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Observing Young Readers and Writers: A Tool for Informing Instruction

By Alessandra E. Ward, Nell K. Duke, and Rachel Klingelhofer
 | Oct 27, 2020

Teacher and studentListening to students read aloud is an essential practice for any primary-grade teacher. It is no less essential than a swimming coach watching children swim or a piano teacher listening to a child play. Listening to students read aloud provides an important opportunity for the teacher to coach or prompt students when they are stuck on a word or when they encounter other problems when reading. (For a discussion of research-informed practices for prompting students during reading, see Nell’s piece in the upcoming November issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership).

Running records

Traditionally, many educators have used running records to derive information from listening to students read aloud. An advantage of running records is that they can be taken anytime that a student is reading aloud using only a scrap of paper.


A challenge with running records is that the data they yield are so open ended that the data can lead to misinterpretation. For example, some people have interpreted the misreading of words in a running record to be positive as long as the words make sense in context (e.g., being satisfied when students read glass for cup). Although it is certainly important that readers engage in sense-making when they read, for word identification, attending to the letters and groups of letters in words is the critical skill of successful readers. In addition, running records explicitly signal only a few aspects of reading to attend to. There are many aspects of the complex act of reading that are worthy of educators’ attention when listening to a student read.


To address these challenges, we have developed a tool to guide the process of listening to students read aloud and observing them write: The Listening to Reading-Watching While Writing Protocol (LTR-WWWP). Like running records, the LTR-WWWP can be applied any time a student is reading or writing anything in the classroom—a truly curriculum-based assessment—but unlike running records, the tool provides much more guidance about what to listen for in the student’s reading.

For example, the tool lists specific word identification strategies that research suggests are good for students to use—such as chunking a word or trying an alternate vowel sound. It does not list strategies that are not desirable. In fact, everything on the LTR-WWWP is a potential instructional target: something specific that you can teach or work on. The tool doesn’t yield a “level” or a “score” but rather points to specific foci for instruction—a graphophonemic relationship to teach (e.g., sh = /sh/), a strategy to teach (e.g., rereading), a skill to teach (e.g., attending to specific punctuation marks to support fluent reading), a text feature to teach, and so on. 

Although we provide considerable guidance in the form regarding what to look for in a student’s reading (and writing, as discussed below), it is an informal tool. You can tailor its use to what would be most helpful to inform instruction. This means you can pause at any point during the reading to ask students questions (e.g., Is that a new word for you? Do you know what it means? How did you figure that out?), encourage students to share their thinking at any time, and even provide needed instruction.

Dr. Ashelin Currie of Oakland Schools, who was among the educators who piloted the tool, commented on “the humanity of the tool.” She wrote, “Especially during this time, we need to connect with our students as human beings. I'm doing this assessment to learn about you/the child. I'm interested in learning about you as a reader.”

Reading and writing

Reading and writing are deeply related. Students’ knowledge and skills in one area are typically closely related to their knowledge and skills in the other (think knowledge of informational text features and skill in decoding and spelling). Therefore, we designed the LTR-WWWP so that it could be used for writing as well as for reading.

As with reading, there is great potential value in watching the process of students writing, even for just a short portion of the time during which they are doing so. Depending on the phase(s) of writing you observe, you can address questions such as these:

  • Did the student plan the writing?
  • Did the student stretch words to spell them?
  • Was the student gripping the writing utensil properly?
  • Did the student use any resources to support vocabulary/word choice in the writing?
  • Did the student use any strategies while editing the writing?

Information from these observations can be complemented by analysis of the writing sample itself (e.g., the spelling, text structure, ideas, voice). As with listening to reading, the purpose of these observations and analyses is to inform next steps for instruction.

Formative assessment

In sum, the LTR-WWWP is an informal formative assessment tool designed to help guide attention to particular aspects of the student’s reading or writing in order to inform next steps in instruction. In particular, the tool directs attention to the following:

  • Reading and spelling of single-syllable or multisyllabic words
  • Word identification or spelling strategies
  • Letter formation/handwriting
  • Comprehension monitoring
  • Vocabulary strategies or word choice
  • Fluency
  • Comprehension (including general comprehension, reactions and responses, genre, strategies, text structure/organization, and features)
  • Compreaction (i.e., processing the meaning of the text in relation to one’s purpose for reading—what one “does” with comprehension)
  • Composition (including reactions and responses, genre, strategies, text structure/organization, text features, attention to purpose and audience, voice, content/ideas, sentence construction)

It is certainly not expected that all these aspects of literacy development would be addressed in every instance of using the LTR-WWWP. Rather, its use supports attention to these constructs over time, with the purpose of helping us make daily decisions to support the literacy growth of our students.

Accessing the LTR-WWWP 

A video presenting key points about the tool, detailed directions for using the tool, completed examples of the tool, a blank copy of the tool in printable and fillable PDF form, and videos of the use of the LTR-WWWP in action are available. Some of the videos were conducted in a remote/videoconference format.

Of course, there is much to say about what to do instructionally with the information the LTR-WWWP provides, but that is beyond the scope of this post. Also, it is important to note that the LTR-WWWP does not obviate the need for other assessment tools, such as systematic assessments of reading comprehension and letter–sound knowledge. Still, the focus of the tool on the actual acts of reading and writing, the fact that it can be used whenever a student is reading (aloud, at least) or writing, and the added level of guidance it provides over running records, make it a potentially valuable tool in our formative assessment portfolio.


ILA member Alessandra E. Ward is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan. Her work focuses on the literacy engagement of young learners. You can follow her on Twitter @wardalessandrae.

ILA member Nell K. Duke is a professor in literacy, language, and culture and also in the combined program in education and psychology at the University of Michigan. She is the recipient of ILA’s William S. Gray Citation of Merit for outstanding contributions to literacy research, theory, policy, and practice. You can follow her on Twitter @nellkduke.

ILA member Rachel Klingelhofer is a lecturer in the University of Michigan’s teacher education programs. Much of her teaching work is field instruction, where she helps interns apply what they are learning in real classrooms with real students.

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