Assessing Your Students- Where do I begin?

Determine Strengths and Weaknesses

Before you begin instruction, you need to determine the phonological and phonetic strengths and weaknesses your student has.  So that there is no confusion,  let’s quickly review the definitions of some very important terms related to literacy instruction.

Phonological Awareness: As described by Reading Rockets, “Phonological awareness is a broad skill that includes identifying and manipulating units of oral language – parts such as words, syllables, and onsets and rimes. Children who have phonological awareness are able to identify and make oral rhymes, can clap out the number of syllables in a word, and can recognize words with the same initial sounds like ‘money’ and ‘mother.'”

Phonemic Awareness: This is actually a subset of skills within phonological awareness that deals specifically with individual phonemes (sounds). Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds-phonemes–in spoken words.

Both of these skills are purely auditory- NO print! When you assess these skills, you are either working with pictures or just spoken words. A student with dyslexia will almost always have difficulty with phonological tasks.

Phonics: Phonics is the connection between graphemes (letter symbols) and sounds. This is the set of skills where children learn the sounds that are represented by specific letters or groups of letters. Using this knowledge, they are able to read and spell words.


A good strengths and weaknesses evaluation will address both phonological skills and phonetic skills. I also like to look at spelling rules knowledge and syllable division in students grade 3 and above.

1. When I evaluate a student, I start with phonological awareness. I developed a comprehensive assessment that allows you to look at their skills in depth. You can access this assessment FREE for a limited time here!

PADE Phonological Awareness Development Evaluation

2. Next, I check the student’s ability to decode words. To get an accurate picture of the student’s decoding skills, I use a Nonsense word reading test that was published by Scholastic. I love this because it breaks the phonics skills into developmental sections. I generally administer sections A and B together no  matter what – these sections tell me about their ability to decode short vowel words. Sections C and D tell me about their knowledge and application of vowel teams. Section E tells me how they attack multi-syllabic words.

Here is the page I created for the students to read from:

 Nonsense Word Reading Test: Student pages

*** Something to look for when analyzing this data- do they make mistakes that would indicate that they have visual tracking problems? For example, this student made some errors that indicate her eyes are having trouble staying on the same line.

visual errors

Look at number 1. See how her first attempt used a “d” for the last sound, possibly because her eyes dropped and looked at the ending letter below in chab (add a reversal to that mix)?

Look at number 4. She initially said “whiz,” possibly from seeing the “zz” in the word below.



3. Third, I assess a student’s phonics ability with spelling nonsense words. Again, by using nonsense words, I can ascertain exactly what skills they know without having to take their visual memory into account. I created this assessment utilizing the scope and sequence of phonics skills presented in the dyslexia intervention program Take Flight. The feature guide will help you analyze errors to determine areas of strengths and weaknesses. You can access those here FREE for a limited time!

Nonsense Word Spelling Test-teacher page

Nonsense Word Spelling Test- student recording page

Nonsense Word Spelling Test- Feature Guide

4.  Finally, I assess the student’s ability to spell real words using the Words Their Way spelling inventory. This lets me determine how much they use their visual memory in spelling.  Depending on how well they did on the nonsense word spelling test AND their age, I choose ONE of the following tests. The Primary Spelling Inventory is generally used for students in 3rd grade and under. The Elementary Spelling Inventory works better for 4th grade and up. Again, I use the previous assessments to help me decide which inventory to use. These feature guides have been created from the fabulous site  and I encourage you to check it out for further information

WTW Primary Spelling Inventory

WTW Elementary Spelling Inventory

WTW spelling test paper

Using Assessment Information to Drive Instruction

Now that you know the skills that your student needs instruction, you are ready to provide instruction in the gap areas. Click on the skill below to take you to a page with ideas for intervention.

Phonological Awareness


Understanding English and Spelling