Formative Assessment — Why Don’t Teachers Use It More Often?

Slide courtesy of Great Schools Partnership


Before I moved out of the classroom to become a coach and RtI instructor, I had “data grades.” My students got used to the idea that these numbers in the grade book didn’t count toward their final grade for the trimester but were information for both of us — the student and me. Little did I know that actually I was recording formative assessment data! I just knew that this was helpful information that let me understand whether or not my students grasped concepts and who I needed to re-teach, who needed review, and which students could move on. Ahh — light bulb — another form of differentiation!**

To many educators, data has become a dirty word; I don’t happen to think so. I see the value of how it gives us information — good and bad — and how it also sometimes doesn’t add up. That’s where formative assessment comes in — another piece of data.

Not all formative assessments have to be recorded. A quick show of hands, listening to student’s conversation, reading student work, 3 minute teacher-student conferences, or an exit ticket don’t have to be formally graded. This idea of not grading everything is often a hard idea for teachers to get used to.

In the past, everything was graded! If we didn’t grade it, what use was it. Students still ask, and it drives my peers and me nuts, “Is this graded”? I frequently hear, “If I don’t grade it, they won’t do a good job.” I disagree. Once students get used to formative assessments, they help them too, then “our kids” will put forth equally strong effort whether the task has a mark in the grade book or not. Key here is sharing the formative assessment with them. When students know the purpose of their learning, why they are doing a task, and how it leads to the end, we teachers get buy in.

I have been lucky enough to be part of my school’s committee for a partially funded grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The purpose of the grant, through the New England Secondary School Consortium and managed by Great School Partnership, is to further the implementation of mastery-based grading and personalized learning in our school. What I have learned over the past 4 years working with Great Schools Partnership is that instruction goes nowhere for our without formative assessment.

In my Tier 2 RtI classes, I give mini lessons and then a formative assessment. For those of my students who get it, they can move on to show their knowledge through practice, and for those who need more help, they work with me until the concept clarity is stronger. It works the same way in the regular classroom: Instruction moves forward according to the formative assessment. Throughout the period/block I am assessing whether or not my students are learning. Formative assessment doesn’t just occur once a day otherwise the kids could be working down the wrong path. It is my job as a teacher to help them stay on track and keep their learning on target.

By using these formative assessments, I am meeting the needs of my learners whether it is in a class of 25-30 students or in a room of 5-8. The children reflect on their learning and measure their own comprehension, share it with me, and I check it.

My plan for the next minutes and days are based on the progress students have presently made. I cannot forge ahead if students are not learning the present skills, and that is what educators have done for years: Keep moving without checking knowledge. Periodic quizzes and unit tests have their places, but only when students are ready for them, and that may very well not have been when the teacher thought it was going to be.

We have to pay attention to our students; we can’t move on with a unit plan if they don’t get it! And this all leads to personalized learning a topic soon to come. In the meantime, put formative assessments into action.

**If you are interested, below is the link to a professional development session I put together as Chairman of the English Department for our teachers to connect differentiation and formative assessment.

Formative Assessment as Differentiation Part 1




Why aren’t reading strategies taught more often?

As a young reader, I was totally confused.  If you are interested you can read about my reading issues in a past blog.  But more importantly and on topic for today, my comprehension only turned a corner once I slowly came to realize that if I could picture the story in my head, I understood the book or short story much better!  NO TEACHER HAD EVER TOLD ME TO DO THAT!  I was always told here are the sounds and words, read.  Somehow, Puff, Dick, and Jane were supposed to magically make it all come together.  It didn’t.  Reading was a puzzle that couldn’t come together for me for years and years.

Reading strategies come naturally to good readers, but those are only a portion of the population.  I wasn’t in that lucky community of good readers, and none of my teachers ever taught me any reading strategies.

So once the puzzle piece of visualization took form, I had to constantly  remind myself to “see” the characters.  It was frustrating; I read slowly which often caused me to have to re-read because I missed details.  By the way, that is another misconception by many people:  Re-reading is not the comprehension cure-all.  Sometimes re-reading is useful but not every time.  But when I did live through the frustration to find the detail that helped me visualize a character or location, the story started to become real.  It was amazing how this picture in my head so quickly impacted my willingness to read.  I had no idea that this was what I was supposed to do!

Hence my passion and dedication to teaching all students — regardless of their ability — reading strategies.  I cannot emphasize how critical these puzzle pieces are to reading comprehension.

When I work with struggling readers now, they are frequently stumped that visualizing a text is something they should do.   Most of my students have no idea what the word means let alone how to go about it. When I suggest that some day it can come naturally to them, they think I’m nuts.  So we begin — whether it is grade 6 or 7 or 8 — using markers and paper:  Listening to a short text, I read to them and they draw a sketch of what they see in their mind.  Students are often worried about their artistic ability. I remind them of our purpose:  We are practicing visualizing the text.  As a former co-teacher of mine, A. Warner, told me, “It is making mental movies in your head of what you read.”

Visualizing is probably the most powerful puzzle piece; however, the other 13 strategies are just as important.  The list can be overwhelming, but little by little I whittle away working with my students to help them learn and apply each one.  I have them not only learn the term, but what it means.  If they can’t explain it, they can’t use it.  We practice the reading strategies over and over with independent and class texts — including defining them so students are clear what they are doing.  Some students have already mastered some of the skills so they move on to other strategies.  After all, good teachers differentiate for the needs of the student — even when it comes to the use of reading strategies.

So why aren’t reading strategies taught more often?  One part of the puzzle is that secondary English teachers are not taught to be “reading” teachers.  Reading specialists know to overtly teach reading strategies, but not all students work with the reading specialists.   Colleges don’t emphasize reading strategies in methods classes.  Take a hint universities; this needs to be added! Many teachers are already good readers.  Again, it is true that reading strategies come naturally to good readers — without cognitively working at it, they apply the strategies as they read.  However, in my family alone, I estimate one-half to two-thirds are actually good readers — not everyone.  I am a self-made good reader.  There are more of us out there, but it is a painful journey.

In this new school year, my goal of my second year as a literacy/instructional coach is to help teachers implement reading strategies in their classrooms.  A few instructors were willing to do so last year, and they were impressed with the results.  It is only with the support of the classroom teachers that students will apply the strategies so frequently that they become ingrained and a natural part of reading.  Then the puzzle of reading becomes whole for them too.

The following strategies list is one that I have accumulated over time.   I cannot name any one source; I have adapted it multiple times from what I’ve learned from my own experiences and from working with my students.


  • Draw Inferences   —  Put clues together to figure out what the author means
  • Create VisualizationsSee the plot or article info in your mind – make mental movies
  • Ask Questions  — Ask why characters/people act the way they do – ask why author included information in the text
  • Determine ImportanceFigure out what is important in the story/article and what is not
  • Clarify  — Be clear about what is going on in the story/article with details & without – Ask am I understanding the story?????????  Be sure you know what is going on before reading on.  Don’t be confused — be clear!
  • Retell and SummarizeRetelling is being able to tell main ideas as well as essential lesser ideas; whereas summarizing is telling just the main ideas of the text
  • Construct Connections – Connect to another text including movies, poems, TV, cartoons, books, etc. as well as something heard about, something in friend’s/family’s life (text to text and text to world)
  • Monitor and Adjust ComprehensionPay attention if you understand or not or if you got info wrong, you correct it
  • Make PredictionsDecide what you think is going to happen in a book based on info/clues you read – making a hypothesis about the book — then you have to clarify if you have correctly predicted
  • Adjust Fluency Rate – Change how fast or slow you read based on what is going on in the book and on your understanding
  • Use Vocabulary — Figure out word meanings based on other words & events in story/article (use context clues) without using the dictionary unless you absolutely have to do so
  • Chunk phrasesRead phrases and chunks of words at a time — not reading individual words which slows down readers
  • Speak with intonationWhen reading, read with emotion not like a robot; read as if you are the character speaking
  • Analyze and critiqueAnalyze the author’s writing and why he or she wrote and created the people/scenes as he/she did; critique how the author’s work and words impacts the story


My Literary History

Today as I was updating my LiveBinder for my seventh graders, I was thinking back about my literary history which I always share verbally during the first week with my students.  You see, John Jakes novels were really the end and yet the beginning. I had lots of books around as a child. My father and mother loved buying me books.  The problem was that I was so literal: I knew that Pooh bears did not speak to little boys in the forest, and fish did not jump out of the fishbowl as Dr. Seuss said.  I had all of the books and dolls from Joan Walsh Anglund.  I loved the dolls without their mouths — only eyes and noses — and with my own mind, I brought them to life speaking for them.  I loved sleeping with them;  they created a safe feeling for me at night.  The books had beautiful thoughts about how wonderful the world was. But in my very realistic mind, I knew no one could speak without having a mouth!

 So unlike what research tells us, conversation with high vocabulary at dinner and lots of books will lead to a high literacy ability — as was the norm in my house — I was the exception.


Sharing this information as part of my literary history with my students is essential. I teach very different levels of students, but often have students who are not able to comprehend well since I understand that type of student very well.  After all, they are what I was. And yet, every year I have been able to help so many students recognize that reading really is not terrible. 

As all middle schoolers do, my seventh graders come into the classroom at the beginning of the year suspicious. Not only do they not know me, but they are preteens recognizing that they don’t know how to yet trust the world. Yes, there are students who come through my door who like to read — but sadly, they are the exception. Only after I share with them what I went through to become a reader and that now I carry my Kindle around with the 40+ books as well as the two in my purse every day, do they recognize that maybe I will understand them.

 In 1997 at NYU as a graduate student, I thought the professor was insane when she asked my peers and me to write our literary histories.  I had never done this before. And yet, this is what ultimately helps my kids connect with me so much! I wish I remembered her name because I would have to give her a big thank you now. When students understand what we have gone through personally, and they realize that we are very sincere in our words, they then can start to accept what we say as truth.


 I became an English teacher because I don’t want kids to go through what I did. Not comprehending for so many years hurt self-esteem, hurt my feelings, and made me feel left out and different.  Sharing my literary history helps putting the pieces together for the kids as well as it is still putting the pieces together for me to become that better teacher/facilitator.