“What do you like to read, NaTasha?” asked Ms. Lockman.
“I like Stephen King. I have it in my school bag,” NaTasha responded.
“Can you read Stephen King?” Ms. Lockman asked.
NaTasha smiled and replied, “Not really.”
Ms. Lockman knows how important it is for NaTasha to show her friends that she can read the same material they like to read. Ms. Lockman also knows that NaTasha needs to actually read, at home and at school. Although it is encouraging that NaTasha views reading as a status symbol among her peers, carrying around a copy of a Stephen King novel will not help her progress as a reader.
Ms. Lockman and Natasha further discussed reading:
Ms. Lockman: Do you have any other favorite authors or books?
NaTasha: I don’t know. My brother loves Harry Potter.
Ms. Lockman: Do you remember the name of the last book you read?
NaTasha: I liked the book about Ramona.
Ms. Lockman: What did you like about it?
NaTasha: It was funny.
Ms. Lockman: Did you talk about Ramona with your friends?
NaTasha: No. They read different books. Ramona’s an easy book. It was easy for me, too. But I liked it.
Ms. Lockman: When we go to the library later this week, maybe you can find another book by Beverly Cleary.
NaTasha is like many students who struggle with reading. She has difficulty choosing reading material that she can read independently. She cannot identify the characteristics of reading material that make it interesting and comprehensible. Ms. Lockman is like many teachers of middle school, junior high school, and high school students. With the variety of reading levels and interests among her students, it is a daunting enough challenge to identify appropriate instructional material. She views the task of identifying independent material as the student’s domain.
Few strategies are available to assist students in choosing appropriate material. This article describes a way to assist students, particularly students beyond the early elementary grade levels, to choose material they can read during sustained silent reading periods in school and independently at home.
Determining a Book’s Readability
The most frequently used tool for determining readability is a readability formula. Designed to be used by teachers, and often used by editors, most formulas rely on two factors. For example, the Spache and Dale-Chall formulas include average sentence length and vocabulary difficulty. The Fry and Flesch-Kincaid include average sentence length and number of syllables. When used as probability statements or estimates, formulas can provide predictive information regarding how easily a text will be understood by the average reader (Chall & Dale, 1995; Dreyer, 1984; Fry, 1989; Koenke, 1987).
The use of readability formulas is simple and straightforward, and computer technology has made the process relatively quick. Virtually all word-processing programs incorporate readability measures; and three of the most widely used formulas—Spache, Dale- Chall, and Fry—are available as software (Rodriguez & Stieglitz, 1997).
The two factors considered in these formulas, however, do not exhaust all the possible variables that influence text readability. And, most important, they will not predict precisely whether a given reader will interact successfully with a particular text (Lange, 1982).
The Five Finger Test
The Five Finger Test is designed specifically to be used by readers themselves (Directions for the Five Finger Test, 2001). In this test, students select a book, choose a full page of text in the middle, read the page, and hold up one finger each time they come across a word they do not know. If the student holds up all five fingers before coming to the end of the page, the book is too difficult to read independently and with enjoyment.
Some teachers and librarians tell their students to start with five fingers held up, and if they end with a fist, the book is too difficult. Although the Five Finger Test is easy for students to use, it includes only one readability factor— the number of difficult words. In addition, it is meant to be used primarily by beginning or novice readers for whom a page of text is not longer than 100 words.
Checklists and Other Methods
Undoubtedly, the most common approach used by students is to read the title, an advertising promotion on the back cover if available, reviewer comments in the front of the book if available, and the first few pages. The dilemma for struggling readers is their lack of knowledge about the factors that contribute to the comprehensibility of a book or story. Readability checklists specify the factors relevant to readability and include a greater number of factors than those in readability formulas or the Five Finger Test. Checklists, such as those by Irwin and Davis (1980) and Schirmer (2000), include within-text and within-reader factors:
• Word frequency.
• Concept density.
• Level of abstraction.
• Clarity in presentation of ideas.
• Use of illustrations.
• Sentence complexity.
• Vocabulary difficulty.
• Literary form and style.
• Text structure.
• Extent of background knowledge.
• Interest, motivation, and purpose.
These checklists, however, are designed for teachers and are cumbersome and complicated for students.
Similarly, the qualitative assessment of text difficulty developed by Chall, Bissex, Conard, and Harris-Sharples (1996), which provides a set of exemplars for six different subject areas at reading levels from easiest to hardest, is a complex readability procedure designed specifically for teachers to use in assessing potential text for students. In the absence of a tool to use, students may be engaged in a tricky hitand- miss approach. For example, NaTasha is likely to pick up one of the Newbery medal-winning books because it is on the school’s recommended list— only to find that the readability is well beyond her ability level. Leal and Chamberlain-Solecki (1998) found that 6% of the 76 Newbery Medal books published between 1922 and 1997 had a 9th-10th grade readability grade level, no books had a readability level below the 4th grade level, and only one book was found to be at the 4th grade level.
Independent Reading Rubric
Rubrics have become popular as assessment tools. In a rubric, performance or attitude is assessed along several dimensions, based on predetermined criteria. Although the design of rubrics can vary considerably, when used to assess literacy knowledge and tasks, rubrics share several common characteristics (Ainsworth & Christinson, 1998; Fiderer, 1999; Schirmer & Bailey, 2000; Schwery, 1998):
• First, the factors to be assessed are
• Second, a 3- to 5-point scale is created.
• Third, each factor is defined by listing the qualities that describe performance at each point on the scale.
The rubric described here meets the four criteria needed by students like NaTasha as they try to figure out whether a book, story, chapter, or article will be comprehensible and enjoyable:
• It is designed specifically for students.
• It is quick and easy to use.
• It takes into account a range of readability factors.
• It provides a systematic approach to determining readability.
The Independent Reading Rubric presented in Table 1 includes 10 factors: vocabulary, sentences, topic and concepts, clarity of ideas, level of abstraction, organization, design and format, genre, interest and motivation, and pacing and fluency.
In teaching the rubric, each factor is taught separately, using examples and providing practice in applying the scores. The rubric includes a four-point scale from very difficult to very easy. • 1: At the greatest difficulty end of the scale, a score of 1 indicates more than 10 words the student doesn’t know, almost all of the sentences are long and complex, the topic is unfamiliar, most of the concepts are new, and so forth (see Table 1). • 4: At the easiest end of the scale, a score of 4 indicates three or fewer words the student does not know, almost all of the sentences are short and easy, the topic and concepts are highly familiar, the ideas are presented very clearly, and so forth (see Table 1). Scores at the middle ranges of 2 and 3 include descriptions that reflect material in between very difficult and very easy. Students read one page of text at the beginning of the material. Although the beginning of the material may not best represent the average difficulty of the material, it more closely resembles the task of expert readers who typically read the first page or so to determine if the material is appropriate and interesting. Further, if students read a page in the middle of the book, they will be disadvantaged by not having the knowl- TEACHING EXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN ■ SEPT/OCT 2001 ■ 37 Five Finger Test: Students select a book, choose a full page of text in the middle, read the page, and hold up one finger for each word they do not know. 38 ■ COUNCIL FOR EXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN Table 1. Independent Reading Rubric Book/Story/Chapter/Article Title: __________________________________________________________________________ Author(s): _________________________________________________________________________________________________ Score Readability Factors 1 2 3 4 Vocabulary ❏ Score Sentences ❏ Score Topic and Concepts ❏ Score Clarity of Ideas ❏ Score Level of Abstraction (includes figurative language, metaphors, similes, slang, symbols, theories) ❏ Score Organization ❏ Score Design and Format (includes font, print size, paragraph length, use of columns, use of illustrations and other visuals, and other design issues) ❏ Score Genre ❏ Score ❏ There are 10 or more words I do not know. ❏ There are 7-9 words I do not know. ❏ There are 4-6 words I do not know. ❏ There are 3 or fewer words I do not know. ❏ Almost all of the sentences are long and complex. ❏ A few sentences are easy but most are long and complex. ❏ A few sentences are long and complex but most are easy. ❏ Almost all of the sentences are short and easy. ❏ I am unfamiliar with the topic and most of the concepts are new to me. ❏ I know a little about the topic and concepts. ❏ I know much about the topic and concepts. ❏ I am highly familiar with the topic and none of the concepts are new to me. ❏ The ideas are presented unclearly and are difficult to understand. ❏ A few of the ideas are presented clearly enough to understand without difficulty. ❏ Most of the ideas are presented clearly enough to understand easily. ❏ The ideas are presented very clearly and are easy to understand. ❏ The author uses language and/or presents ideas that are highly abstract. ❏ The author uses many abstract words and phrases and/or presents more than one abstract idea. ❏ The author uses a few abstract words and phrases and/or presents an abstract idea. ❏ The author uses language and/or presents ideas that are concrete. ❏ I cannot figure out the organization. ❏ It is difficult to follow the organization. ❏ I can follow the organization but I have to concentrate. ❏ I can follow the organization easily. ❏ The material is poorly designed and the format impedes reading. ❏ The design and format create some problems for me. ❏ The design and format create no serious problems for me. ❏ The material is well designed and the format facilitates reading. ❏ I am not familiar with the writing form and style. ❏ I have only read this kind of writing once or twice. ❏ I have read this kind of writing a few times. ❏ I am very familiar with the writing form and style. edge of the topic and characters that the author assumes by this point in the book. Also, events in the middle of the book may give away too much information about the plot and ruin the unfolding of the story line when they begin reading the book at the beginning. If the first page is not a full page of text, students are asked to read the next page also. After completing the page, they apply the rubric’s 4-point rating scale for each factor. They check the box of the score most appropriate for each factor and write the number in the box under the name of the factor. They calculate the total score and apply the conversion scale. • If the total score is between 30 and 40, the material can be read independently. Within this range, the pattern of scores will include one of the following: (a) all 3s and 4s; (b) 2s almost evenly balanced by 4s; or (c) 1s and 2s outnumbered by 3s and 4s. • If the total score is between 38 and 40, it is suggested that perhaps the material is too easy. Although it can be read independently, very easy material will not contribute substantively to the reader’s continued development. • If the total score is between 20 and 29, the material is challenging. It is suggested that students consider the factors most important to them as readers. If they scored 3s and 4s on these factors, the material can be read independently. However, if they scored 1s and 2s on the most important factors, it is suggested that the material be read only with assistance. The teacher might want to use this material for instructional purposes. • If the total score is less than 20, the material is too difficult to read without assistance. Within this range, the pattern of scores will include one of the following: (a) all 1s and 2s; (b) no more than two 4s; or (c) no more than four 3s. The teacher might want to use this material for instruction or possibly for reading aloud to the student and classmates. TEACHING EXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN ■ SEPT/OCT 2001 ■ 39 The true test of readability ultimately resides within the interaction of reader and text. Table 1. Independent Reading Rubric (continued) Score Readability Factors 1 2 3 4 Interest and Motivation ❏ Score Pacing and Fluency ❏ Score ❏ Total Score Directions: 1. Read the first page of the book. If the first page is not a full page, read the next page also. 2. Check the box of the score most appropriate for each readability factor. 3. Write the score in the box under each readability factor. 4. Total the scores. 5. Determine if you can read the material independently. * If the total score is 30-40, the material can be read independently. If the score is 38-40, perhaps this material is too easy for you. * If the total score is 20-29, the material is challenging. Decide which factors are most important to you. If you scored 3 or 4 on each of these factors, the material can be read independently. If you scored 1 or 2 on the most important factors, the material should be read only with assistance. * If the total score is < 20, the material is too difficult to read without assistance. ❏ I am not interested in the topic and don’t have any particular motivation or reason to read this material. ❏ I am slightly interested in the topic and would have difficulty explaining why I want to read this material. ❏ I am somewhat interested in the topic and have a couple of ideas about why I want to read this material. ❏ I am extremely interested in the topic, highly motivated, and have a definite reason to read this material. ❏ If others watched and heard me read, they would describe me as tense and my reading as choppy. ❏ If others watched and heard me read, they would describe me as uneasy and my reading as frequently hesitant. ❏ If others watched and heard me read, they would describe me as comfortable but my reading as sometimes unsure. ❏ If others watched and heard me read, they would describe me as relaxed and my reading as fluent. Using the Rubric Ms. Lockman introduced the Independent Reading Rubric to her middle school students. They discussed the readability factors and the scale, one factor at a time, over a period of several weeks. They shared examples from the books and stories they had previously read and considered how they might have used the Independent Reading Rubric with these materials. Once they reviewed all of the factors, as a homework assignment she asked them to use the rubric with a book they were currently reading. The next day, several pairs of students role-played a student-teacher conference using the rubric; and after each role-play, the class discussed strengths and weaknesses, and offered suggestions to the roleplay participants. Ms. Lockman encouraged the role-play observers to offer feedback that was positive and precise. The feedback helped the person roleplaying “the student” to provide clearer explanations for why ratings were chosen and to add examples from the material. The feedback helped the person role-playing “the teacher” to make supportive comments and to ask openended questions. All the students were then paired for role-playing as Ms. Lockman circulated around the class, offering her own feedback. At the end of the class period, she told her students that they would be expected to use the rubric in their weekly student-teacher conferences with her. At the library the next week, Ms. Lockman observed NaTasha. The students had a list of recommended books. She could see NaTasha looking over the list and choosing books from the shelves. For one particular book, she read the first couple of pages, and then filled out her Independent Reading Rubric. At that point, she went to the circulation desk. Ms. Lockman sat down near the chair where NaTasha had begun reading. Here is their exchange: Ms. Lockman: Which book did you choose? NaTasha: Bridge to Terabithia (Paterson, 1977). Ms. Lockman: Tell me how you decided to read this book. NaTasha: Here’s my rubric. I read the first page. It was only half a page, so I read the second page, too. See, this first chapter is called “Jesse Oliver Aarons, Jr.” There were a few words I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure about these. (She points to “despised,” “unhandy,” “soothingly,” and “rattly.”) I rated the vocabulary factor a 3. A lot of the sentences were long; but mostly they seemed easy to me so I rated the sentence factor a 3, too. It is about a boy who is practicing to be the fastest runner at his school. He lives on a farm. He has sisters, and a mom and dad. He doesn’t want his mom or dad to know that he’s getting up early to practice running. I checked a 4 for topic and concepts because I know about these things. Some of the ideas weren’t very clear to me. When he first gets up, somebody starts talking to him. I couldn’t figure out who she was. On the next page, it explained that she’s his sister. But it still wasn’t clear about all of his sisters. Then he talks to somebody, and at first I didn’t realize it was a cow. So I rated clarity of ideas a 3. I rated level of abstraction a 2 because there were a lot of phrases that were weird. Look at this one on the first page. “Momma would be mad as flies in a fruit jar if they woke her up this time of day.” Here’s another one on the second page. “The place was so rattly that it screeched whenever you put your foot down, but Jess had found that if you tiptoed, it gave only a low moan.” I was a little confused about the organization, so I rated it a 2. I liked the design and format so I gave it a 4. It’s a pretty small book, and the print is easy to read. There’s a great picture on the cover and there’s a picture of Jesse here, showing how he was getting ready for the start of a race. I rated it a 4 for genre because I have read stories like this before. For interest and motivation I gave it a 3. One reason is that it looks like a good book. Another is that I think I’ll use it for Language Arts class. And a third reason is it’s on the list you gave us. I gave it a 2 for pacing and fluency. I just think that’s how I looked to someone watching me. I added up the scores and they came to 30. So I checked it out. Ms. Lockman: What if the score had been 29? NaTasha reread the directions, then said: I’d have to decide which factors are most important to me. She looked over the factors and then looked at the scores she had written. NaTasha answered: I think that vocabulary, topic and concepts, clarity of ideas, organization, and design and format are really important to me. I scored three and four on all of these, except organization. So I guess I would probably go ahead and read it even if I scored 29. Ms. Lockman: NaTasha, you were very well prepared for the conference. When we meet next week, let’s talk about whether your rubric assessment proved to be correct. By then, you will have finished reading a few chapters. We will discuss each of the factors again and see if you still agree with your original ratings, and why. I have read Bridge to Terabithia; and it will be fun discussing it with you.” 40 ■ COUNCIL FOR EXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN The Independent Reading Rubric can assist readers in choosing appropriate and interesting material for independent reading. Only one Newbery-awardwinning book was found to be at the fourth-grade level. The true test of readability ultimately resides within the interaction of reader and text. The Independent Reading Rubric is simply a tool to maximize the likelihood that the reader has a good chance to interact effectively with the text. In NaTasha’s case, she was able to read Bridge to Terabithia during sustained silent reading time at school. Her original ratings proved to be a good predictor about her subsequent experience with the book except for a couple of factors. Organization was easier than she thought it would be. On the other hand, although she originally rated vocabulary a 3, she found vocabulary to be challenging. Her discussions with Ms. Lockman were particularly helpful in clarifying the figurative language that gave her difficulty. As the scenario between Ms. Lockman and NaTasha shows, the Independent Reading Rubric is most likely to be used by middle, junior high, and high school students in Language Arts and English. Subject area teachers, however, can also use the rubric when requiring students to read self-selected fiction and nonfiction material. One example is using novels to enhance the study of science or social studies. Students can choose a fictional treatment of a topic they are learning, thus enhancing not only their knowledge of the concepts but also providing a forum for discussion of historical or scientific accuracy. Another example is reading selfselected informational text to pursue topics in greater depth or related topics to those being studied. Itinerant and resource room teachers can work with students to help them understand and apply the rubric. Efficacy of the Rubric NaTasha’s discussion with Ms. Lockman is representative of the comments that students make as they consider which score to assign to each category. As a composite of several students, NaTasha’s scenario is meant to illustrate how students use the rubric with reading material they are considering. We have no reliability and validity data for the rubric; and so we make no claims in that regard. For example, the descriptions of categories may not be absolutely consistent; moreover, the way students may apply the scale will no doubt differ from student to student and from time to time. Nor do we claim that the scale encompasses all factors crucial to readability. We do not intend the Independent Reading Rubric to be a psychometric assessment instrument, but rather a useful tool for students. Our plans are to use the rubric with greater numbers of students, gather data about the clarity and utility of the categories, and revise it to be increasingly easier to use and more helpful in identifying independent reading material. The real proof of the rubric’s efficacy rests with its application by students. As teachers use the rubric in their own classrooms, we hope they study its effectiveness and efficiency. We also hope that they look beyond the primary purpose of the rubric as a tool for choosing appropriate material for independent reading. Through action research in their own classrooms, teachers might consider exploring the following questions: • What are the changes that occur among students as they use the rubric over time? • As students apply readability factors to potential reading material, do they develop a cognitive representation of the factors involved in comprehension? • What kind of support do they need from their teachers to use the rubric effectively? • Does the rubric help teachers pinpoint individual reading goals by identifying readability factors that students consistently rate as difficult? Benefits Beyond the Immediate The Independent Reading Rubric is designed specifically as a tool to assist readers in choosing appropriate and interesting material for independent reading. The number of categories and the descriptions of criteria for each level of performance make the rubric most appropriate for students from Grades 5 through 12, and would also likely benefit adult developing readers. Given the importance of opportunity to read outside of direct instructional time, it is crucial for students to self-select material for independent reading within and outside of school. Further, most middle, junior high, and high school students are expected to carry out a substantial amount of independent reading and are typically offered increasingly less support in figuring out how to approach these tasks throughout the grade levels. The benefits of the rubric may go beyond the immediate, however. Each time students apply the readability factors to anticipated reading material, two TEACHING EXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN ■ SEPT/OCT 2001 ■ 41 Readability checklists specify the factors relevant to readability and include factors like these: word frequency, concept density, level of abstraction, and organization. Criteria met by the Independent Reading Rubric: • It is designed specifically for students. • It is quick and easy to use. • It takes into account a range of readability factors. • It provides a systematic approach to determining readability. possible benefits may ensue. First, they may come to realize that readability is multifaceted. This could be most important for struggling readers who have come to believe that readability and word-level difficulty are synonymous. By using a rubric to assess readability, they may realize that many factors contribute to the ease or difficulty of reading material. A second benefit relates to the possible internalization of the factors. As students use the rubric with different kinds of materials over time, the factors will become internalized as qualities of writing. Ultimately, the rubric can be discarded because the students have an internalized representation of the qualities of writing that they can apply in choosing new materials to read. References Ainsworth, L., & Christinson, J. (1998). Student-generated rubrics: An assessment model to help all students succeed. Orangeburg, NY: Dale Seymour.* Chall, J. S., Bissex, G. L., Conard, S. S., & Harris-Sharples, S. (1996). Qualitative assessment of text difficulty. Cambridge, MA: Brookline.* Chall, J. S., & Dale, E. (1995). Readability revisited: The new Dale-Chall readability formula. Cambridge, MA: Brookline.* Directions for the Five Finger Test. (2001). Available: http://www.frsd.k12.nj.us/ copperlibrary/library/fivefingertest.htm Dreyer, L. G. (1984). Readability and responsibility. Journal of Reading, 27, 334-338. Fiderer, A. (1999). 40 rubrics and checklists to assess reading and writing. New York: Scholastic.* Fry, E. B. (1989). Readability formulas— maligned but valid. Journal of Reading, 32, 292-297. Irwin, J. W., & Davis, C. A. (1980). Assessing readability: The checklist approach. Journal of Reading, 24, 124-130. Koenke, K. (1987). Readability formulas: Use and misuse. The Reading Teacher, 40, 672- 674. Lange, B. (1982). Readability formulas: Second looks, second thoughts. The Reading Teacher, 35, 858-861. Leal, D. J., & Chamberlain-Solecki, J. (1998). A Newbery Medal-winning combination: High student interest plus appropriate readability levels. The Reading Teacher, 51, 712-715. Paterson, K. (1977). Bridge to Terabithia. New York: HarperTrophy/HarperCollins.* Rodriguez, R., & Stieglitz, E. (1997). Readability master 2000. Cambridge, MA: Brookline.* Schirmer, B. R. (2000). Language and literacy development in children who are deaf (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.* Schirmer, B. R., & Bailey, J. (2000). Writing assessment rubric: An instructional approach with struggling writers. Exceptional Children, 33, 52-58. Schwery, C. S. (1998). Reading, writing, and classroom rubrics: Ways to motivate quality learning. In G. L. Taggart, S. J. Phifer, J. A. Nixon, & M. Wood (Eds.), Rubrics: A handbook for construction and use (pp. 75-100). Basel, Switzerland: Technomic.* *To order the book marked by an asterisk (*), please call 24 hrs/365 days: 1-800-BOOKSNOW (266-5766) or (732) 728-1040; or visit them on the Web at http://www.clicksmart. com/teaching. Use VISA, M/C, AMEX, or Discover or send check or money order + $4.95 S&H ($2.50 each add’l item) to: Clicksmart, 400 Morris Avenue, Long Branch, NJ 07740; (732) 728-1040 or FAX (732) 728- 7080. Barbara R. Schirmer (CEC Chapter #11), Dean and Professor, School of Education and Allied Professions, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. Alison Schirmer Lockman, Teacher, Science Department, Westminster Academy, Simsbury, Connecticut. Address correspondence to Barbara R. Schirmer, Miami University, 200 McGuffey Hall, Oxford, OH 45056-1855 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). TEACHING Exceptional Children, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 36-42. 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