This might sound strange, but I love it when my little readers make mistakes. And it’s definitely not because I want to see them fail!
Rather, seeing those mistakes gives me incredible information about what my students can do, as well as what they’re not yet doing. It helps me figure out what decoding strategies to teach, what phonics patterns they need to work on, and what kind of coaching I can use to best support them.
In today’s post, I’m going to share exactly how I analyze primary students’ decoding errors in order to gain information about them as readers. I also have some freebies that will help you better understand exactly what your students need!
How to Gather Information About Students’ Decoding Errors
There are many different literacy assessments out there that can give us data about our students’ reading. And although it’s one of the simplest assessments out there, the running record is my favorite.
When you take a running record, you not only record when students make mistakes, but you also write down their miscues (the word(s) they say instead of the correct word) and self-corrections (when they fix up their mistakes). Students’ miscues and self-corrections give you information about what they are doing while they read, as well as what they are not yet doing. Knowing this is incredibly valuable because it helps you figure out what to teach your kiddos next!
Here’s an example:
A student is reading the sentence, “We looked at the bridge” on a page where the photo shows two children looking at a bridge.
If the child reads, “We looked at the book” and does not correct the error, this tells me a couple of things. First, the child can use the first letter of a word when attempting to decode an unfamiliar word. Second, the child is paying attention to sentence structure (the sentence still sounds right despite the mistake).
However, the child is not reading all the way through the word, and the child is not consistently attending to meaning (she should have used the picture to figure out that the word was “bridge”). In this case, the student was also not self-monitoring using meaning, because she did not correct the error. She didn’t notice that what she read did not match the story or the picture.
That one tiny mistakes gives us a lot of potential information about that reader. If the reader continues to make similar errors throughout the rest of the book, this provides further support for our inferences about what the reader is and is not doing.
Getting Ready to Take a Running Record
So how do you prepare for a running record? Well, the nice thing is that getting ready is pretty simple.
First, choose a text that will be at the student’s instructional level. Read the book (if you haven’t already), grab a blank running record form, and prepare a couple of comprehension prompts.
If you need free running record forms, sign up to receive them by putting your info in the box below – but be sure to read the rest of this post so you’ll know how to use all the different options! (Sidenote: If you signed up last week to receive the intervention freebies, you will already have these in your inbox.)
Then, carve out time to give the running record to the student. Since it’s a one-on-one assessment, this can get tricky – so I like to build running records into my guided reading time.
When my students sit down at the table to begin a guided reading lesson, they reread familiar texts from the group’s book box. Meanwhile, I grab the book that we read during the previous lesson and have one student read it to me. I take a running record of the child’s reading and ask a few comprehension questions afterward.
As a classroom teacher, I took one running record per group per day. This way, I got through my entire class about once a month. I do take running records on some students more frequently, because their group is “lower” and is meeting with me more often than the other groups. This is a good thing, because it allows me to keep a close eye on my struggling readers’ progress.
Taking the Running Record
When you take a running record, you have to move fast! The more you can write down about a child’s miscues and reading behaviors, the better. If you’re just starting out with running records, you may find it tricky to keep up with a child’s reading. The more you practice, the easier it’ll be (although I still don’t catch everything if a child is reading quickly).
However, you can just as easily take a running record on a blank form or even a blank sheet of paper if you’re in a pinch! Let’s take a look at how you would take a running record using a blank form.
First, let’s imagine that a student is reading this text (from my take-home books bundle). Here is a layout of the complete text:
Watch this video to see how I take a basic running record (I don’t actually have a student with me during the video, so you’ll have to use your imagination!). You can follow along with the actual text using the images above.
There are different ways to mark down reading behaviors and errors. Always stick with the system agreed upon by your team or school, for purposes of consistency. I try to use the scoring recommended for the F&P Benchmark Assessment (I say “try” because I was trained to do it a bit differently and sometimes make mistakes!).
You can take a look at the Reading A to Z running record scoring suggestions, as well as Heinemann’s version. If your team or school doesn’t have an agreed-upon system, perhaps you can initiate that conversation. Consistency in this area can be helpful when a team is examining student assessment data.
Reviewing the Running Record
Once you’ve taken the running record, take a few minutes to look it over. Although I don’t always have time to look over my running records the same day that I take them, I always sit down with a pile of them at least once a week. I use the information I gather in order to plan next week’s instruction.
First, count up the number of errors. Take the number of words read correctly (WC), divide that by the total number of words in the book (TW), and then multiply that number by 100 (WC / TW x 100). That will give you the percent of total words read accurately.
In the running record in the video, the “reader” made 5 errors (we don’t count the ones he self-corrected). There were 74 total words (TW), so he read 69 of them correctly (WC).
69 / 74 x 100 = 93. The child read this book with 93% accuracy.
The percent of words read correctly gives us some information about whether this book and the child were a good match. When a beginning reader can read a text with 95% accuracy or higher, that book is at the child’s independent level. She can read it without support, on her own.
When a beginning reader reads a text with 90%-94% accuracy, we consider the text to be at her instructional level. The imaginary child in my running record read this text with 93% accuracy, indicating that this text is probably at his instructional level.
Reading a text with lower than 90% accuracy generally means that the text is too difficult for the reader.
By itself, however, the accuracy percentage doesn’t tell the whole story.
We also have to take a look at comprehension and fluency. I’m not going to dive deep into either of these areas, because decoding is the focus of this blog post series. However, it’s important to look at comprehension when considering instructional level. Even if a child reads a text with a high level of accuracy, it’s not at his instructional level if his comprehension of the text is poor. We shouldn’t choose books for our students that they cannot comprehend at all, because even supportive teaching will not be enough to help the child “bridge the gap” and understand the text.
It’s also important to consider fluency when determining an instructional level. A child may read a book with good accuracy and comprehension – but if it takes the student half an hour to finish the book, then it’s not a good choice for guided reading time! To quickly rate a child’s fluency on a running record, I like to jot down a number between 1 and 3 (1 = disfluent, 2 = somewhat fluent, and 3 = fluent). It’s very simple, and I can elaborate with notes, but it’s a quick and easy way to address fluency on a running record.
In the free intervention toolkit, I’ve included several different running record forms to help you calculate reading accuracy, rate comprehension, and score fluency. Again, you can sign up to receive those intervention materials here:
How to Analyze Running Records for Use of Cueing Systems (M-S-V)
After you’ve calculated reading accuracy and taken a look at comprehension and fluency, it’s time to analyze the child’s miscues and self-corrections in more depth!
You might have noticed the M-S-V columns on running record forms. These columns can be used to analyze the cueing systems that children are using as they read. When we talk about cueing systems, we are asking ourselves, “What types of information is this reader using, sometimes using, and not using as she reads?”
The “M” in MSV stands for “meaning.” This is sometimes also referred to as “semantics.” When a child makes a mistake, we can ask ourselves, “Was the child paying attention to what makes sense? Did the reader look at any pictures and think about the meaning of the text?”
When, on p. 4, my imaginary reader read, “It is rainy” instead of “It is raining,” he was paying attention to meaning. We can clearly see, from the picture, that it is rainy outside. Although the reader did not pay attention to all of the letters in the word (we’ll get to that later), that miscue does preserve meaning. The sentence still makes sense. In the M-S-V Error columns in the same row that we marked the error, I would write “M.:
We can also ask ourselves whether a reader self-corrects using meaning. On p. 7, my imaginary reader initially read, “You were ready!” instead of “You were right!” He then went back and self-corrected that error, because “You were right” makes much more sense in the story. We would write the letter “M” in the Self-Correction column next to it.
The “S” in MSV stands for “syntax.” When a child reads a word incorrectly, we can ask, “Was the child paying attention to syntax? Did they substitute a word that still sounds right in the sentence? Is the sentence still grammatically correct?”
On p. 1, the “rainy” instead of “raining” error still sounds right in the sentence. In this case, the reader was paying attention to syntax, because he substituted a word that keeps the sentence grammatically accurate.
However, on p. 2, when the reader said “You can put on a rain clothes” instead of “You can put on a rain coat,” he was probably not paying attention to what sounded right. The sentence no longer works grammatically. Similarly, when the child read “rain boot” instead of “rain boots,” and “dressing” instead of “dressed,” he was not paying attention to syntax.
We can also learn about a child’s use of syntactical cues through his self-corrections. On p. 3, my imaginary reader went back and read “You can get an umbrella” after initially reading “You can get a umbrella.” He probably noticed that “a umbrella” didn’t sound right, and he self-corrected accordingly.
The “V” in MSV stands for “visual.” (When I first learned about this cueing system, we called it “graphophonics,” but it’s the same thing.) When a child makes a mistake, we can ask, “Did the child pay attention to the print on the page? Does the word he read match the letters? What word parts or patterns is the child missing?”
In my example running record, we see our imaginary reader pay attention to certain visual cues and ignore others. On p. 2, he substituted “clothes” for “coat.” He got the first sound correct, but did not read the rest of the word. The same is true of the “boot” for “boots” error, as well as “dressing” for “dressed.” In all of these cases, the reader IS using visual cues for the first part of the word – but not for the rest of the word. There are no errors where the reader completely ignored visual cues.
We can also observe whether or not the reader is using visual cues to self-correct. On p. 4, the reader originally read “hat” instead of “rain.” He noticed that the word he said didn’t match the letters on the page, so he self-corrected. Or, he may have read ahead and seen that the following word said “hat,” and then realized the first word was “rain.” In either case, he was paying attention to visual clues when he self-corrected the error.
To make things a bit more complicated…readers often use more than one cueing system when decoding and self-correcting!! This is actually a good thing, because we want readers to cross-check, but it does make scoring for M-S-V a bit more complicated.
Let’s look at the sentence where the reader read “They went out” instead of “They went outside.” In this example, the reader DID pay attention to meaning – the sentence still makes sense. He also paid attention to syntax clues – the sentence is grammatically correct. And he did use visual information as well, because “out” is part of the word “outside” – he just didn’t use all visual cues available. For this error, I would make marks for M, S, and V, because the reader did use all of these cueing systems in his attempt at the word.
Whew – that was a lot of information! Using running records probably sounds like a whole lot of work. However, the more you practice scoring them for MSV, the easier it is to do it.
I have been taking running records for about ten years now, and I still do not score every single running record for M-S-V. Because I’m a reading specialist and take multiple running records each day, I’d probably have to live at school in order to score all running records this way!
I do enjoy going home at a reasonable hour, so I am selective about which running records I score using M-S-V. I see my students daily, so each week I score 1 or 2 running records (per child) using the M-S-V columns.
If you’re in the classroom and have a whole heap of running records, try scoring 3-5 per week using M-S-V. If your time is limited, focus on those students who are struggling or “stuck.” Or, if you’re not sure what strategies to teach to move a child forward, analyze a couple of their running records to figure out what you should teach them next.
How to Get Valuable Information by Searching for Error (and Success) Patterns
But wait…there’s more!! Even after I’ve scored the running record for accuracy and M-S-V, I’m not really done looking at it. Now it’s time to use all this information to make inferences about the reader.
Clear patterns can emerge from your M-S-V scoring. On one hand, you can tell what a child is doing well. If you’ve placed marks in the “M” column for most of the child’s errors and self-corrections, you can tell that the child is definitely attending to meaning. This child thinks about the content of the text and uses that knowledge to decode words. This is great, and something that you can compliment the child on and encourage him to continue doing.
On the other hand, you may be able to see gaps in the child’s use of the cueing systems. If a child’s errors often cause the sentence to no longer sound right (as in the example running record I presented), then that child is not using syntactical cues frequently enough.
Or, if a child is using only one cueing system at a time (you’ve placed just one mark in either M, S, or V for most errors and self-corrections), the child needs to learn to cross-check and use more than one source of information when decoding.
Other patterns can emerge from the words a child reads correctly, as well as his miscues and self-corrections. I like to look over all the errors a child makes and see if any patterns stand out to me. Here is a list of some of the things I look for with beginning readers (this list is also included in the free intervention toolkit):
- Use of word parts – Does the child use word beginnings (first letter or letters)? Attend to the middle of words? Read the ends of words correctly? What about inflected endings (-ing, -ed, -s, -es)?
- Use of phonics and word patterns – Does the child stumble on digraphs, blends, or consonant clusters? Notice and read chunks in words? Apply spelling pattern knowledge to his reading?
- Use of vowel sound knowledge – Does the child read short/long vowel sounds correctly? Which vowels does the child read correctly/incorrectly? How does the reader do with vowel spelling patterns that consist of more than one letter? Does the student try different vowel sounds when one doesn’t sound right?
- Use of sight words – Does the child apply sight word knowledge to his reading? Is he recognizing and reading high frequency words quickly? Is there a difference between the child’s ability to read sight words out of context and his ability to read sight words in connected text?
In addition to considering a child’s word reading habits, I also look for information about his general reading behaviors. I search to find out if the child is:
- Using a variety of strategies to decode tricky words
- Making multiple attempts at a tricky word
- Appealing for help
- Rerunning (going back and rereading during tricky parts, when he is confused, or to gain more meaning from a sentence)
- Self correcting at a rate of 1:5 or better (to find the self-correction ratio, add the number of self corrections to the number of errors, then divide that by the number of self-corrections – see my free running record sheets for more details)
I also look at fluency (attention to punctuation, smooth reading, expression, etc.), but I won’t go into that here since our focus is decoding.
When you download the free intervention toolkit (sign up below the photos), you will find several different types of running record forms. These “at a glance” forms will help you quickly find and summarize information about students’ error patterns and reading behaviors!
What Should We Do With All This Information?
Running records can truly serve as a gold mine for information about students’ reading. However, all the data we get is only valuable when we use it to take action!
During the next couple of weeks, I will be sharing posts about how to teach reading strategies, as well as phonemic awareness and phonics skills, based upon your running records (and other assessment results). Stay tuned, because I have many more freebies, including hands-on activities for your struggling decoders!
Update: The series is now complete! You can find the rest of the posts here:
Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. C. (2009). When readers struggle: Teaching that works. Heinemann.
*The authors of this text are in no way affiliated with this blog – I am referencing their work as a means of explaining and supporting the ideas I set forth in this post.*