Let's chat about the assessment of reading

This podcast discusses strategies for the assessment of student reading. Members of the department’s literacy team discuss what tools are available and how these assessments support us in identifying the reading behaviours and strategies of our students. The podcast also outlines how teachers can use this information to make decisions about the next focus areas to target their teaching. [Duration: 19:22].

[Intro music plays]

Hayley Millard

Welcome everyone, I’m Hayley Millard, the K-6 Literacy Advisor with the NSW Department of Education and I’m joined by our K-12 Literacy Coordinator, Shannan Salvestro. Hello Shannan.

Shannan Salvestro

Hello Hayley…

Hayley Millard

I’m really excited to be here today because we’re talking about best practice in the assessment of reading. And before we do get started we are going to discuss some specific assessment tools that available for NSW Department of Education teachers. So, if you are listening to us today from outside NSW you might just like to do a little research and find equivalent tools in your areas, but you certainly might still be interested in this discussion we are having here today. We really want to support schools as we move away from more traditional methods for assessment and monitoring and we really want to empower teachers to become diagnostic in their observations of students, in order to inform planning and teaching which is really grounded in the evidence-base.

Shannan Salvestro

And here I think it’s really important that before we dive into this discussion, we come at this topic with a shared understanding of that evidence-base that the NSW DoE holds at the core of our support and our resources for teaching reading. So, we do need to have a shared understanding of the essential components of skilled reading.

Hayley Millard

Absolutely that's right. So, we at the DoE we do have a number of frameworks for understanding the cognitive processes involved in skilled reading. And really when I reflect on my own teaching journey, perhaps the most powerful framework for myself in shifting my own practice has been that of Scarborough’s Reading Rope. It’s a fantastically simple metaphor actually, which describes the cognitive process that is really quite complex.

Shannan Salvestro

Yeah, I think it’s probably worth just spending a little bit of time of the Rope itself before we launch into a discussion about assessment. So, Dr Hollis Scarborough has built on The Simple View of Reading to create this interweaving of the strands of a rope, and each of these strands represent each of the components, or cognitive processes, which come together in order for skilled reading to occur. So, Hayley maybe you can just have a chat to us about the components of the rope.

Hayley Millard

Sure, so now Scarborough has split the processes of reading into two parts. So we've got language comprehension or what we would call the upper strands of the reading rope. And then we've got word recognition and they're the lower strands of the reading rope. And then Dr Hollis Scarborough had further broken those parts into their components or strands. So, Word recognition is made up of phonological awareness, decoding and sight recognition and then, the upper strands of the rope consist of background knowledge, vocabulary, literacy knowledge, verbal reasoning and language structures. And it’s really important that we as teachers understand and explicitly teach these components of reading.

Shannan Salvestro

Aha, now, language comprehension and what we might have called reading comprehension are different, aren’t they? Hayley, could you explain the difference between the two?

Hayley Millard

Sure thing because this is a really important distinction to make between the learning to read phase and reading to learn phase we might see in our students. And we need to understand that when we are talking about emergent readers, we really are talking about a stage in a child’s development of reading where the strands have not yet woven together to the point of automaticity. That is, children are still learning to lift the words off the page, using their phonological awareness, their decoding skills, their phonic knowledge and their sight recognition. This is cognitively effortful, and while some children might display a certain level of understanding of what they are reading, that certainly wouldn't my focus for their instruction during guided reading sessions as their teacher. As a teacher of these emergent readers, I probably would be teaching and assessing language comprehension differently, probably through the exposure to rich texts, through really rich and deep discussion and the explicit teaching of things like vocabulary and verbal reasoning. And, actually I suppose that’s another important thing to note as we begin to discuss assessment because we need to understand where our students sit on their progression on the rope. You, know are they an emergent reader whose strands are still quite separate or have they start to become woven together in a more strategic and automatic way reading? Or perhaps their strands have come together nicely and they are beginning to gain meaning from the texts they read.

Shannan Salvestro

That’s a good point. We really do actually have the tools required to support our understanding of the developmental pathway because we've got the National Literacy Learning Progression and that clearly outlines I guess the common or typical pathway in the development of reading. And we could use it as a tool to both monitor a students’ progress and make informed decisions about what might be the next focus of instruction but what I really like about the Progression is that it also deepens our insight as teachers on those typical developmental pathways of a student’s reading skills and because of that we can use it as a tool to diagnose gaps in a student’s reading behaviours. And I actually really like the alignments with the rope framework and the Literacy Progression.

Hayley Millard

That's right, it's really useful as teachers isn't it?

Shannan Salvestro


Hayley Millard

...because I find there are really explicit links between the evidence-base and the Literacy Learning Progression and the curriculum and these are really easy to find. If we think on the strands of the rope for a moment, we have strands like phonological awareness, we've got fluency, phonic knowledge and word recognition and vocabulary and they are all explicitly linked in Learning Progression because they've all each got their own sub-element of the progression, And then we've also got implicit links to the evidence base in the Learning Progression, so if you think about verbal reasoning strand that's interwoven through the understanding texts sub-element as well.

Shannan Salvestro

Yeah - this might be a good point to have a recap here. So, we do have that shared understanding of the evidence-base. What do you think Hayley?

Hayley Millard

Yeah sure, so just recapping so if we understand that skilled reading is what happens when a series of complex cognitive processes come together with automaticity and we are supported in our understanding of our students progress through the National Literacy Learning Progression, which I can monitor and track my student's progress using online tools such as PLAN2. This really means that, as a teacher, I have everything I need to move away from more traditional methods for assessment and levelling students towards a more evidence-based approach where I can be confident and I suppose me diagnostic in my observations and assessment of my students as they learn to read.

Shannan Salvestro

Yeah I think that is an important point there, because, we know that assigning a child or a student to a particular reading level doesn’t give the full picture and can’t possibly capture the full range of cognitive processes that we know are a part of reading because reading is what happens when a number of complex process all need to come together. And we want to empower teachers as the experts to make judgments about where a student is at in their reading development and how that student is able to bring those components together.

Hayley Millard

Now would be actually great time to think about some real classroom examples so that we can illustrate the thought processes that might go into this more diagnostic approach to reading assessment.

Shannan Salvestro

Yeah that sounds great. So we can listen now to a recording of a student and before we start though, I’ll just give you some context. This student you're are about to hear has moved beyond the simple code, and has moved into learning and using the extended code, so she's starting to use more complex phonic knowledge. And we will actually hear that the teacher has decided to ask some questions to probe the student's understanding as the teacher thinks that some of the strands of the rope are starting to come together for this student. Should we listen?

Hayley Millard

That sound's great.

[Recording begins]

Child: The lions’ final act was in pr...

Teacher: progress

Child: progress. Jack st- stood … wanting

Teacher: waiting

Child: waiting to clear the ring. The … thud … thunder outside the circle … no … circus tent had made the lions … rested

Teacher: restless

Child: restless. Saturday

Teacher: suddenly

Child: suddenly Tina the lion … tamer

Teacher: trainer

Child: trainer … st- …

Teacher: stumbled

Child: stumbled. Her whip fell. The young

Teacher: youngest

Child: youngest lion sp- …

Teacher: sprang

Child: sprang to … toward …

Teacher: towards

Child: her. Jack left … Jack leaped …

Teacher: swiftly

Child: swiftly inside the cage … cranking

Teacher: cracking

Child: cracking his whip – that doesn’t make sense ‘cracking his whip’. Oh yeah … I get it … cracking his whip with great … skill. His …

Teacher: prompt

Child: prompt act- … action …enabled

Teacher: yep that's right enabled

Child: enabled Tina to get

Teacher: regain

Child: regain control quickly. After that … brief ad- adventure Jack … decided on

Teacher: upon

Child: upon his fut- future work.

Teacher: Where did this story take place?​

Child: Er … at the circus.​

Teacher: Yeah that's right and were the lions near the beginning, near the middle or near the end of their act?​

Child: Near the end.​

Teacher: That's right well done. And what was Jack waiting for?​

Child: To take the lions away?

Teacher: Why were the lions restless?​

Child: Cos of the storm … the thunder​

Teacher: That's exactly right. And so what happened to Tina?​

Child: She lost control.​

Teacher: and what did Jack do to help?​

Child: He cracked his whip to get the lions in control.​

Teacher: Good. And then who finished the act?​

Child: Tina did.​

Teacher: Yep that's right and then what did Jack decide after this adventure?​

Child: That he would become a lion trainer?​

Teacher: Yeah a lion tamer that's right.

[End recording]

Shannan Salvestro

Ok we could hear there that the reading sounded almost painfully slow and it actually was full of errors. Her fluency I think was impacted as a result of that. And did you hear that decoding was such an effort for her and it seems unlikely that she can also consider the meanings of the words she is struggling to read, or connect up the sentences to make sense of the passage as a whole. She actually does make more than a dozen errors.

Hayley Millard

hmmm… and actually it was really interesting to hear that she makes some substitutions when she reads like when she said tamer instead of trainer.

Shannan Salvestro


Hayley Millard

That, to me, really points to the fact that she has got the requisite background knowledge and vocabulary around the topic of circuses and I think that that's really what's supporting her basic understanding of the text and i feel that she is relying on those strategies to solve the words she comes across as she reads, rather than having really solid decoding strategies.

Shannan Salvestro

Yeah that’s right and look I'd be concerned that if she were to apply those strategies to a text where she doesn't have that vocabulary background knowledge, she actually would really struggle. So, I think that if I was her teacher, my next steps would be actually going back and diagnosing exactly where this child has gaps in her phonic knowledge and blending skills as we could hear they just weren’t coming together to that level of automaticity. So the first thing I would do is go to the online Phonics diagnostic assessment - that would be my first port of call here. Actually, another tool that I could use would be the Fluency assessment tool which NSW teachers have access on the Learning Resource Hub and what is does is it helps you to rate the fluent reading ability of students using a fluency scale, so you're looking for expression, volume, rhythm, phrasing, smoothness and automaticity. And I think this is important because we know that fluency is that bridge between word recognition and language comprehension.

Hayley Millard

Yes, absolutely that's right - and look what I like about those tools that you've pointed to there is - I know that the online Phonics diagnostic assessment that updates my PLAN2 data automatically, so as a teacher, that's going to save me lots of time. I also know that Fluency assessment tool on the hub there, that's linked to the Literacy Progression so I could use that data and enter that data into PLAN2 as well, as well as add any other observations I might have made during her reading.

Shannan Salvestro

Yeah that's right - you can always add in those teacher judgments into PLAN2 to give that overall picture. We also have 3 different tools for assessing vocabulary so those tools include a knowledge scale and a vocab recognition tool… so for NSW teachers and staff, they can access those on the learning resource hub. And I should also point out that the hub not only houses those assessment tools, but it also has teaching resources which teachers might be able to use in their classroom to target their teaching around some of those focus areas that have been revealed as part of using the assessment tools.

Hayley Millard

Yeah wonderful I think that's definitely worth noting. So, I suppose the key takeaway from our discussion today is that we want to empower teachers as the experts and we want them to feel confident that they have the evidence, they have the knowledge and expertise to be diagnosticians and to really assess, monitor and track reading in a much more granular way than we might have done before.

Shannan Salvestro

Yeah, I might just add in there that i think by doing that we really then do start to focus on the reading behaviours that we see - that a student has rather than just deciding what level a student is on. So yeah, I think that's important.

Hayley Millard

Absolutely, well thank you I'm really excited that we've been able to have this discussion here today and really support teachers and schools in their best practice around their assessment practices as well. So thank you for joining me today, Shannan.

Shannan Salvestro

Yeah thank you, look it was good just to have a discussion just to get us to start thinking about our current approaches to reading assessment and where we might be able to start thinking about making shifts in our practice.

Hayley Millard

Yeah for sure and we will provide some links to further reading in the podcast notes and, of course, if teachers or schools would like support with anything to do with literacy or numeracy, they can contact us at, the email address is literacy.numeracy@det.nsw.edu.au

We look forward to joining you again soon, thanks for joining us today. Goodbye.

Use the links below for more information on the assessments and resources mentioned in this podcast.


  • Literacy


  • Reading

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  • Teaching, Learning and Student Wellbeing
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