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Tutoring in person isn’t really that different from tutoring in person in a lot of ways. Once you get used to the format, you can do a lot of the things you have always done with your online Orton-Gillingham students. But can you assess online Orton-Gillingham students in the same way you do in person?
Components of assessment
I structure my new-student assessments to align with the content I’m going to teach. If a parent hires me for Orton-Gillingham reading, I focus my assessment on decoding, encoding and phonological awareness. If I’m hired to teach a middle-schooler to write in response to academic prompts, I start by collecting some samples of those skills. I choose tools from the ones described below that will get me the information I need as efficiently as possible, so we can start working on skills!
Components of reading
Of the five major components of reading, I assess 3 or 4 when I get a new Orton-Gillingham student. While some tutors compile this information into a short report for parents, I only write up a part of my assessment. I’ll talk more about this later. Here is how I assess the major components of reading when I get a new online Orton-Gillingham student:
I have used several different phonological assessment tools over the years, many of which are available for download for free online. Now, I exclusively use the PAST (pasttest.org) from David Kilpatrick. It aligns with his excellent phonological awareness training program, in the book Equipped for Reading Success. If you don’t have the book yet, I think the best option, price-wise, is to buy directly from his website.
The challenge of assessing phonemic awareness online is sound quality. On the PAST, a skill is scored “automatic” if the student responds in less than two seconds. Sometimes a delay in the connection is enough to make it seem like the student is not automatic with a given skill. If I start to give the PAST and determine that the signal is too slow, I often finish a section and try again on another day. At worst, though, underestimating a student’s automaticity might mean you start the program at too simple a level and discover they can do it automatically after all. Since they are “One-Minute Activities,” at worst you use a few minutes of instructional time to find out.
There are many different assessments of phonetic decoding and I use different ones depending on the purpose of my assessment.
- Assessing Reading: Multiple Measures – This book from CORE Learning assesses phonological awareness, phonics, fluency and comprehension. If you’re looking for “one stop shopping” it’s a great choice.
- The Quick Phonics Screener – Just what it sounds like. You can find several different links to this assessment online, but it appears that Read Naturally now publishes the most updated version I used this assessment frequently when I taught a large special education caseload, for placement in instructional groups and progress monitoring.
- Literacy Nest OG Leveled Assessments: I use these fantastic and user-friendly assessments for level pre- and post-tests for my Orton-Gillingham students. The pages are in PDF format, so I am able to share the student pages on my screen and print the note sheets for myself.
- Gallistel-Ellis: According to the brief, simple, manual, “The Gallistel-Ellis is a comprehensive measure of coding skills in reading and spelling.” It consists of 10 sections each for reading and spelling, with the word list for each highlighting a different phonics pattern. I would consider this assessment “nice to have” and not an essential for a tutor just starting out. However, because it gives a percent accuracy for each sound category, and one for irregular words, it lends itself to writing a short, objective, report for parents. It is designed to be given as a pre-test and post-test so it’s great for occasional assessments, although there’s just one form for each list, so you can’t use it too often.
For oral reading fluency, I use the Lite version of EasyCBM. This free version includes 9 prompts for passage reading fluency at each grade level from 1 to 8. They can be given onscreen or on paper. Like with the timed PAST test, I have to be careful to choose a time for assessment when our internet connection is fast enough that I can hear students accurately. But the good news is if we have to discontinue or ignore a score because of connection issues, there are 8 others at the same level so we can try again next session. For younger students, I also sometimes use the Word Reading Fluency, Letter Naming Fluency and Letter Sound Fluency probes. These tools were developed by researchers at the University of Oregon, the same place where DIBELS was developed. They offer national norms for each skill at each grade level. It gives parents a measure of reading fluency that they can compare to other assessments their children have had at school.
Comprehension – passages from Readworks or Newsela, Epic books, library ebooks
While EasyCBM has multiple choice reading comprehension assessments, and the Assessing Reading book from CORE Learning has a Maze assessment, I typically assess comprehension more informally. I ask students to retell the fluency passage they read with me or I ask comprehension questions about the sentences they read on the Literacy Nest OG assessments. This process usually gives me a good idea of my students’ comprehension of text at their decoding level. I also ask them to tell me about what they are reading (or what is being read to them) at home or at school and ask them to tell me about the story. For most Orton-Gillingham students, we are working on comprehension at the word and sentence level, to start, so it is pretty simple to figure out whether they can understand the text they can decode. Another free option is the maze reading comprehension passage generator from Intervention Central, which will generate a maze passage from text you paste in.
I leave vocabulary out of my initial assessments because I don’t have an efficient tool at my disposal to assess it. Vocabulary is also the reading component that is most dependent on background knowledge, which makes it hard to get an accurate snapshot. I don’t ignore it, though. I address vocabulary in lessons as we discuss new word lists. My assessment in this area is formative and ongoing.
Writing assessment for new tutoring students
Spelling is an important part of writing and I assess it for all my Orton-Gillingham students, using either Orton-Gillingham level placement assessments from the Literacy Nest or the Gallistel-Ellis. Even though many of my older students type their spelling responses in lessons, I request that they write out the spelling assessment on paper. Parents text me a picture of the spelling pages after the meeting and I score it. Even if we are going to type, handwritten spelling gives me information about letter formation as well as evidence of erasing, crowded letters, too-hard pencil grip, and challenges with letter size and placement that may indicate the need for intervention in those areas.
The way I assess written composition depends on age, student needs, motivation, and the type of work I’ll be doing with the student. If the primary focus of my lessons will be Orton-Gillingham, I may not have the student do any writing other than the encoding assessment. If I do plan to work on writing or reading comprehension with students, I include a writing sample in my assessment. Sometimes, I send parents a prompt and ask the student to independently write the answer. Other times, I use the assessment as an opportunity to see the student type. Still other times, especially if the child resists writing, I scribe their initial writing as a way to build rapport and let them see their ideas on the screen.
Challenges of online assessment
While I’ve become comfortable assessing students’ skills over Zoom, testing online can have some unique challenges. If the connection is laggy and you can’t hear them clearly, you can either postpone that part of the assessment to another day or try calling them on the phone while they view the assessment on screen through Zoom. Another spelling challenge is that when I can’t see students writing, I am not sure when to discontinue the assessment. Three options for that are: ask the student to hold their paper up to the camera, ask “how did you spell that one?” or give the whole assessment and ask parents to send pictures afterwards.
Comment below. What’s your go-to assessment for new tutoring students?
When to assess online
There are several situations when you might want to assess your Orton-Gillingham students online and each one has unique circumstances and challenges.
- If you’re online permanently: This one is the simplest. If you teach online, you assess online. Will the results be the same as what you would see in person? Maybe not, but they should still show the student’s learning and progress. And if the student has skills but can’t demonstrate them in an online assessment, that’s a possible sign that online tutoring is not a good fit for them.
- If you’re online temporarily: Many teachers and tutors ran into this in the spring of 2020. They moved from classroom teaching to distance learning with their students and had to figure out how to do progress-monitoring assessments. Two options for this scenario are: 1. Give the assessments you would give face-to-face but note that the change of format might affect the results. 2. Postpone the assessment, if you can, until you can see the student face-to-face.
- What to say in your report: If you give an assessment online, make sure you say you gave it online! This is less of a concern when emailing informally with parents to talk about the student’s progress, but it could be very important information if they share your report with classroom teachers or other professionals that see the student in-person. Some skills are just going to look different in the two settings. It may also give the in-person professionals ideas for a new way to do things, like providing the option to type written work, if that’s something that’s working in your sessions.
- Standardized tests: This question came up a lot in the spring of 2020 as well, as schools tried to meet their special education assessment deadlines. We have to defer to the publishers of the test on this one. Some made provisions for giving their tests online while others did not. In a lot of cases, delivering tests online substantially changes the task and would make any norms invalid.
Unfamiliar but not a deal breaker
Online assessment of new Orton-Gillingham tutoring students is totally possible and can give you a lot of valuable information about the skills they already have. Over the first few months of tutoring, I give placement tests, oral fluency probes, and the Gallistel-Ellis, depending on where the student’s skills are when they come in, and how well they respond to the assessment structure. My students that are easily distracted or frustrated get less assessment in early lessons because I find a starting point as quickly as I can and start teaching so I can meet some of their needs and engage them in learning ASAP.
It can feel awkward and incomplete to assess reading online, if you’re used to sitting face-to-face with students. I get a lot from watching a child handle a book, hold a pencil, and track their reading on a piece of paper. Some of that I do not get from watching students read online. But I am able to assess students’ needs, and monitor their progress, in an online format. Moving back and forth between online and in-person instruction, I would recommend doing all your assessments in one setting or the other, because students will likely perform differently in each. But either one can give you different, but important, information.
Need more information about setting up your online tutoring business? Check out my recent blog posts on scheduling, organizing your materials, getting paid, and getting started without a lot of fancy and expensive equipment.