My son, Mitchell, adores the idea of getting something new. “Please!” he begs, “Can we go to the toy store?” He believes there must be a toy out there that is bigger, better, newer, or shinier than those he already owns. On the rare occasion that I actually brave the toy store with him, Mitchell is drawn in every direction. “I want that!” he says as he grabs for the Lego set. “No, wait, I really want that!” he exclaims, eyeing the art set across the aisle. Moments later he’s changed his mind again, racing to pick up a new set of Pokemon cards. By the time we get to the cash register, he’s landed back at the original Lego set, finally recognizing that this really is the best choice for him. The many options in the toy store prove to be a distraction for Mitchell.
A similar scenario often plays out in education. We are constantly bombarded by distractions of bigger, better, newer, and shinier. For teachers of reading, we might be tempted by the newest “research-proven” program. The latest assessment vies for our attention. But wait, here’s RTI, ready to give what we’ve been missing. “Look at me! Pick me!” is what they all seem to be saying, and some are worth the look. In the midst of all the distractions, it might also be worth our time to hold close the things that we know really work.
Mitchell loves Legos. Trips to the toy store, birthday gifts from family and friends, mountains of things shiny and new for both Christmas and Hanukkah; none of this distracts him from his Legos for long. For me, the reading equivalent is a running record. Despite all the latest and greatest assessment tools, I have found nothing teaches me more about readers than a simple and quick running record.
As a literacy coach, I was surprised to discover that many teachers in my district had either forgotten how to use a running record, had never taken a running record, or only saw running records as part of a formal assessment. A tool that has been integral to my practice as a teacher of reading seems to have been forgotten by many, left on the proverbial shelf to gather dust.
Running records are a simple assessment tool, providing a lens into what a student is grasping as a reader and where they might grow. This school year, I am working hard to brush off the dust and either introduce or remind teachers of the value of briefly sitting down with a student for an opportunity to learn exactly who they are and what they need next.
In a recent professional development class aimed at teaching teachers how to take a running record, and then how to analyze it and make instructional decisions, I modeled with a live student. Anxiety about how to do it, being able to do it fast enough, and getting the marks exactly right quickly fell away. Teachers noted that I was able to write most of the marks, and that I kept up most of the time. The few checkmarks I missed and the one error I didn’t record did not prevent me from articulating what this reader did well, and hypothesizing why she was making the errors she did. Certainly I had some ideas about what I could do to coach this student as a reader. Participants were able to recognize that the purpose of taking a running record is not to perform the task just right. The purpose is to notice trends in our students’ reading and to identify where their challenges lie, so that we might offer a strategy that will move them beyond where they are at the moment.
Mitchell never strays far from Legos because they consistently provide opportunities for him to build and explore. Through classroom coaching and district professional development, teachers are discovering or rediscovering that a few minutes spent getting to know our students as readers has limitless possibilities for providing focused and meaningful instruction. Good things are worth hanging on to. For Mitchell, it’s his Legos. For my practice as a teacher of reading, it’s the running record.
If you are interested in introducing or reintroducing yourself to the running record, explore some of my favorite resources:
Running Records: A Self-Tutoring Guide by Peter Johnston
http://www.scholastic.ca/education/movingupwithliteracyplace/pdfs/grade4/runningrecords.pdf (for basic how-to information)
http://www.youtube.com (type in “running record practice” to find videos of students reading to use for practice)