I was the queen of running records. You should see the composition books I had where I took a running record on every child in all of my groups almost weekly. I didn’t need a form, I didn’t need any fancy technology. All I needed was a book, a kid, and my notebook. I was so proud of my ability to take running records. I showed off that notebook like I was showing pictures of my kid’s dance recital. But now, I see the trouble with running records and have quietly given that composition book its final resting place. So let’s dive into what running records are, why they are problematic, and what we should do for our children instead.
What They Are
A running record is an assessment, whether formal or informal, where a child reads a leveled text out loud while the teacher makes notes. The teacher makes a check for each word that was correct, while indicating the actual word and the error made on any incorrect words. After taking the running record, the teacher “analyzes” the student’s errors to see if they used “meaning,” “structure,” or “syntax” to make the error. This is meant to give them insight into which cueing system the teacher should prompt moving forward. (Do we need to prompt meaning? Do we need to prompt syntax?) Running Records were invented by Marie Clay and have deep roots in the balanced literacy community.
Let’s hear from the “experts” on running records:
Fountas and Pinnell state that a running record “gives us a great deal of information about students’ use of strategic actions… We prefer using a running record to capture reading behaviors to asking ‘comprehension questions’ after reading”(Fountas and Pinnell, 2006, p.95).
From Reading A-Z: The running record allows you to record a child’s reading behavior as he or she reads from the book.
Jan Richardson says “A running record is the single most valuable tool for teaching early readers… Running records determine a student’s instructional text level and show what strategic actions a student uses and which ones he or she needs to learn”(Richardson, 2016, p.108).
Why They Are Problematic
Running records are problematic for a variety of reasons. If I had to choose the most problematic reason, it would be because running records are often used to determine a child’s reading level (both Jan Richardson and Fountas and Pinnell describe this). If a child can read a randomly selected Level I with 95% accuracy, then they are considered a level I. Their small group is centered around leveled I texts, their parents are informed they are a level I, and in some abhorrent instances, they are only allowed to read Level I independently. But the truth is, that doesn’t mean that they can read any level I with 95% accuracy.
Why? Guided reading levels have not been normed or standardized. The leveling systems are arbitrary and can change depending on who is doing the leveling. So, all it really tells you is that the child can read that particular text with 95% accuracy. If you were to say a child was a level I, what does it mean? What phonics skills do they possess and which ones are they still lacking? You won’t be able to give a clear answer, because there isn’t one just by using a guided reading level.
The problems with running records go deeper than the levels. MSV on running records needs to disappear. The idea that we use meaning, structure, and visual cues to read is an outdated, misguided, dangerous practice. We know for a fact that we gain automatic word recognition through a process called orthographic mapping. Prompting children to look at the picture or think about what would make sense is not going to help them become better readers. Instead of prompting meaning or structure, we should prompt children to look at the letters, says the sounds, and blend to read an unfamiliar word.
In the Richardson quote above, she states that a running record shows us which strategic actions a child needs to learn. She further states that “the number of errors is not as important as determining why the student made those errors and deciding which strategic actions will accelerate a child”(Richardson, 2016, p. 108). This is overcomplicating the matter completely. We do not need to analyze whether a child used meaning or structure. We need to know which words a child is not accurately reading. If we can identify the words that a child cannot correctly read, then we can explicitly teach them those phonics principles.
What We Should Do Instead
When you first give up guided reading and taking running records, the biggest question always becomes—how do I know if they are reading on grade level? The reality, though, is that running records never actually told us whether or not a child was reading on grade level. Like I mentioned above, guided reading levels haven’t been standardized or normed. If it were my child, I wouldn’t trust a guided reading level to tell me anything about my child. (I’d actually refuse my child to be a part of an early intervention centered on leveled texts.)
Instead, the best practice would be to screen children three times a year using a normed or standardized assessment. DIBELS has free assessments such as nonsense word reading and oral reading fluency. You can use these assessments to determine whether or not a child is performing at grade level, and then use their progress monitoring materials to determine progress for any student not meeting benchmark expectations.
A phonics screener is another incredible tool. A phonics screener, such as the Gallistel-Ellis, specifically targets certain phonics patterns. It will start with CVC words before moving into magic e, vowel teams, r-controlled vowels, etc. By using a phonics screener, you are able to perfectly align your phonics instruction with your students’ needs. Really Great Reading offers a free phonics screener or you can find copies of a Quick Phonics Screener online.
You can also take informal running records but ignore the MSV. I don’t recommend doing this often, however. When I think of the purpose of completing an informal running record, it would be to see which phonics skills a child is using, along with their accuracy and rate. The truth is, though, I can get that information just by listening in to a child. I’m not convinced I need to tally out a percentage to have an understanding of how a child is tackling a text.
It can be hard to let go of running records, especially if you were taught (like me!) that they were an essential part of our instruction. If you find yourself struggling to let them go, start by altering the frequency that you do them. Instead of trying to tackle a running record on every child ever week, give yourself permission to give them every month or so. I think you’ll find that they weren’t actually guiding our instruction like we were told they would. In the end, there are better options for us to understand how our children are performing and what we need to do to support them. Feel free to ask more questions about running records in the comments below!
About running records. Raz. (n.d.). Retrieved January 13, 2022, from https://www.raz-plus.com/helpful-tools/about-running-records/
Fountas, I. & Pinnell, G. (2006). Teaching for comprehending and fluency: Thinking, talking, and writing about reading, K-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Richardson, J. (2009). The next step in guided reading: Focused assessments and targeted lessons for helping every student become a better reader. New York: Scholastic Inc.