Should We Be Quantifying Our Students’ Reading Abilities? by Matt Renwick

When I was still in the classroom, I would take my 5th and 6th grade students to a local creek. Our purpose was to assess the water quality. The students were taught how to use a variety of tests, involving various indicators and kits. One of the tests measured the nitrates in the water. Nitrates derive from animal waste. A high level would indicate the creek was a poor environment for living organisms, save bullheads and carp.

Not 200 yards upstream from out testing site was a cow pasture. We could see the cattle grazing from our location. Now, one would think that the levels of nitrates would be consistently high, considering the source. Yet for every time we got a high reading, we would get a normal one too. This is why we took three samples each in the fall and in the spring. When a student once got a low reading during a field trip, the parent volunteer asked me if I wanted to dive in. “No way!”was my response. We both laughed.

I share this story because we can experience a similar problem when analyzing our readers’assessment scores. We look at reading levels, words correct per minute, percentage of questions answered correctly on a comprehension test, and so on. But how often do we take a step back and consider the bigger picture? Just like the cattle 200 yards upstream from our testing site, is there something we are not seeing when we try to determine if our students are making adequate reading progress?

That is why, in the beginning of the school year, I asked the question, “Should we be quantifying our students’reading abilities?”. Immediate arguments were made. There is a large body of research supporting these types of measures. Providing specific feedback can help teachers differentiate. With Response to Intervention now law, educators need valid and reliable assessments to determine if students have a learning disability. These were difficult to dispute.

picture 1 Matt RenwickBut here’s the counter: Was reading ever meant to be quantified in the first place? By its nature, reading is not a skill that finds its foundation in numeracy. We work hard to understand how our students are progressing as readers, and we put so much effort into making their learning be visible for us. But what about the students? As Peter Johnston has noted, the adult is not the only teacher in the room. Can they make heads or tails of the data we collect of their comprehension and fluency?

A Better Question

Once I proposed that inquiry, I realized that I was probably tilting at windmills. Quantitative evidence of learning will not be going away, and it really shouldn’t. We can glean some valuable information from these types of assessments. My concern is this type of data often monopolizes our collaborative discussions about student progress and performance in reading. That is why I believe teachers should consider collecting more qualitative data during their daily, ongoing instruction. (Don’t worry: The numbers will always be there. We administrators will not let that ball drop!) What I am suggesting is classroom teachers consistently capture more authentic and “whole”pieces of student learning during the literacy block.

picture 2 Matt RenwickSo instead of the question “Should we be quantifying our students’reading abilities?”, consider “How can qualitative measures of students’ reading progress and performance better inform us of the impact of our literacy instruction?” It is not a yes/no question, and it probably shouldn’t be. Just like a body of water, we need to consider the complexities involved in the act of reading.

Here are three examples of qualitative evidence that teachers can collect during the school year:


Instead of simply administering a running record, I suggest utilizing technology such as Evernote and an iPad. While the student reads the text, their voice is recorded. The teacher’s mind is then free to pay attention to the student’s performance itself. When was the last time we sat back and just listened to a kid read? What could we glean from this observation? Thinking about the analogy, what is upriver? Observational notes could be added to the audio file within Evernote. At a later time, the student’s audio can be played back and the teacher can then commence in the running record, when his or her mind is free to focus on this task.


If students don’t see themselves as a reader, it does not matter how many benchmark assessments we give. This constant focus on what they cannot do well might even reduce their confidence. Instead, consider the very act of reading. Does the student initiate and stick with a search for a new title? Are they reacting to what they are reading through a smile, or an open mouth of anticipation?

One of my teachers asked these same questions. She took pictures of a student during his process of responding to a text in writing. Once embedded in Evernote, they scrolled through the images while she asked questions like, “What do you notice about yourself here?”The teacher was not focused on his abilities, but rather on what real readers and writers do.

Interviews and Surveys

In the beginning of the school year, I sat down with each of my teachers. We discussed their hopes, fears, and drivers, and how they tied into their school year goals. The act of just listening to others can have a profound impact. Two of my staff members followed this example by surveying the participating students in an after school book club. Check out two of their responses:

picture 3 Matt Renwick

As you prepare for next year, consider how qualitative data can give both you and your students a more comprehensive picture of their reading abilities and potential. Without a clear view of what is both in front of us and beyond, we can miss out on critical information that would better inform our instruction, as well as help our students develop a deeper love for reading.

Digital Student PortfoliosMatt Renwick is a 15-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he served as a junior high dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary school leader in Wisconsin Rapids.

Matt blogs at Reading by Example, tweets @ReadByExample and writes for EdTech magazine. His book Digital Student Porfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Improvement will be published by Powerful Learning Press in July.