Five Tips for Maximizing Your Running Records

Susan M. Dougherty, EdD
July 9, 2021

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Like an EKG, which records the beating of a heart, a running record offers a recording of a child’s oral reading in action. Because a running record captures one moment in time, it must be interpreted in context - What is the child reading? What is going on around them while they read? How are they feeling about this task?

Keeping in mind that the running record captures just one instance of reading, what can teachers do with the information gathered through a running record? What does each record tell us about the reader? How should that information shape future instruction? Below, I offer 5 suggestions for maximizing the instructional value of your running records:

1. Determine what strategies the child uses to decode unknown words

Reading research has shown us that the most effective strategy for recognizing an unknown word is to rely on the graphophonic information within the word. In other words, we want readers to analyze the letters seen in the word and to assign the typical sounds to those letters or groups of letters.

For example, a 1st grader encountering the word sloth for the first time will notice the sl blend that serves as the onset of this word and the oth rime pattern and will blend the two parts together, correctly pronouncing this word. Or, they might break the word down even further, pronouncing the sl blend, then the short o sound, and then the final th digraph.

The 1st grader who does not analyze the entirety of the word and instead uses just some of the letters to produce an incorrect word (maybe slot or soth) is showing a need for instruction in the area of phonics. If a child makes several of the same types of error -- pronouncing vowels incorrectly, not reading the ending of the word correctly, misreading multisyllabic words -- then a teacher has a clear target for future instruction. One of the most useful things to do with a running record is to look at the errors and determine what they reveal about the child’s word reading needs.

2. Determine whether the child verifies decoding attempts with meaning

The reader’s initial decoding attempt must be verified in relation to the meaning of the text. This is essential due to the nature of the English language, with its deep orthography (no simple one-to-one relationship between sounds and letters) and homonymy (words with different meanings but with the same spellings or pronunciations).

For example, the word read, which is a homograph, can be pronounced in two ways. The reader must assign the correct pronunciation based upon the context. A novice reader who is monitoring whether decoding attempts match the meaning of the text might first use the incorrect pronunciation for the context and then “self-correct” and alter the pronunciation.

The English language contains many alternate pronunciations of the same letter patterns. Recently, as I listened to a young reader, she encountered the word wafted several times. Each time, she pronounced the word as if it rhymed with other words containing -aft such as craft and raft. Knowing that she typically does monitor her word reading, I suspected waft was not a word she knew and after questioning her, verified that this was the case. Therefore, we engaged in a brief discussion of the word – waft – both how it is pronounced and what it means.

A running record offers the teacher an opportunity to determine if the child is verifying decoding attempts and self-correcting when the context should have made it clear that their initial attempt was incorrect. Failure to do this suggests either that the reader is not self-monitoring or does not have the word knowledge needed to come up with an alternative pronunciation. In either of these cases, the running record may reveal a need for instruction, either in self-monitoring or to build vocabulary knowledge.

3. Determine how challenging the text is for the reader

Even young children recognize that there are “hard books” and “easy books” and that they might read them for different purposes. Reading experts still argue over the best level of difficulty for young readers. Some recommend that most reading should be “easy reading” providing practice for automatic word recognition and fluency. Others recommend reading books that are quite challenging and claim that doing so will push a child’s decoding abilities.

Most often, what these experts recommend depends greatly on the level of support that can be provided as the child reads aloud. If the child is reading with the support of an expert adult, then books that provide significant challenge can be read and may, indeed, propel a child to more skilled reading faster. If, on the other hand, the child is going to be reading independently, books that are easier may be best as no external support will be available. That said, young readers are frequently propelled to higher reading levels due to a great desire to read a particular book or book series and - through their own perseverance and determination to get through the text – they grow a great deal.

For teachers, rather than limiting students to a particular text level, it is helpful to recognize the challenge posed by a particular book and to adjust the amount of support accordingly. If the running record data shows that a book that a child has high motivation to read is going to be challenging for them, the teacher may decide to check-in more frequently, offering one-on-one support as the child is reading independently. On the other hand, if running record data shows that the child is always reading texts that pose little word-level challenge for them, then the teacher may decide to introduce some more challenging texts in order to stretch the child as a reader.

4. Determine the reader’s fluency needs

As children become more proficient readers, texts offer new challenges in terms of fluency. Sentences become longer and have more complex structures, requiring the reader to pay attention to new kinds of punctuation and to recognize how to group words to reflect sentence structure and syntax. While reading pace and accurate word recognition are aspects of fluency to consider, teachers also want to pay attention to prosody – the stress and intonation of language – as they listen to the child’s reading.

Often, simply listening to oral reading will reveal which students need support in fluency at a particular time. There are also formal tools, such as the Multi-Dimensional Fluency Scale (Zutell & Rasinski, 1991), Comprehensive Oral Reading Fluency Scale (Benjamin, Schwanenflugel, et al, 2013) and the NAEP fluency scale (Daane, et al, 2005), that can be used to assess different aspects of prosody, including expression and intonation.

Through direct explanation and modeling of how different sentences should sound, teachers can offer instruction that will enable readers to reflect their understanding through fluent reading of the text.

5. Determine whether the reader is building a comprehensive understanding of the text

The goal of reading is always comprehension. While we might assume that reading the words of the text accurately would ensure comprehension, experienced teachers know that this is not always the case.

Comprehension requires the reader to identify the most important information being shared by the author and to organize and synthesize those ideas. In a narrative, this important information will include the character’s goal or problem and how the events of the story contribute to the unfolding of the plot. The reader may need to infer some of this information, going beyond what the words mean in a literal sense. In informational texts, readers need to recognize how the information is organized within the text and what ideas are most essential to the topic or author’s purpose.

There is much work for the reader to do beyond reading the words on the page. Running records are often followed by a “retelling” task, during which the reader is asked to “tell someone who hasn’t read this text what it is about,” or by questioning. The information gained from these tasks offer some insight into whether or not the reader is understanding what has been read. A child who recognizes or decodes most of the words correctly and fluently but who does not seem to comprehend the text likely needs to be taught to identify the important information in a text and to think about and synthesize that information.

Just as an EKG offers insight into the cardiovascular system, a running record can reveal much about the working of a child’s reading “system.” We can use the information provided by a running record to identify those parts of the system currently needing attention. When we target those identified needs, we help the reader grow and develop. Each time we view the child’s reading through the window offered by a running record, we will identify new instructional targets. Frequent use of running records in this way will ensure that we are adjusting to each child’s reading development as it occurs and that we are offering instruction that keeps them moving forward.