Teachers need to be more accurate in identifying early literacy problems

To better troubleshoot early literacy problems in children, teachers need a broader understanding of how children develop literacy, concludes a recent study published in Educational Assessment.

Teachers’ rationales for identifying children as at-risk for reading difficulties often overlook student deficits revealed in standardized assessments,report researchers Alison Bailey and Kathryn Drummond.

“After all, if teachers are going to deliver interventions, they must diagnose children’s deficits accurately (and usually quickly) to deliver effective intervention,” the researchers write. “However, in an environment that focuses more on the content of reading rather than on guiding those who teach reading, teachers may not have the necessary expertise to assess and remediate reading weaknesses.”

Administrators should encourage additional professional development in literacy learning and assessment for teachers, the researchers conclude. More training could help them make “finer-grained distinctions” across and within reading, writing, speaking and listening. Reliable classroom-based assessments should be developed to help teachers identify students with literacy problems.

“Teachers’ own skills, particularly in differentiating phonemic awareness, phonological processing, and phonics, may need to be developed before teachers can recognize students’ difficulties and give accurate information about them,”the researchers write.

Literacy checklists can help teachers make more specific diagnoses and take more appropriate action, particularly with cognition-related skills such as comprehension.

Oral vocabulary deficits overlooked

In the study of 17 teachers from five schools in Southern California, teachers were asked to give their rationales for identifying kindergarten and first-grade students as at-risk for literacy difficulties. Rationales were coded and then compared to how children performed on more formal assessments such as the Woodcock Diagnostic Reading Battery. The researchers found that teachers were “focusing on the right group of students, if not always identifying all areas of weakness. In other words, they sense that something is wrong, but cannot pinpoint the particular problem.”

Teachers were more proactive in intervening with children who had decoding problems, possibly reflecting their responsiveness to current research and policy trends. But the students in the study had large deficits in comprehension and oral vocabulary that few teachers mentioned in their rationales, the researchers report.

“This potential oversight is cause for concern,” they write, “particularly in light of recent work by Buly and Valencia (2003) that shows the mandate to focus on phonics instruction would not have served the 50% of students in their study who fell below proficiency levels in reading due to comprehension and language deficits.

In this study, the researchers also found that:
•  Teachers’ rationales for identifying students were often vague and not based on assessments;
•  teachers’ concept maps of early literacy almost always included basic literacy skills (primary phonics) and phonological
awareness (an oral language skill), but varied a great deal in including other literacy skills;
•  selection of students was not influenced by gender, language and grade level of student or teacher characteristics such as years of experience; and
•  teachers’ use of a literacy checklist (Literacy Development Checklist) had a modest, but positive influence on identification.


The checklist was developed by researchers to encourage teachers to reflect on their students’performance across a comprehensive range of literacy domains. Research has shown that a complex brew of skills, attitudes and style of social interaction, characteristics of the home and learning environment contribute to a successful literacy outcomes. The checklist, which was used by 13 of 17 teachers in the study, can help teachers develop a more detailed profile of students.

Understanding teacher decision-making in identifying at-risk children is important because it will help develop more effective in-classroomn interventions with accurate diagnoses of students’ literacy problems. But it is also important because of the potential long-term negative effects on children who are identified as needing extra help, the researchers say.

Reasons most often cited by teachers in their rationales were: reading, writing skills, oral language abilities, and student shyness and quietness. Teachers were asked to document sources to explain why they selected certain students, but few did so, relying instead on informal observation of student performance and behavior. Teachers also sometimes were confused about the terminology around literacy skills.


“Who Is at Risk and Why? Teachers’ Reasons for Concern and Their Understanding and Assessment of Early Literacy,” by Alison Bailey and Kathryn Drummond, Educational Assessment, Volume 11,Numbers 3 & 4, 2006, pps. 149-178.

Published in ERN December 2006 Volume 19 Number 9


One Response to “Teachers need to be more accurate in identifying early literacy problems”

  1. Box Hill Speech

    Thank you for this article. There are teachers these days who find it too much hard work though to help children. As the children who often suffer literacy difficulties usually are naughty due to not understanding and not getting the help. So they focus on the good children, who understand. This leads to the ones with difficulties suffering. Teachers need to equally distribute there attention no matter how hard to all students.


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