How to Assess Reading and Progress Monitor ELL Students

Assessing reading for ELLs can be difficult, but it is essential. I discovered that it was a skill that I needed to develop as an ELL teacher precisely because it can be difficult for both classroom teachers and traditional reading specialists to do because they don’t work with ELLs every day. It is complicated to understand the reading differences between a mainstream kid, a special education student, and an ELL. This is compounded by the fact that sometimes our ELLs are also special education students. A reading specialist might not accurately assess a particular ELL because of things like accent, fluency, prosody, or even the student’s lack of vocabulary masking a relatively high level of comprehension about topics with which they are familiar.

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I’ve found I can get a better understanding of my students’ abilities if I do the assessment myself.

It is also helpful because you can see where your students are reading and plan instruction according to that data. I have wasted a lot of instructional time with guesswork about students reading needs and instructional plans in the past.

There are a lot of ways to measure reading level. I’m going to mention some here that I like and/or have used, but of course, there are others.

Reading Assessments:


Qualitative Reading Inventory (QRI-VI)

This is what I currently use for all of my students, elementary through high school.

A Word about DRA and DIBELS

I know that elementary reading specialists and literacy coaches often prefer to use DIBELS and the DRA. However, the DIBELS only addresses fluency and is not super useful for ELLs because, as they are just learning English, fluency is usually the last part of reading I address.

I don’t mind the DRA. Elementary teachers like it because the quantity of numbered leveled passages give a very detailed read on a student’s abilities. It is more specific than the QRI for giving a target reading level. It is particularly good for assessment for students, K-2, because of this specificity. The QRI’s levels are pretty basic- Pre-K, K or 1st-grade level and doesn’t give you as much information on the students.


I still prefer the QRI because of the ability to use the wordlists to get a quick read on which level to start testing the student based on what words they know how to decode. After doing the word lists you can decide what level passage to give to the students. The manual explains how to do the testing and it is relatively simple but time-consuming. I will say that the DRA is much more time-consuming, which is another reason I don’t love it.

CAUTION: NEVER rely on decoding skills alone for ELL students.

Many students can decode beautifully and not understand a word of what they are reading. Only use the word lists as a place to START testing their level.

McCall Crabb’s Reading Test

This is a series of books, A-E, for reading assessment. It was developed by researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University. The assessments are all short reading passages with a series of multiple-choice questions after the passage to measure comprehension. The letter names of the books correspond to grade levels and each of the passages in the books is numbered so you can remember which one you used by recording the book letter and passage number on your assessment tracker.

This is a very quick way to see how students are doing, but I find it doesn’t give as accurate a level as the QRI because some students are much better than others at finding answers when given multiple choice questions. There is a key at the bottom of each reading passage that shows the approximate grade level a student is reading at based on the number of questions that they got right. I find that it is NOT a very accurate reading for ELLS as it can vary WILDLY. I’ve had kids score at a second grade level on the QRI who then get a 6th grade level in the McCall Crabb’s. That being said, I still like this measure.

The reason for the score inflation that many ELLs have in these passages is like because language learners, tend to do better when the language is provided for them (e.g. in the form of multiple choice answers) because receptive language is much easier for a language learner to access than productive language.

I like to use these when I need a quick check and/or when I need to give an assessment in a whole group setting and I can’t see the students one-on-one. It is also useful for comparing the results to the that of the more in-depth assessments like the DRA or QRI to get a more nuanced view of students’ abilities in different contexts.

Wilson WADE assessment of decoding and encoding

WILSON Wade Assessment of Encoding and Decoding

This is NOT a comprehension assessment so please keep that in mind. However, if you need to know which decoding skill a particular student has/does not have this is the king of screeners. There are many other quick phonics screeners out there, but the beauty of using the WADE is that you will be able to see the exact areas that the student is weak in and then match those weaknesses to the numbered WILSON reading system books.

For example, if a student misses all the vowel pairs, then you can go and grab book 11 which has resources specifically designed to teach vowel pairs.

I spent years and years piecing together phonics instruction from 20 million sources in books and on the internet before finding WILSON and dramatically simplifying my life.

A word about WILSON

This is a very intense and excellent reading program for struggling readers that can be used with kids from kindergarten up. It can even be used with adults the material aren’t age-specific. However, you are not supposed to use the materials without hAve attended the very long and very thorough training. It’s expensive and it takes a whole year to do. You also have to choose a student work with the program with and report out about and attend workshops. I’ve been desperate to do it, but so far it has been cost prohibitive.

Despite not being trained I do use the materials and I like them. I am lucky because I have two different reading mentors who have both completed the program and are WILSON trained with whom I can conference. The general program that doesn’t require the training is FUNdations, which schools can purchase and use as a Tier 1 literacy intervention for all students. That program is for younger students, mainly K-2.


Reading A to Z Running Records and Benchmark Passages

Reading A to Z is a great website. It does, unfortunately, have a yearly subscription fee. My district purchases it for us every year which is amazing, but I know many people have little to no budget for extras like this. I think the subscription is completely worth it because they are constantly adding content and value to the site. I believe it is about $199 a year for one user.

It is much more robust now than it was 7 years ago when I started using it. The reading specific part of the site contains printable/projectable books, levels A-Z. They provide a correlation chart so you can figure out what level your student is based on whatever reading assessment measure you are using (grade level, Lexile, DRA, F &P).

But, the reason I’m including it in this post isn’t due to the great content on the site, but rather the quick reading inventory they have. Each reading level has a benchmark (or several) passage to use to measure student reading level. They have instructions of how to complete the running record on the site, but basically, you listen to the student read the passage, time them and record their errors on the running record. There is a comprehension piece as well.

This is a bit simpler and less time consuming than the QRI. I recommend it to people with little experience assessing reading who need a place to get started.

I also printed out all of the benchmark assessments and blank running record forms and put them in sheet protectors in a binder for quick access. Now, I can just pull the binder off the shelf when I need to use it for assessment purposes without having to log in, find the passage, print it, and waste a lot of time.

3-Minute Reading Assessments

So 3-Minute Reading Assessments are co-authored by the fluency guru Timothy Rasinski, and divided into two-grade level clusters, grades 1-4 and grades 5-8. I am often able to use either book for my high school students since most are not reading on grade level. These are primarily used for fluency and decoding, but you also score them on comprehension–mainly how well the student can retell the story. One thing I like about these assessments is that you are only listening to the student read for one minute. After the minute of oral-reading in done, you read the rest of the passage aloud to the student and then ask them to retell. This allows you to see both how they read and what they comprehend when listening to a fluent reader. It’s also great because the assessment is quick– it really should only take three minutes– and the student doesn’t have to labor through the whole passage as is expected with the QRI.

Grades 1-4

3-Minute Reading Assessment Grades 1-4

Grades 5-8

Assessment Tracking

Once you have successfully assessed the reading levels of your ELLs you will need to keep track of each student’s progress. You can keep the original copy of the actual test, but that gets pretty bulky and you will end up with a ton of paper by the end of the year. Better, use a reading assessment tracker, like one below, to record each assessment you give.

assessment tracker

Download my assessment tracker here!

That link will allow you to download a Word document copy of my tracker. You can keep a copy in the student’s file (if you are still keeping paper files, or scan and upload if using electronic files). If you prefer all digital, you can keep it electronically like this one below:

assessment tracker  This is a simple google sheet. I use one for each student with the three columns, one for the date of assessment, what assessment used and then some shorthand notes of the results of the assessment. At the bottom of the sheet, you can see where I have a tab for each student (names are blurred out for privacy).

You should also plan to do periodic writing assessments. I also include the results of those assessments in the tracker, but I will discuss writing assessment in a separate post.

Progress Monitoring:

While I’m not too fond of the amount of progress monitoring and assessment in general require of students, it is worthwhile to progress monitor in moderation.

In my district, I am able to get by with doing progress monitoring between 3 and 4 times a year. If it is not required of you, twice a year works, too. You definitely need to get a baseline at the start of the year (or the whenever you get a new student) and then again at the end of the year. That will allow you to measure growth. Doing a mid-year assessment is helpful for planning instruction as it will allow you to see if students are progressing based on what/how you are teaching. No progress? No problem, but it is time to switch up your method or focus.

Progress Reports:

Many districts are also reporting out ELL progress using progress reports akin to what students on IEPs receive. I have seen these in a variety of different formats and lengths. My district is test-driving a progress reporting tool for ELLs.

I’ve been thinking about progress reports lately too. I’ll share some ideas for this in a future post.

A Word About Reading Levels…

I will leave you with a caveat: reading levels are not, and should not be the end all be all. This article from Psychology Today as well as this blog post from Unleashing Readers (which is a GREAT blog all about reading!) explain the folly of using only reading levels in teaching reading. Plan instruction for the student, not their reading level.

What works well for you? Let me know!

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