Most children who struggle with reading have difficulty with decoding. Problems with reading fluency and reading comprehension are often related to problems with decoding.

The assessment of decoding skills is a major component of a reading evaluation. To get insight into why a child is having trouble with reading it is important to evaluate a child’s decoding skills in several distinct ways and then compare results.

  • Reading Word Lists: Word lists generally begin with easy words and the words become increasingly more difficult. When we ask children to read lists of words, we eliminate the context. Many bright children with well-developed verbal reasoning skills use context to guess at words. Some are fairly successful at this until they reach a level where words become too difficult to predict based on context.

When working with a child on the word lists, it is important to write down each incorrect response to arrive at an error analysis that reveals patterns of errors.  For example, some children have difficulty with words of more than two syllables (MEM-O-RY; THER-MOM-E-TER), some struggle with words that contain vowel combinations (REMAIN, VOUCHER), others have difficulty with certain endings such as –tion. Many children guess at words based on the initial letter and general word configuration.  For example they may read devise as “devour” or remove as “remark”.

  • Passage Reading: Once again, passages increase in difficulty from easy to difficult. Some children are more successful when reading passages than when reading word lists.  Others find it more difficult to read passages because they become confused as the passages increase in length and linguistic complexity. Some children need context while others become overwhelmed with too many words on a page. Once again, it is essential to analyze errors to look for patterns.  It is particularly important to compare a child’s performance when reading word lists with their performance when reading passages. This comparison can provide important insights.
  • Lists of Nonsense Words: Nonsense words are not real words; they are non-words that follow familiar phonetic patterns.  By asking children to read nonsense words we eliminate the possibility that they may be relying on memorization of frequently used words. This task requires them to use their decoding skills to attack these “words.”
  • Curriculum Based Instruction: This is a particularly helpful part of the evaluation for children in grades 4-12. Ask the student to read one to two pages from the social studies or science textbook that is used in the class.  If the teacher does not use a textbook – use one of the class hand-outs. Make a copy of the pages for you to mark as the child reads so that you can calculate the error and the fluency rates.  You will find grade level tables on our website, Smartkidcantread.com. Look for “Free Downloads”.

Be careful about using composite scores that combine the scores of individual tests.  They can be misleading and may mask the true nature of a child’s reading problem.  This topic will be the subject of a future blog.

Lorna Kaufman, PhD