We’ve made diagnosing student needs way too complicated. Or equally troubling, we have not attempted to diagnose student needs, instead providing a one size fits all set of supports when intervening. The best intervention is a targeted intervention.

We’re focusing on reading. Please do not provide a “reading” intervention when students are identified as having a significant deficit in reading. Instead, listen to students read to you, and based on that interaction, target supports in one of the areas described in the section below.

What does listening to students read look like and sound like? Here’s a process that is free, efficient, and marvelously effective.

First, provide students at-risk with a text they can read. In other words, do not give them a text that is at their grade level. You know that they cannot read at grade level; screening has revealed that fact and that’s why you’re reading with him to diagnose needs now. So, find a passage that’s below grade level (there are several free online options). There’s a chance the assessment used to screen your students provided Lexile levels or grade level equivalents. Choose a page that matches the student at-risk’s Lexile or GLE.

Then, listen to the student read and take “running records.” What does that mean? Use a guide like the one below to record errors, identify error patterns, and evaluate expressiveness.

Task Notes
Listen to the student read for 60 seconds.  
Record errors using the school’s agreed upon running records format.  
Note the student’s words correct per minute.  
Note the number of student errors.  
Note any pattern of errors (long vowels, multi-syllabic words, etc.)  
Note the prosody/expression with which the student read

1 = reading is labored, slow, and disfluent

2 = reading is somewhat slow and choppy

3 = reading includes poor phrasing and intonation, but is at a reasonable pace

4 = reading is fairly fluent, with good pace, fairly good intonation, and some phrasing

5 = reading is fluent and smooth with longer phrasing, good intonation and varied expression


While listening to the student read, note the amount of the passage that the student has read after 60 seconds. This will allow you to calculate the words correct per minute at which the student reads, a valuable piece of data when determining which specific reading support that the students reads first.

Lastly, ask the students a few comprehension questions, questions with answers that can be explicitly found within the text and questions that require inferences to be made. Ideally, the texts that you used came with their own questions. Our favorite low-cost (not free, but nearly) option is the Qualitative Reading Inventory (QRI).


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And we’re done. After 5-10 minutes of listening to a student read and asking a few questions about what they’ve read, we’re ready to assign them to a Tier 3 intervention groups that specifically targets the most immediate area of need.

If the student at-risk reads fluently and accurately, you can deduce that they need a comprehension invention even before asking the comprehension questions. The student was, after all, screened to be at-risk

If the student reads accurately, but without expressiveness, or slowly, or with lots of stops and starts and repetitions, then they need a fluency support.

If the student reads inaccurately, then they need a phonics support first. Does the student make errors with simple, single-syllable words? Then, the student needs a simple phonics support. Does the student proficiently decode single-syllable words, but guess, skip, or misread bigger, multi-syllable words? Then, the student needs an advanced phonics support.

That’s it. We must provide the most targeted support possible, so we must diagnose. But, diagnosing student needs need not be time-intensive, expensive, or complicated.


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