What’s the Perfect Data Tool for Tracking and Developing Reading Comprehension?

Mary Jo Madda

Let’s face it—as educators, our lives revolve around data. We are asked to embrace data collections to improve instruction. But one of the most difficult parts of dealing with data is when district assessments get switched.

Just when teachers began to feel at ease with current scores and data interpretation, a school district changes from one testing program to another. In my case, it was a switch from Northwest Evaluation Association Measures of Academic Progress (or the NWEA for short) to Renaissance Learning’s STAR Reading. Change is often received with sighs of “here we go again” and instructions on how to interpret yet another set of data.

Now don’t get me wrong, the STAR diagnostic reports are remarkable. At first, they were overwhelming, and in order to make use of the data reports, many of us requested assistance from our literacy coach on a fairly regular basis. The key was in repeated use—the more I examined the data from my students’ STAR Reading assessments, the better able I was to redesign my instruction.

But, what about the process up until the STAR examination, or after the fact, when you’ve learned about your students’ places for improvement? What tools can support up in preparing kids for the literary portions of these exams?

Identifying the big need

Surprisingly enough, it was the “Key Ideas and Details: Character” section where my sixth graders scored the lowest on the STAR Reading test. Those scores merited a closer look for intervention. Specifically, what could I use to assist instruction in character analysis? It was a mission to explore ways to assess their ability to analyze a character as well as how a character is challenged, motivated and changes in fiction.

Here are three options I found, ones that offer uses for varying situations in the classroom. And you might be surprised—while they tend to offer vocabulary support,

Zeal: A no-cost exit ticket and feedback mechanism

If my goal was to improve students’ scores in the character strand, I wanted to know what precisely they were struggling with. My first thought was to use Zeal.com’s assessment tool. I carefully selected questions in the ‘reading literature’ strand and set students up during those first weeks of school. With Zeal, a new exit ticket format set-up is able to be created by grade and strand, with no cost. Basically? The work is done for you. Creating class lists and selecting the question is all that needs to happen before it goes live to students.

The feedback from Zeal was better than I had anticipated, and students really enjoyed the format, often asking to continue with practice in order to gain points or earn “money,” an extrinsic digital motivator on Zeal. But keep in mind, there is one con: there is little by way of choice in content editing options.

Vocabulary.com: Not just for learning words

Vocabulary.com is an online vocabulary practice and study platform, where the results for students are instant and the competitive nature of the program feeds into the gamification that works well to motivate mastery.Vocabulary.com also enables teachers to create their own lists, as well as borrow public lists. Designing a list is achieved with few difficulties, and it gives teachers the power to manage what student will focus on.

In terms of pros, getting deadlines for ‘mastery’ on certain Vocabulary.com lists enables scores to become part of formative assessments. Toward the end of a list study period, students in my class are often encouraged more when the top performers are posted via LCD projector onto the large screen. As they enter my classroom, some will brag about achieving mastery while others complain about being “so close.”

But here’s the thing—Vocabulary.com is more than just independent word study. If we bring the focus back to our student weakness—character—a list can do more than simply provide students with words to master. I’ve found that a list of about 20 words usually works best to supplement our area of study, but a smaller list can certainly hone in on a topic such as characterization, for example. With a smaller list containing many synonyms, students are given more practice with a concept in a shorter period of time. And sometimes, defining what “characterization” can look like with other words can really help my students.

And as far as using the educator portal, I can easily determine which words on the list are proving more difficult to master, and this information leads my instruction. Often I will put a spin on the routine of Vocabulary.Com, and require students use Padlet (see below).

There is one critical caveat to the program, and that is the vocabulary usage examples that turn up after a list is created. Some content is more PG-13, which requires a few practice sessions before releasing a new list to classes. Elementary school teachers… watch out for that.

Padlet: Easy interactive word wall, used like a Post-it

And finally, for quick responses, replies and collaboration, there’s Padlet. What I like about Padlet is that it enables me to put out a question like on a giant word wall—whether about characterization or otherwise—and have students respond as they enter the classroom. Students know that Padlet responses are going to be viewed instantly by their classmates—not only on their laptop but also the big screen in class. Think of it as a digital “Do Now,” as seen below.

If there is something we really need to delve into, I am not going to assume all students are able to come up with a response on their own. For those who struggle, it may take them a bit longer—but after scanning a few responses, they are willing to take the leap and try an answer for themselves.

Once all students record an answer, we use a variety of strategies to discuss and come up with more exemplars. In fact, when it comes to the cons, I can’t think of any. There aren’t many faults with Padlet, as its simplicity prevents too many difficulties, and using it to teach characterization ensures that everyone gets involved.

More and more tools out there

At the end, we are left with more informed teaching when I use Padlet, Zeal and/or Vocabulary.com. Regardless of the technology I select to assist with any target, the growth comes with the flexibility in instruction and practice. Identifying a weakness is only the first step.

As a final note, remember—the technology is merely the tool to assist my students as they learn to think more critically about what they have read. Instruction, feedback, reflection and student motivation dictate the path of the day-to-day lessons. The tools just help us get closer and closer to a better understand of reading comprehension. Trust me when I say, educators—the tools only enhance your practice, not replace you.

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