Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Trouble with DIBELS

I’ve been grading my students’ research papers the last few days and I’ve been surprised how many students made some reference to the use of DIBELS in their schools. What particularly surprised me was the fact that some of these students taught in affluent, high-achieving schools. I had assumed that DIBELS was mainly used in underachieving, Reading First schools. It seems that I was wrong.

In the forward to Ken Goodman’s book, The Truth About DIBELS: What It Is - What It Does, David Pearson warns that “DIBELS is the worst thing to happen to the teaching of reading since the development of flashcards” (p. v). Pearson takes this strong stance because, in his opinion, “DIBELS shapes instruction in ways that are bad for students” and “bad for teachers.” Pearson believes that DIBELS is bad for students because it shapes instruction in ways that do not promote students’ development as readers and bad for teaches because it requires that teachers shape instruction “based on criteria that are not consistent with our best knowledge about the nature of reading development” (p. v).

Perhaps the most widely used – and troubling – DIBELS measure is Oral Reading Fluency which produces a measure of students’ reading speed and accuracy (number of words read correctly per minute). What’s troubling is the behavioral theory of reading that underpins this measure. DIBELS is informed by a developmental model of reading that assumes learning to read is a matter of learning to sound out letters and words to a level of “automaticity” and, once children read with sufficient fluency (speed and accuracy), they will be able to comprehend what they’ve read.

The theory of reading underpinning DIBELS predicts that fluent readers should be good comprehenders and, conversely, students who are not fluent (do not read with sufficient speed and accuracy) should be poor comprehenders. In their book, Rereading Fluency: Process, Practice, and Policy, Bess Altwerger, Nancy Jordan, and Nancy Rankie Shelton report a study they conducted that, among other things, examines the relationship between reading fluency and reading comprehension. What they found was that some of the best comprehenders read slowly. Similarly, some of the most fluent readers (those who read the most words correctly in one minute) were among the poorest comprehenders.

Altwerger, Jordan, and Shelton’s research challenges the basic theoretical assumptions underlying DIBELS. Their research also reinforces the argument that “scientifically-based research” isn’t just about sound methods. It is also about sound theory and the theory of reading on which DIBELS is based is fundamentally flawed.


Juvenal2000 said...

My concern is in assumption that standardization is a good thing in reading. Your comments pointing out that many of the best comprehension comes from the contemplative, thoughtful child. A friend of mine who teaches in elementary school told me that one of her students cannot hit the mark in DIBELS because she reads with meaning, inflection and comprehension.
I have a little rant posted on my Educational Injustice blog that goes along with your comments - also (unwittingly) titled The Trouble with DIBELS

Anonymous said...

When children are assessed and prepped for the DIBELS ORF, they get the misleading idea that reading is a race. They begin to believe that the real importance of literacy is how many words they can score in one minute flat. This is very disturbing because research has shown time and time again that proficient readers have acquired a set of effective problem-solving behaviors which extend beyond words per minute and move more adeptly towards the use of context clues and metacognitive processes. DIBELS, on the other hand, allows no time for rereading, the self-correcting of errors, crosschecking, or monitoring for meaning. In fact, children are actually penalized for their use of these proficient reading behaviors, when placed in an artificial timed setting. As well, the "cold reads" supported by the DIBELS ORF are not accurate representations or demonstrations of children's oral reading abilities. Familiar reads are a truer indication of both children's fluency and thinking processes. Savvy educators already know this. They are the ones who scoff DIBELS and promote real reading in their classrooms.

Anonymous said...

I do not like the DIBLES. my son had a teacher that was so stressed about the test that he actually thought he was going to flunk second grade if he did not pass the bench make set before him and he is a A B student.I think comprehension is more important than speed. If a child can read something fast but doesn't understand what they are reading what good is it?

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