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What You Need to Know About Decodable Running Records

What you need to know about decodable running records. Image of a student copy and a teacher annotated copy of a decodable running record.

Proponents of the science of reading realize leveled running records are flawed, but we also know decodable running records provide a wealth of information. You just have to know what to look for.

There has been a lot of discussion about how to determine students’ mastery of foundational skills. We’ve written extensively about assessing essential reading skills in Kindergarten, First Grade, and Second/Third Grade. These posts address standardized and non-standardized measurements of isolated skills such as phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency. However, the purpose of this post is to focus primarily on the importance of listening to students read connected text and keeping a running record of their oral reading.

Jen and I belong to several on-line reading teacher groups and often see questions about running records. Below is a sampling of frequently asked questions and our responses to those inquiries.

How can I get information about my students’ reading by if leveled running records are out?

This is one question we hear quite often. The science of reading has unveiled the primary flaw of leveled running records, known as The Three-Cueing System. Now teachers are wondering how to determine students’ proficiency when they read connected text.

We are here to say that running records are still a valuable assessment tool. You just need to know what to look for. That can be found in decodable running records.

What are decodable running records?

  • This assessment tool follows a specific phonics scope and sequence and provides texts that align with sequential, targeted skills.
  • Each short passage includes previously taught (post-assessment) or upcoming (pre-assessment) phonics skills.
  • This tool is used to determine whether students can apply their phonics knowledge to connected text with accuracy, fluency, and comprehension.
  • They are also used to determine areas of need.

It is important to note that the purpose of decodable running records is to determine next instructional steps rather than simply assigning a pass/fail.

Can’t I just use any decodable book to complete a running record?

Well, yes of course you can grab a book from the classroom library or from the student’s book box and complete a running record. You can also churn your own butter, but if there’s a more efficient option, why would you?

We’ve done these types of running records in a pinch, but there are several problems with this process.

  • Without a written copy of the text, you are just making checkmarks on a blank piece of paper. You don’t have a copy of the text to refer back to. Therefore, it’s a lot harder to analyze the types of errors the student is making.
  • In order to determine accuracy, you have to go back and count the number of checks and the number of errors. In our experience, while listening to a student read, it can be difficult to ensure that our checks match the words read. You have to keep an eye on what the student is reading, and an eye on what is being recorded. So, it is quite possible to inaccurately record the checks which then leads to calculation errors.
  • The same is true for fluency. In addition, if you don’t have preprinted text, then you cannot record both checks for words read correctly and scoops for phrasing.
  • Just selecting a book from classroom shelves, doesn’t mean that the text is aligned with the concepts being taught. Nor does it ensure that this is the first time the student has read the text. This means the results of the running record won’t necessarily inform next instructional steps.
  • Even with a photocopy of the text, you are still left with the issue of whether the text aligns with your instruction and whether there are enough words containing the focus phonics feature to determine mastery.
  • Making a photocopy of the text still requires you to go back and count the number of words read and the number of words read correctly to determine accuracy and fluency scores.
  • Selecting a book from the classroom library for a running record is more labor intensive than using decodable running records.

What skills are analyzed in a decodable running record?

Phonics: The key here is to analyze errors with a phonics lens. By using a controlled text, teachers are able to efficiently look for, and analyze, specific phonics pattern errors. Are students making errors on v-e words, save, throne, spike? Or are students having trouble with suffixes -s, -es, -ed, -ing?

Are the students looking at the first letter and guessing at the rest of the word? If so, that is a big red flag that they are not applying the code of reading. These running record assessments do NOT encourage the debunked guessing and checking technique!

The accuracy score guides the teacher in determining whether the student requires additional instruction in a particular phonics feature before moving ahead in the phonics scope and sequence.

Can I use these controlled passages to determine other reading skills?

Proponents of the science of reading understand that reading is more than just phonics. So, it is important to analyze students’ reading for fluency and comprehension as well. A well-written decodable running record provides teachers the opportunity to do just that.

Fluency: Relying only on an accuracy score can be misleading. For example, if a mid-year, Grade 2 student is reading with an accuracy of 96%, it may seem that there is nothing to be concerned about. However, if this same student is only reading at 36 Words Correct per Minute (WCPM), this indicates, to the discerning teacher, the student requires additional instruction. Further, instruction on the targeted phonics pattern is necessary to help the student develop automaticity.

For additional information on how to determine fluency rate, be sure to read our blog on scoring correct words per minute.

Comprehension: When a student’s working memory is not being monopolized by decoding words with unfamiliar patterns, the student has more cognitive energy available to focus on comprehension. A brief retell and the opportunity to answer a few comprehension questions give the teacher a window into a student’s understanding of the text.

Comprehension is heavily tied to vocabulary and background knowledge. Therefore, it is important to keep this in mind when assessing comprehension. Remember, decodable running records are not used to pass or fail a student. They should be used to inform instruction.

When is the best time to administer the controlled-passage assessment?

Pretest: Decodable running records can be used as a pretest to determine what students know about the upcoming phonics pattern.

Progress Monitoring: They can be used for progress monitoring to evaluate students’ response to ongoing instruction.

Post-test: These types of assessments are ideal to determine next instructional steps. Our Guidelines for Analyzing (see image below) tool takes the guess work out of evaluating decodable running records.

Image of Guidelines for Analyzing Decodable Running Records.  Includes decoding, fluency, and comprehension.

Why use a running record for if it’s not to determine a student’s reading level?

Reading levels are not backed by science. Researchers found there was too much variance amongst books within each level to have any reliability.

However, there are several reasons to listen to a students’ oral reading!

Mastery of skills: The important thing to look for is students’ mastery of skills and using this information to guide decisions regarding next instructional steps.

A structured literacy approach to teaching reading requires a systematic process toward the instruction of phonics features. Running records that align with the scope and sequence guide the teacher in determining whether the skill has been mastered and whether the student can apply this skill in connected text.

Reporting: Another important purpose for analyzing students’ oral reading is to report strengths and challenges to parents/guardians/team members. Included in this resource is a Teacher Reporting Document. It provides teachers with a format for discussing decoding, fluency, and comprehension. These talking points make parent conferences and team meetings a breeze.

Image of the Teacher Reporting Document that is included in Informed Literacy's Decodable Running Record resource.

Determining next steps: Careful analysis of a decodable running record lends itself to determining next instructional steps. This process helps teachers follow a structured literacy format; one that is sequential, cumulative, and explicit.

This feels overwhelming. Where do I start?

We feel your pain! Jen and I were desperate for a science of reading-aligned assessment tool that could help us efficiently assess students’ strengths and challenges. We knew the value of listening to our students read, but there was nothing available other than the debunked leveled running records.

As Reading Specialists and Certified Dyslexia Practitioners, we put our knowledge and know-how to work and created three sets of decodable running records. These resources all align with the science of reading.

Image of Informed Literacy's starter pack of decodable running records.  This set includes CVC and CVC with digraphs.
This resource is perfect for kindergarten, beginning first grade, and intervention students.
Image of Informed Literacy's decodable running records - set 1.  This set includes all closed syllable features.
All of the features of closed syllables such as blends, closed syllable exceptions, and bonus letters are included.
Image of Informed Literacy's decodable running records - set 2, beyond the closed syllable.
This set includes various phonics features such as open syllables, silent-e syllables, vowel teams, and more!
Image of Informed Literacy's decodable running records mega bundle.  Includes sets 1 and 2.

What else does this resource include?

We knew that every record needed an accuracy score, a fluency score, and a comprehension score. We also knew that it would be super helpful to have a document that teachers could refer to over and over again rather than reinventing the wheel every time. Thus, in each set, we included two invaluable documents: Guidelines for Analyzing and Teacher Reporting Form. These two time-saving documents streamline the assessment process and help to accurately pinpoint next instructional steps.

No matter where you are in your science of reading journey, these decodable running records will help you determine your students’ instructional needs.

Need a bit more information about the power of decodable running records?

We have two more posts about this ground-breaking procedure.

How to Assess Students with Science of Reading Aligned, Decodable Running Records

What is the Best Way to Use Decodable Running Records?

Interested in more helpful hints with a sprinkling of humor?

Please connect with us on Instagram and DM us with any questions you might have.


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