Research School Network: How we use diagnostic assessments to guide reading interventions Our quest to identify the best next step in each pupils’ learning


How we use diagnostic assessments to guide reading interventions

Our quest to identify the best next step in each pupils’ learning

by Shotton Hall Research School
on the


Reading interventions in secondary schools occupy a notoriously grey area, with many schools agonising over which programme to use, rather than accurately diagnosing need. Reading is a complex process that requires multiple different aspects to come together for pupils to read well.

Diagnostic assessments are vital – without them, we risk wasting precious time and resources. Diagnostic assessments allow us to rule out potential issues and then prioritise our efforts so that we can continually focus on the best next step in learning for each pupil.

What’s the challenge?

Obtaining quality data – and knowing what we can and cannot infer from it – is crucial. It also helps to think of assessment as a process not an event and to recognise that one assessment alone will be insufficient to assess all reading needs.

Many standardised tests such as Sats, CATs and optional group reading tests can give indicators of pupils causing concern but it’s important to know what they are testing – known as the constructs. Tests that can be administered to groups of pupils at once (hence the name group tests) tend to measure quite broad areas of learning.

The Reading Sats paper, for example, is a broad measure of reading and gives a single scaled score. Although two pupils may get the same overall score, their actual capabilities and difficulties relating to reading may differ quite a lot.

A pupil might not have met the magic 100’ scaled score, but that does not mean they cannot read: it means that, on the day, they did not sufficiently understand the texts. Similarly, the CATs test a range of reasoning skills and, although the verbal reasoning score may give an indication of difficulties with comprehension, it cannot be relied on alone.

How we do it

To diagnose any issues in the broad areas of reading, we need something more precise: we need to use multiple assessments – often called a battery of assessments. Recently, I have been working with schools to pilot some procedures as summarised in this graphic.

Assessment process

First, we used data from the available group reading tests – combined with referrals from concerned staff – to identify a group of pupils causing concern. Ideally, we would give this group a further group test to rule out anomalies efficiently as it is time consuming to administer one-to-one assessments with pupils.

Next, we used trained staff to administer an array of short and detailed diagnostics one-to-one with pupils. We began by listening to pupils read one or more extracts. If pupils’ fluency was poor, we tried simpler texts and also explored aspects of word recognition, including phonological awareness. We used a combination of different assessments dynamically and drew on the freely available DIBELS assessments.

Listening to pupils read aloud and scoring them using Rasinski’s multidimensional fluency scale was a good indicator of fluency. We then asked pupils to summarise the text and asked focused questions to gauge their comprehension.

Crucially, our aim was not just to assign a series of scores to pupils, but to identify the best next steps in their learning so we used these approaches dynamically. We developed hypotheses about the best next steps and then tested them until we had a high degree of confidence in our decisions.

In addition to exploring the different aspects of reading, we also conducted a basic vision screen and were concerned by the number of pupils who failed it. Our findings were consistent with existing estimates that around 13% of pupils may have an untreated vision difficulty. We also discussed pupils’ prior experiences with reading as well as their attitudes to reading.

Overall, these processes – combined with the information gathered from our group reading tests – allowed us to judge the best next step in each pupils’ learning. Our main conclusions were that:

  • Most struggling readers need help with fluency, which is fortunate as this is perhaps the aspect of reading secondary schools are best able to support through quality practice.

  • Vision is an often-overlooked issue. Many of the pupils had untreated vision difficulties or had been given glasses, but did not regularly wear them.

  • Pupils had diverse attitudes to reading and while the overwhelming majority wanted to be better at reading, many did know how to improve or believe that their actions mattered.

  • Crucially, some pupils needed the right package of support so a one size fits all approach would not serve these pupils well.

In further blogs, we will outline exactly what we plan to do to support these pupils.

Louise Quinn

Louise Quinn

Director, Shotton Hall Research School

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