Something sneaky has made its way into my kindergarteners’ homework: DIBELS. Each week, students are given a list of nonsense words to practice reading out loud. My son’s teacher has never pushed homework or completing these little ‘tests’ each week, but as a parent, I want to help him develop a positive association with school and homework. This may sound silly and I’ll admit to feeling a little bit duped by the system (or the ‘man,’ I suppose), but I really want my children to value learning. I beg you to judge kindly—this parenting business is no joke! Luckily, my son is (mostly) agreeable to doing homework and seems to think that reading these wacky combinations of words out loud is silly fun. In addition to a weekly DIBELS test, a fluency test is also included in the homework. We start a timer and see how many words my son can read correctly in 1 minute. We count them up and complete this exercise each evening. It might have something to do with spending time together or enjoying feeling like a ‘big kid,’ but I feel lucky that this hasn’t turned into a battle. I’m not sure that this is the experience of everyone with reading assessments of this type.
In 1997, Congress created a panel to determine the effectiveness and best policies associated with teaching children to read. This group became known as the National Reading Panel (NRP) and was responsible for establishing the “Five Pillars” of successful reading instruction including phonemic awareness, phonetics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. According to the NRP, DIBELS help measure phonemic awareness and reading success (or failure). At dibels.org it states that, “The Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) are a set of procedures and measures for assessing the acquisition of early literacy skills from kindergarten through sixth grade.” This has become one of the most common measures to determine early progress in learning to read. Over 2 million children will participate in DIBELS testing this year in the United States. In a DIBELS assessment, children are given one minute to read a list of “nonsense” words and the results are then used to determine the student’s reading growth and abilities. As these assessments become part of policy, the questions of repercussions for teachers, classroom curriculum, and ultimately—students remain in the foreground.
The largest flaw that I can see in giving this assessment is that a DIBELS test does not assess comprehension. Reading lists of random nonsense words as quickly as possible changes what reading is. Suddenly, reading becomes less about comprehension and more about speed. What a narrow fragment of what reading actually is! This appears to be conceptually erroneous and could lead to harmful instructional practices. Kids who are already being labeled as “struggling” readers might not benefit from the pressures and confusion that leads to reading nonsense words. Nonsense workbooks are being peddled by various companies and to what end? What are the repercussions for children who speak English as a second language? Seeing pretend words that look like real words is baffling and then add to that a teacher at the ready with a stopwatch and success becomes perfunctory. In truth, DIBELS is efficient, but incomplete. And we must be cautious that single assessments, such as DIBELS, don’t perpetuate the problem of gaps associated with socioeconomic literacy issues.
Purported to help understand a child’s level of reading proficiency, this newfangled idea has unfortunately made its way into kindergarten homework practice. And here is where I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t even question the exercise that we were doing. I suppose that the goal is to see how well my son improves over time, but what is its reliability and usefulness? Whether these assessments are done in or out of school and whatever your opinion about homework for early grades is, it is clear that they’re not going anywhere.