Digging Deeper Into Data: Finding Your Reader's Story!

As a reading specialist, sometimes I am up to my eyes in data. (Anyone else?)

I’ve taught at three schools now in multiple grades, and I’ve worked with DIBELS, AIMSweb, EasyCBM, mClass Reading TRC, mClass Math, NWEA MAP, NWEA MPG, TerraNova, Fountas & Pinnell running records, STAR Math and Reading, ISTEP, OEA, and two different series of district assessments. I think that’s all, but to be honest, I’m probably missing some. Let’s just say that I’m pretty used to using data.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to attend the National Reading Recovery Conference and listen to a talk given by Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan.

When I walked into a session about triangulating data, I was expecting some useful, but likely dry information about how to analyze data- and I was pleasantly surprised to instead, come into a session that talked about really seeing students as more than numbers.
One presenter at the conference gave a metaphor:

tests as thermometer

Think about it- does your doctor take your temperature, and then give you a diagnosis? Well, no! Your doctor asks you about your symptoms, when they started, etc.- the doctor asks for your story, and then does tests to confirm- but 80% of the time, the diagnosis is in the story.

With students, we need to use the screeners as just that- a thermometer to let us know something is wrong. Then, we need to dig deeper into the symptoms to really find the story of that reader so we can figure out how to treat what ails them in reading!

So, how do we find out our readers’ stories?

finding a reader's story

  • Think about what the assessment is really assessing.
    • Accuracy? Fluency? Comprehension? Vocabulary? Phonics? Remember that it could be more than one. (A comprehension assessment usually requires a basic level of fluency, which requires some phonics, which requires phonemic awareness, etc…)
  • Consider the language hierarchy to determine next step. Some skills usually must occur before others.
    • Reading with meaning takes 2 levels of skills:
      • Perceptual: seeing, recognizing, storing, retrieving
      • Cognitive: thinking about comprehension, message
      • If kids can’t do perception skills on “autopilot,” they don’t have much attention left for meaning.
    • Did they fail at a “higher” level skill because they don’t have the lower level one? Consider assessing other needed skills.
      • Work backwards to find the issue.
  • What might be affecting our results BESIDES that reading skill?
    • Is the test read to them?
    • Focus
    • Nonsense words- are they trying to guess real words?
    • ESL students- must have knowledge of that vocabulary
    • Background knowledge
    • Familiarity with academic language
    • Text anxiety
  • Analyze what kind of errors they are making.
    • A running record without analyzing (M, S, V) is just a number. We need that qualitative side to know WHY.
    • Sometimes you may need to give them a level that’s too hard. What is holding them back from that level?
    • If in doubt, try something different and see how they do.
    • When CAN they do it? (listening comp? oral response? Context?)
  • What else do I need to assess to decide the right intervention?
    • So they got a 23 in Letter ID- but which letters do they know? They struggle with comprehension- but is it comprehension within, beyond, or about the text?
We have to remember that standardized test data is only ONE piece. Tests are just to help us make the diagnosis. We need to see them as what happens before and during instruction, not just after.

We have to consider everything we know about a child. Our anecdotal notes from conferences and small group lessons with kids count for a lot!  Don’t forget to ASK kids about their thinking, too- sometimes we try to infer when just asking them will tell us so much!

Of course, once we know more about where the student is, we can use that information to plan instruction and intervention. THAT is why finding the story is so important- because otherwise, the scores can lead us in the wrong direction.

same score

Two kids at level F may not belong in the same small group if one of them needs help with comprehension and the other needs help with decoding. Two kids with the same score may need entirely different things to improve- and that’s why looking beyond the number of one assessment is so vital.

One of the things I loved about this session is that it really validated my beliefs about data as one piece of the bigger picture, and my own professional knowledge of that kid still being every bit as important as the data in the spreadsheet. If medical tests could make a diagnosis on their own all the time, we wouldn’t need doctors. And if tests could make a diagnosis on their own in education, we wouldn’t need teachers.

Stay strong- and do what you know is best for kids. The assessments are a tool- but we are still the experts!

If you’re interested in more about using assessment in the context of your instruction, you can check out Claire and Tammy’s book Assessment in Perspective or their website at Teachers for Teachers. They were really great speakers and I could tell they still spend time in classrooms alongside teachers, working with kids, on a regular basis.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing more of my conference thoughts on my blog. I love professional learning! Thanks for letting me share with you today.

jennybuttontitle (1)


  1. I'm so glad you wrote about this topic. Too often we get caught up in the numbers when we talk about our students at building meetings. I think it is important for us to remember that data is only one piece of the big picture. Our professional knowledge of a students is so important in growing the reader!

    Read With Me ABC

    1. I wasn't sure if this post gave a lot of NEW information- but I know hearing it at the conference made me feel a little more secure in what I believe about assessment and how we truly should use the data. I thought if it helped encourage me to use my professional knowledge, it would probably help others. So glad you enjoyed it!


  2. Jenny! I am so glad you got so much out of the conference. I look forward to hearing (and picking your brain) about the other things you learned! I appreciate you reminding us to stay strong. It can be easy to forget. I will check out this book.

    1. I know it was partly because I expected this to be a number-driven session, but it was so refreshing to hear people say how important the qualitative, anecdotal observation side of assessment really is. I felt like it validated what I believe and gave me a little extra strength to stick up for what I know my kids really need (even if the numbers don't match up!) I'm excited to read the book, too.


  3. Fantastic article! I'm sharing it with my coworkers. So many times we get caught up in those numbers (or letters in our case, since we use Fountas & Pinnell) and forget to analyze it for the true issue.

    Don't Let the Teacher Stay Up Late
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    1. I am so happy to hear you say that! My school uses F&P's and now MAP data, and usually our principal sets it up on a spreadsheet before our meetings, ordered by level. Thankfully, he really listens to us once we get to the meeting- but I know sometimes it's a struggle to make sure we get the information we need from every teacher to really make the best groups.

      Hope it helps give those little reminders to your colleagues! (We all need them sometimes!) Thanks for sharing!


  4. Jenny, Thank you so much for sharing your take-aways from our session. We learned from hearing your persepective. We love how you showed to readers at the same level who need very different things. Thanks for coming to our session and helping us spread the word that our readers need to be more than a number.
    Clare and Tammy

    1. Thanks for taking the time to stop by and read it! Hope it helps spread the word about your book and work, too! :)