As regular readers know, our school works closely with Kelly Young from Pebble Creek Labs on our curriculum and instructional strategies. One of the  Pebble Creek-designed assessments we use in our English classes is having students complete the same two clozes three times each year — September, January, and June — to assess reading comprehension and vocabulary development. In addition, we have students read to two passages for one minute each to us during the same three times during the year in order to measure reading fluency. You can see The Best Resources For Learning About Formative Assessment for more information about these assessments.

But these assessments, especially the one for reading fluency, is about much more than data. Those few minutes are also opportunities for us to check-in with students to find-out how they’re doing. In addition, individual conversations teachers have with each student after the results of the assessments are known are good times to converse about their future hopes and goals (see My Best Posts On Students Setting Goals). These conversations help us connect genuinely useful data to genuine student self-interests. This, in turn helps students develop intrinsic motivation to achieve goals that they set for themselves — with some teacher assistance. I write more about this process in my upcoming book, Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers to Classroom Challenges.

This week I’ve been talking with my ninth-grade students about their fluency scores (next week we’ll be having similar conversations about their cloze assessments, and they’ll be using them to complete goal sheets and actions plans for the semester).

Here is how I talk with them about their reading and their data, especially mid-year — all in short, private conversations:

First, I begin by telling them I’m going to ask them a question, and that I’m going to ask them to answer it honestly. I promise I won’t react negatively to anything they say, and there won’t be any grade consequences at all. “How much time to read each night?” I ask (students are supposed to read for 1/2 hour each night). Almost universally, I’m convinced that students answer candidly.

Next, I take one of three tacts — depending on their fluency scores (of course, it’s not always as clear-cut but, for the sake of this post, you’ll get the idea):

IF STUDENTS HAVE NOT MADE MUCH PROGRESS: When this is the case, almost always students have answered my question by telling me they don’t read much. I tell them that it shows in their scores. They’re going to have to do a lot of reading in high school, and it’s going to be hard to keep up if they can’t read faster — homework will take a lot longer. The student and I might take a few seconds to calculate how much faster they could read a text if they are able to increase their reading by ten, twenty, thirty and even forty words a minute, and how much time they would be able to save. I know the interests of each student, and what they say they want to do after high school, so I might ask them how much reading they think they’ll have to do to study for that profession or to actually do the profession. I’ll ask if they are having a hard time finding a book they find interesting, and we’ll discuss ways to find one. I’ll end my asking them to think about what they want their fluency goal to be at the end of the year so they can be prepared to complete their goal sheet next week, and ask them to think about specific things they can do to achieve it.

IF STUDENTS HAVE MADE GOOD PROGRESS, BUT ARE STILL NOT READING AT THE LEVEL THEY NEED TO BE: When this is the case, I’ll tell them that the average student increases their reading fluency by ten words per minute in a full year, and that they’ve exceeded that goal in five months. After that pat on the back, I’ll say something like, “Boy, if you were able to make that amount of progress in half a year by reading _______ minutes each night (whatever amount they told me initially), imagine the progress you could make if you increased that amount — even a little bit — or read a little more challenging book?” Then we’ll have a conversation similar to the one I recounted in the first instance — doing a little calculation, talking about it’s impact on their future, asking them to think about their goal and action plan.

IF STUDENTS HAVE MADE PROGRESS & ARE ALREADY READING WELL: When this is the case, I’ll tell them that I’m going to be honest with them — they’re doing fine and will do fine in school. I’ll also ask them if they want to settle for “fine” or do they want to go for “great”? We’ll then have a conversation about their hopes for the future. I’ll tell them that one thing they need to remember, though, is that it can sometimes take more work to go from reading 190 words per minute to 200 than to go from 100 to 110. It’s like a competitive runner — it can be harder for someone to go from running a four minute mile to someone running a 1:55 mile than someone going from a ten minute mile to running a mile in nine minutes. A person might go from 100 to 110 words per minute reading a Goosebumps book for 30 minutes a night, but it’s unlikely someone is going to go from 190 to 200 by doing the same thing. They’d need to look at reading more challenging books and for reading for a longer time.

The backdrop for these conversations are multiple life skill lessons we’ve done (and which you’ll find in my book) on the effect of learning on the brain, how perseverance and self-control affect future success, and on the importance of taking personal responsibility. Of course, another key element is the relationship I’ve built with each student.

Contrast how we use data with students — authentic assessments, personal conversations & relationships, connections to student’s future hopes, and self-selected goals — with how data might be used in schools. In fact, I’ll end this post with a video showing one of those other ways.

But before you watch it, please take a minute to think of any suggestions you might have on how I can improve the quality of my “data-informed” conversations with students. I’m all ears….