readers, and be ready to be benchmarked?' It depends on the students and the instruction; test at the end of SSP Yellow or term 4 of Prep, whichever comes first.


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