This article is excerpted from The Fluent Reader in Action: 5 & Up by Timothy V. Rasinksi, Gay Fawcett, Kristin Lems, and Robert T. Ackland

It is a very good thing when a reading teacher knows the strengths, needs, and reading level of every student. But could there actually be too much of a good thing? The teachers in Mayfield, Ohio, were beginning to think so. For two years, they had been required to administer an IRI to every student three times a year. The information they received from the assessment was thorough and certainly helpful for planning instruction. The problem was that by the time the teacher spent anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half assessing each child, too much precious instructional time was lost.

Eager to help, the district administration hired substitutes to give the IRI. While this freed up the teachers, it created new problems. First, it was very costly to pay for the subs. Perhaps more important, however, receiving a typed report is not the same as actually hearing a student read, listening to him answer comprehension questions, or observing them use fix-up strategies. The teachers wanted to do their own assessments and wanted results that could guide instruction, but they did not want to take large chunks of time away from instruction. Could they have it both ways?

Informal Teacher Assessment
Tammi Bender, a district literacy specialist, worked with teachers on how to assess students informally in an ongoing way. In grade-level meetings, they discussed what they observed in their readers, asked colleagues for suggestions, and talked about how to document student growth. Tammi modeled informal assessments by observing students and then sharing what she learned with the classroom teacher. The teacher, in turn, would conduct an observation and then discuss it with Tammi.

Tammi had heard about the 3-Minute Reading Assessment (Rasinski & Padak, 2004, 2005c, 2005d) and wondered if it could supplement the teachers’ informal assessments. As she studied this assessment tool, she realized that, for just a few minutes per child, it would provide important information about reading fluency and comprehension. She was especially glad to see that the Multidimensional Fluency Scale would provide information on all components of fluency: decoding accuracy, decoding automaticity, and rate. Other fluency rating scales she had worked with only addressed words per minute. “When we as teachers only concern ourselves with rate, children become word-callers and no longer read for meaning,” she says.

Tammi noticed that one difference between the informal reading inventory and the 3-Minute Reading Assessment was that the IRI questioned students about their background knowledge of the passage they were about to read. “Add 30 seconds, ask a question or two, and you’ve got that too if you need it,” she thought. “That would be especially helpful with our large number of ESL students.”

Using the 3-Minute Assessment
Tammi began by trying it out herself with a number of children. Immediately, she saw the value of the tool. “After three minutes, I could instantly walk away knowing where the child was in his reading skills and where I could take him.” She listened for smoothness, phrasing, and expression. Through those fluency indicators, she was able to get a clear idea of how students were interacting with text. “Add to this the word recognition and comprehension measures the 3-Minute Reading Assessment provides,” she thought, “and it could very well provide another means of assessing children that would draw upon the teacher’s expertise.”

Tammi took it one step at a time. “We knew that if we said, ‘Here’s one more thing you are required to do,’ there would be some teachers who would be resistant.” Instead, she rolled it out in a few classrooms where the teachers were eager to try it. She did the assessment with the first few students while the classroom teacher watched. Then the teacher assessed a student while Tammi watched. She answered any questions the teacher had and made non-judgmental suggestions. Finally, Tammi and the teacher sat side by side and each assessed students. The teacher felt assured knowing Tammi was nearby if she needed help. “They didn’t need help,” Tammi states. “In fact, in the beginning, some teachers thought they were doing something wrong because it was so easy.”

Soon the word got out: Tammi Bender was helping some teachers do a reading test that only took a few minutes per child, and those teachers were getting some great information about their students! Tammi’s phone began to ring, and the number of teachers using the 3-Minute Reading Assessment began to snowball.

Evidence of Success
“It was important for teachers to really understand fluency before assessing it,” Tammi says. “We began studying fluency in our quarterly grade-level meetings at the middle school.” The district purchased professional books for teachers. Several titles were chosen and each teacher received a book. The intermediate and middle school teachers studied Still Learning to Read (Sibberson & Szymusiak, 2003).

As the teachers became more conversant in fluency instruction and assessment, Tammi began expanding the 3-Minute Reading Assessment into other classrooms. Before long, the majority of district teachers through grade 6 were administering the assessment three times a year—fall, winter, and spring—even though they were not required to do so. In addition, many special education and ESL teachers began giving the assessment. When teachers felt they needed additional, in-depth information for a particular student who was struggling, they still had the IRI as a resource.

Tammi stresses the importance of assessing all students, not just those who are struggling. “We really want to know if we are adding value to all students’ learning,” she says. “Sometimes students who appear to be high-level readers have a fast rate but their actual comprehension is low. We found a reader could totally miss the middle of the text or the end of the text. This assessment brought it to light.”

Teachers were immediately able to use the assessment results in their daily instruction using strategies they had learned in the book studies. In addition, they took results to Intervention Assistance Team meetings. Previously, when teachers were asked in team meetings what interventions they had already tried, responses were vague or predictable: “I moved her seat,” “I changed his reading group,” “I gave her extra help.” Now, teachers talked about instruction in more focused and measurable terms: “I tried echo-reading for four weeks,” “I used structured repeated reading,” “We are doing Readers Theater daily.”

Next Steps
Tammi Bender is now an elementary principal in Mayfield and continues to lead teachers in fluency instruction. She ordered copies of the 3-Minute Reading Assessment for every teacher in her building and provided refresher training. In addition, one staff meeting a month is devoted to discussing student progress in reading.

For too long, educators and the general public have bought into the rhetoric that claims, “Teachers don’t know how to assess their students. Let the test company in Iowa (or New York or California) tell us how they are doing.” When given support and provided time to share their expertise and experiences, teachers can assess reading progress, and reading fluency in particular, without relinquishing precious teaching time.

1. In 1892, William James wrote, “The teacher’s success or failure in teaching reading is based, so far as the public estimate is concerned, upon the oral reading method.” What is the perception of a teacher’s success or failure in teaching reading based upon today? Is that a legitimate measure? What other measures would you accept as evidence that a teacher is doing a good job of teaching students to read?

2. Many high-stakes, standardized tests do not assess fluency. Why do you think that is so?

3. Reading rate has become an important part of most fluency assessments. What do you see as the strengths and concerns related to assessing fluency through reading rate?

4. Most current fluency assessments do not include prosody. Is it important to assess prosody, or expression, in reading?

5. Does your current assessment program provide enough information about fluency? If not, how could you supplement it?

6. Role-play a parent conference in which you share results of a fluency assessment. What information will you provide? How will you help parents understand the importance of fluency?

7. How often do you think fluency should be assessed? Is it necessary to assess all students equally? Why or why not?

For more about fluency, including lessons, strategies, and ideas, see Your Complete Guide to Reading Fluency.