Helping Kids Conquer DIBELS!!!

Helping Kids Conquer DIBELS!

Do you do DIBELS at your school?  If you are a parent, does your child take DIBELS tests?  DIBELS seems to be quite a mystery for many adults, both parents and teachers!  In this blog post, I will try to shed some light on what the “dreaded DIBELS” tests are, what they are supposed to measure, and what the results are supposed to mean.  Finally, I will give you some ways to help your child improve his or her phonemic awareness and phonics skills so that he or she can do better on the next round of DIBELS tests.
DIBELS stands for “Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills” and many, many school systems are now using these tests as a measure of how their students are doing in reading, and as an identifier of students that may be “at risk.”  Children that are considered “at risk” are those that, according to research, are most likely to possibly fail at some point in their school careers.  Therefore, extra assistance is often suggested in order to prevent such failures.

We now use the “DIBELS Next” assessments in my district.

The new “DIBELS Next” assessments are now part of my school life, and seem to be the hot topic at lunch and at grade level meetings.  Why did some of the children do poorly when they have done so well in assessments done by their own teachers in class?  What went wrong, and why?  And for those children that did well, what was it that made the difference?  And most important of all: what is the best way to help all of the children improve on these assessments?


In my district, test proctors are sent in to test the children each trimester so that the tests will all be given uniformly and equally.  That way, the scores can be compared without fear of bias of any kind.  Also, no instructional time is taken away due to the teacher having to administer these tests.  And I can certainly appreciate these things!  The only problem is that there are many factors about the tests that are unknown to the teachers.  These are some of the unknowns:
1.  The quality of the proctors may or not be equal.
2.  The proctors may have varying levels of interest in seeing that the children do well on the tests.  After the proctor has given her 100th test, does she really care how the child did anymore?
3.  Did the proctor try to get the child’s attention before giving the test directions?  This is very important, since the directions can only be given one time.   Also, if the child doesn’t view the proctor as an authority figure, then he or she may not feel compelled to really pay attention and try.  So if the proctor doesn’t insist that the child pay attention and try, then some of them just might not.
4.  Did the proctor score the tests and enter the scores into the system correctly?  Were there any mistakes that happened at that point?  We wondered about this, because some of the children’s scores simply didn’t make sense to our team.


One of my team mates decided to read as much of the DIBELS Next manual as she could, and figure out the testing process as much as possible.  And my hat is truly off to her, because it was a VERY time consuming process!  It is because of her that I managed to figure much of this out, so thanks so much to my good friend Tammi!
First, if we are going to do better on the tests, then we need to know exactly what is on those tests.  It’s also important to memorize those acronyms, which are ALL OVER those tests and the accompanying graphs that come with your scores!
Here are the tests that they must “conquer.”  Each one of these is a one minute timed test!  I have found, when giving children timed tests, that some of them will spend the entire 60 seconds just staring at the sand falling down inside of the egg timer, so now I use the timer on my iPhone, which is a lot less distracting, ha ha!  Actually, I think the fact that they are pressured to perform with a timer is much of what makes these tests so hard on little children and causes some of them to “freak out.”  I also wonder at the developmental appropriateness of timed tests such as these for children as young as four and five years old.  I’m guessing that the NAEYC might have some strong opinions about this….

First Sound Fluency (FSF)
Children listen to a word and give the first sound that they hear in it.  This includes words that begin with digraphs (sh, ch, wh, th) and consonant blends (words like “spin,” “flight,” and “nest”).  In reading through the manual thoroughly, we discovered that children are NOT to be penalized for speech problems or other articulation delays, such as making the /w/ sound in place of the /l/ sound.  (This again made us wonder how the test proctors could possibly know which children have speech issues and if they then scored them according to the directions.  But then is our first year as a district working through this process, and I’m sure we will all work through these issues eventually, though!)

Letter Naming Fluency (LNF)
Children need to look at the letters in random order, and mixed up with capitals and lower case letters, and identify them as quickly as possible.  To practice this, I made a power point presentation of the alphabet in random order, and have the children try to name the letters as I click through them as quickly as possible.

Phoneme Segmentation Fluency (PSF)
Children listen to a word and must give “all of the sounds that they hear in a word.”  These words include digraphs (sh, ch, wh, th), diphthongs (ou, ow, ay, oy, etc.), r-controlled vowels (words like “card” or “park,”) and words with blends (words like “spin,” “flight,” and “nest”).  I did not notice any multisyllabic words on the list, though.

Nonsense Word Fluency (NWF)
The children are given some nonsensical consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words (such as “mup”) and some vowel-consonant (VC) words to read (such as “uv”), and they are supposed to try to read them without first saying the sound of each letter aloud.  If they can read the word fluently, without stopping to say the letter sounds and blend it aloud, then they are given a point for Whole Words Read (WWR).  They are also given a point for each of the Correct Letter Sounds (CLS) in each word.  If the child cannot read any of the nonsense words, then he can still get points for the correct letter sounds.  It is important to understand that the child is actually penalized for giving each letter sound aloud before sounding out the word!  They get no credit for having read the word at all if they give each letter sound and blend it together out loud before giving the word.  They have to do it all in their heads before giving the nonsense word. 
This rule is about as close to NONSENSE as I can think of, if you ask me!  I wish I understood why this determination was made, because we spend HOURS trying to get the children to blend the words aloud, and now they are NOT supposed to do it!  In fact, very often if the children refuse to blend the sounds aloud, what usually happens is that they GUESS at the word they are trying to read and get it WRONG!  So go figure!  I assume that they are going for the fluent reader and while I applaud this, I still think that it would be okay to give credit for the words read, even if they blended them aloud.  The children that read the words fluently will read more of them because they read them faster and get more points, right?

I understand the reasoning why the children are asked to read nonsense words:  this guarantees that the child is sounding out the word and has not memorized anything.  Therefore, the result of the test is that we know a lot about the child’s phonics skills.  Learning to sound out all of these little nonsense words is important because when children encounter longer, multisyllabic words that they don’t know, (such as encyclopedia,) each one of those syllables in the word is actually a nonsense word that must be sounded out.  If they lack phonics skills, they cannot attempt to read these longer words and must guess at them.  THAT’s why kids need to learn phonics… and that’s why we test them in this way- to see if they have the skills they need as opposed to memorizing words.

More Useful Acronyms to Know  (MUAK LOL)
The first time I downloaded the DIBELS graphs of my students’ progress and looked at them, I stared at them for about ten minutes and tried to figure them out.  It wasn’t so much the graphs that were confusing, it was the CONSTANT and COMPLETE use of acronyms without a single key or clue to what they meant anywhere on the graphs, even on the titles!  I actually threw the first set of graphs away because they were so useless to me.  Later when I went to a grade level meeting, we had to download and print them again and look at them.  That’s when I found out what all of the acronyms stood for.  So here’s a little bit of help for all of you that may be struggling with the same issue.  You can thank me now.  🙂

DIBELS Composite Score (DCS)
This is not a test, but an average of all of your DIBELS scores.  You’ll find it on some of your DIBELS graphs.  I just thought I would let you know what it means so that you don’t have to spend a half an hour trying to figure it out.

Likely to Need Core Support (CS)
Translation:  The child hit the benchmark and is doing great!

Likely to need Strategic Support (SS)
Translation:  The child did not hit the benchmark but is not at the rock bottom, either.  Could be worse!

Likely to need Intensive Support (IS)
Translation:  Bad news.  The child is in the very bottom third of the group and signs point to future failure in language arts unless you remediate NOW!

Even though our school’s average Kindergarten scores were actually pretty good, we thought that it would be good to improve as much as possible.  Here are the things that we decided to do as a team to help boost our DIBELS scores for the next round of tests:

1.  Phonemic Awareness and Phonics Instruction
We already are working with our required programs of SIPPS and the Michael Heggerty Phonemic Awareness book, which we try very hard to work in daily.   This Heggerty book only takes about ten or fifteen minutes to get through, by given the short attention span of the average Kindergartner, this can be an issue when you also have lots of other things to cover!  But we have decided to make it a priority, and it really does seem to help.

Michael Heggerty’s Phonemic Awareness Kindergarten Level Book

The SIPPS (This stands for Systematic Instruction in Phonics and Phonemic Awareness) program helps kids learn to blend sounds into words quite well, but it seems to need a bit of supplementation in the area of phoneme segmentation with the diphthongs, digraphs, blends, and r-controlled vowels.  Or at least, let me put it this way:  MY class needs more practice this year than they are getting in just the SIPPS book, LOL!

SIPPS Manual with Colored Tabs for Each of My Color Groups

SIPPS also doesn’t introduce nonsense words, so we have had to find other ways to work on that.  For more information on that, see these blog posts:  (Several of them have free downloads on nonsense words in them, too!)  By the way, we are working on a new great download of Color-by-Nonsense Word Worksheets!  Hopefully it will be done really soon!

Gone Fishin’ For Nonsense Words!
More Tricks for Sounding Out CVC Words  (See Section 7)
Sounding Out Nonsense Words and CVC Words
We’re Bugging Out All Over!

For learning to sound out three letter words in general, we are also using the Sound Blending Songs for Word Families DVD!  The songs show kids how to blend three sounds together in a fun way, and they usually really like it, too- so you don’t have to twist their arm into practicing, and that’s always nice!  Here’s a video clip of what it looks like.


At my school, we are all also using my CVC Book and the Sounds Fun Cards, Poster, and DVD.  I think that these things have really helped a lot!  The CVC book also helps get the kids sounding out real words, and gives them lots of practice in this area.

Flash Cards from HeidiSongs CVC Book

The Sounds Fun Cards, Poster, and songs really do help the children isolate and chunk the diphthongs, digraphs, and r-controlled vowels as unique sounds, I think!  This is probably because there is a motion to go along with each sound.  Often, when we hear the sounds as we segment the words, the children will say, for example, “Oh, it’s the /ch/ sound!” and make the choo choo train motion.  What Sounds Fun does for phonemic awareness instruction, (I think,) is help the children identify and classify diphthongs, digraphs, and r-controlled vowels as real and identifiable sounds that they can even write down, just the same as they would of any of the other regular 26 letter sounds commonly taught in Kindergarten.  I think it has made a HUGE difference!   Again, the key is that it is made to be fun, so fighting the kids on practicing is not an issue. Here is a video clip, so you can see what that looks like.


Sounds Fun Poster, Mounted on a Tri-Fold Presentation Board

2.  Practice, Practice, Practice!
If this is going to work, then you have to know what is on those tests.  We also have decided that the children need to be familiar with what the tests look like so that they don’t freeze up when they see them!  It’s bad enough that they get pulled out of class by a stranger and are given these tests.  They need to be familiar with what is coming.

For Practicing Nonsense Words:
I created a practice page that looks just like a DIBELS nonsense word test that I could project up on my big screen and have the whole class practice at the same time.  I can also use it as an informal assessment if I want to torture myself and my students with more testing.  I am giving you this as a free download here today, just in case you want to try it, too!

For Practicing Segmentation and First Sound Fluency:
I pulled together a list of words that included initial and final blends, digraphs, and diphthongs, and r-controlled vowels for practice in segmentation and first sound fluency that you can find here. We found that it can be pretty tricky for the children to pick just the FIRST sound off of a word when there is a consonant blend at the beginning of it, such as in a word like “flip.”  They want to tell you that the first sound is “fl” rather than /f/.
Also, our kids get very good at segmenting three letter words, but then get lost when segmenting longer words.  So practicing segmentation with longer words is a must!  I have found this list to be valuable when practicing blending as well.  All of this gets tedious at times for the kids, so you may want to throw in some active responses!  For example, have them pull their hands apart in the air or slide their hands down their arms when segmenting words.  My friend Tammi has her kids stop at the shoulder, elbow, and wrist when they get to each sound to help them “feel” it as a break in the sound.  I’m going to try that one next week!  You may also wish to check out this blog post on what to do when kids are struggling to “hear” beginning sounds.

3.  Prepare the Kids for the Testing Pull Out
We decided that we need to really know what the children will be tested on before they get pulled out, and make sure that we have practiced it daily during the week previous to the test.  This needs to be done right off of the practice pages that I created that look like the test.  That way, the testing page itself should look familiar to them and the freaking out will be minimal!  And, that way, when the children get pulled, they should already know what the directions are, so it shouldn’t matter too much whether the child is paying attention when the directions are given or not!  They ought to already know what the directions are- HOPEFULLY!

Helping Kids Conquer DIBELS FB


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Heidi Butkus

About Heidi Butkus

Heidi Butkus has been teaching in California public schools since 1985. She has somehow managed to stay in Kindergarten all of those years, with the exception of five years in first grade, and also taught a parent participation preschool for a short while! Combining a strong knowledge of brain research with practical experience, Heidi has created a wealth of fun and engaging teaching techniques that work well with diverse populations. She has presented at conferences nationwide, and is the owner and founder of Heidi has also created fourteen original CD's and DVD's for teaching beginning reading and math skills, three musical plays designed especially for young performers, and has written some picture books and many other teaching resources. Heidi's multimedia workshops are filled with fun and motivational educational activities that have been classroom tested and revised for effectiveness with all types of learners.
  1. Thank you for the informative overview of DIBELS. We use it but honestly, we, the teachers, do not have any idea how it scored, how to read results, etc. As a result, as you may already know, we don't like it. Now, I know why. We are not informed enough. As a result, as you said, we don't know how to prepare are kiddos for these assessments.

    I am going to research the Michael Heggerty program. Thanks again for an insightful post.

  2. I've been using DIBELS for 7 years now and I really like it. DIBELS Next is a big improvement in the FSF…the previous ISF (Initial Sound Fluency) involved pictures (poor quality pictures to boot) and it was as much a vocabulary test as a test of the ability to recognize initial sounds. Letter naming used to have a benchmark (35 by the EOY). Phonemic segmentation didn't change at all. However, I agree with you about the NWF. I think it should get an extra point for reading the word after sounding it out. I just tell my kids to just say the sounds *sigh* Of course, it's hard to stop them from reading the word…I mean, after all, isn't that the point?

    In our district, we had some training on the original DIBELS…but NOTHING for DIBELS Next!

    Overall, I like it…and so do my students. We practice the skills and make a game of it…and they are excited to show what they can do!

  3. This is so timely, thank you Heidi! We have our district DIBELS assessments the first week in May. I was just planning on what extra lessons I can teach to help prepare and your ideas are perfect. Thank you for always sharing!

  4. I spent a lot of time yesterday thinking about DIBELS and how to help the kids for this final assessment coming up. Thanks so much for the ideas and suggestions!!!

  5. Hi Heidi,
    We have used DIBELS for several years now, and have been told not to teach to the test or practice the subtests before taking the actual test ~ that strong phonemic lessons should lead to success on the DIBELS naturally… I have been tempted to teach NWF but can see the point of my admin. saying that if we are teaching decoding skills, that the kids should be able to read anything without explicitly teaching NWF… What are your thoughts on that?
    Tina in MA
    ps – I'm so happy to hear that the ISF has been changed and doesn't use pictures anymore, it was pure he** for my ELL kids!

  6. To Tina,
    Well, no one told us not to practice for the tests. If they had, that would have changed our response, naturally. We are being compared school by school and teacher to teacher, so naturally we want to do well. Also, since our school is the lowest socio-economic school in our district, yet had some of the best DIBELS scores, we were asked what we were doing that produced our good scores!
    We had been practicing the non-sense words, but not showing them what the test looked like. We just thought that for the kids that normally do very well on phonemic awareness tests, but that really blew it on their DIBELS tests, this might ease the anxiety of the testing situation. I do think that if the testing situation itself doesn't throw the kids off, then the DIBELS results should really mirror our own classroom phonemic awareness results. If not, then the kids are probably freaking out at the testing process, and that's something that can be dealt with.

  7. I don't see a problem with introducing the students to the format of the test. Why should it be something unfamiliar to them. In fact, we do progress monitoring every two weeks…isn't that practicing the test? Now…if you were using the same words as the EOY test….yeah, that would be a problem.

  8. I am going to print this post and give it to my intervention teachers!!! We use dibles next and I think they would love to read this!! I also love the fact of practicing nonsense words!!! My kids struggle there the most and I have never thought to practice it!! Wahoo!!!

  9. Found this searching for more information on this test. My daughter is in 2nd grade and was tested low. I am begging for any assistance as a parent to help my daughter. I currently going through the list of sight words every night plus having her read phonic decode books. In kindergarten we were in MI and they didn't teach any reading. For 1st grade we moved to AZ and moved in a top district for better schools. We struggle last year and want to do anything I can to help.

  10. I am a school psychologist in a district that uses DIBELS and I oversee the DIBELS screening teams.

    As other people here have mentioned, I think it's an error to "practice" the test, particularly nonsense words. You shouldn't be teaching nonsense words because they aren't necessary for learning phonics – real words work just fine.

    The point of using nonsense words to TEST alphabetic principle/phonics skills is that you need to make sure that the student isn't just reading a word that they know automatically. You want to know if they can DECODE simple VC/CVC words and can only test that if you use words they don't encounter normally. By using nonsense words to practice, you're missing the point – you're teaching to the test rather than teaching the skills that will be tested – a critical distinction. It's not about improving DIBELS scores – that's irrelevant, ultimately – it's about improving their basic reading skills.

    By having students practice nonsense words you are wasting their time and making the testing data less meaningful. Nonsense words are a great way to measure the skill mastery, but not a good way to teach it.

    That doesn't mean, of course, that you can't practice the skills. That is the point. They kids need to learn the skills necessary for phonemic awareness and phonics. The DIBELS is just a quick (but pretty accurate) picture of whether they have the basics.

    As with any measure, it's only one piece of data. If it doesn't align with other classroom data, then discuss why that may be the case and make the decision accordingly.

  11. To Jglerum,
    We are not practicing the very same words that the children will get on the test; that would be impossible, since I have not seen it! I am trying to get the children used to the testing procedure.
    I think that prepping them to understand that they may be given some words to read that may make no sense at all is a good idea, because we spend a great amount of time training the children to look for meaning in text with Accelerated Reader and other programs. The entire point of reading is to find the meaning in the text. If we don't teach them that there are cases in which we are looking for a nonsensical word, and practice that, then some of them will just keep working at sounding out the word until they guess at one that makes sense. I have seen it lots of times! They have been taught that reading for meaning is what we do. Then, a stranger comes in, and very quickly states that a the child is to sound out a "pretend word." Kindergartners are often so "freaked out" at being taken out of the classroom by a stranger that they are not even focusing on the instructions, and then they look at the words. Off they go to decode them, looking for the meaning in the words as they have been taught to do. The tester cannot correct or help them; the tester cannot repeat the instructions. The whole thing is over in 60 seconds. And, worst of all, the teachers in our district are now evaluated based on the results. Can you blame us for prepping the children for the test as best we can?
    The children that are on progress monitoring get lots of practice taking this same test, anyway. It's really no different than that; all I did was have the whole class do that same "Progress Monitoring" test, too.
    Personally, I really hate the whole DIBELS process. It's gotten terribly "high stakes" for us, since we now sit in grade level meetings and stare at graphs that compare one teacher to another, and one school to another. What a way to pit teachers against teachers!

    And I have to wonder about the results of such tests. It is supposed to show which children need intervention. These are the same children that I already knew needed intervention. And HOW much money are we spending on this?

  12. I agree with Jglerum. To teach NWF is to compromise the test. Good first teaching for students will help them perform well on DIBELS. There should not be classes of kids practicing nonsense words, even if they arent the same words. If a student knows the CVC pattern, they will know how to read the word. Perhaps a teacher could show students when sounding out CVC words a nonsense word or two and explain that the same rules applies. However, a huge amount of time should NOT be spent practicing for DIBELS. That time should be spent teaching students. If you need ideas to share with your teachers on the instructional implications for DIBELS, try reading "I've DIBEL'd, Now What?"
    – Reading Specialist in Maryland

    • Well said, anonymous poster. I too agree that there should not be class lessons pronouncing nonsense words. There are enough unknown cvc words for students to practice, and there are enough nonsense words to be read when students correct their own writing :).

      Thank you, Heidi Butkus, for noting how nonsensical it is to punish children for doing what we have asked them to do, as good reading teachers, sound out words sound by sound.

  13. I respect your opinion, but I join the ranks of the many, many teachers in this country that choose to do some test prep. Imagine- prepping your students for a test. Whoever heard of such a silly idea?
    Do you advise the teachers at your school to avoid all test prep, or just test prep for DIBELS?
    Last year, we tested on sight words. And we practiced those sight words all year. We also tested on sound segmentation. We practiced that all year, too. The more we practiced, the better the children got at it. It makes sense, doesn't it?

    • Hi There…
      NWF is meant to help you see where students are in the progression of developing phonics skills. Kids progress through a sequence of learning to attach sounds to symbols, then blending sounds together, blending sound and reading the word and finally being able to read the word automatically. The point of non-sense words is to help you see where they are in that process. Looking at the patterns in your students data lets you see where they are in this progression and how to best support them in instruction in getting to the next stage… The point is not to teach non-sense words but rather to uncover what they are currently able to do. They are not being penalized by recoding the word, it is simply indicating that they have not yet reached the stage of automaticity. DIBELS is an indicator of risk… students are still at risk when they have not yet mastered putting sounds together automatically… Seeing where students are at in the process helps us better use instruction to get them to closer to mastering basic phonics… When we see students that are very accurate at saying the sounds for letters, we know that they are ready for us to start helping them put sounds together to make words. When students are able to say the sounds and begin blending them together, we can start encouraging them to subvocalize and put the sounds together in their heads which is one step closer to automatizing the process. We want to teach the progressions with real words and access with non-sense words so we can see where they are in the process and best guide them. The point is not to just learn how to do well on the test. The point is to get the information that we need as teachers to guide them to the next step in the learning process. This will not only allow them to do better on the tests but gain the skill necessary to be successful reader more efficiently. We really need to understand the data we are using in order to use it in the way that best supports students.

      DIBELS is a Universal Screener… “Test Prep” is absolutely not appropriate for this type of testing. The standardized directions are utilized for each measure to explain the task to students… The directions include a practice items with feedback so that children are clear about the task and understand that they are reading make believe words.

      I wonder what you mean by “Test Prep”… I really don’t see the need for it beyond how to fill in bubbles on a state assessment. Other than that, good instruction takes care of the rest.

      It is best practice that any user of DIBELS be fully trained in the collection and analysis of the data by a certified DIBELS Mentor. A lot of the confusion and misuse you are referencing in your thoughts, comments and suggestions could be cleared up by better understanding the tool you are using and the research behind how children learn to read.

      • Have you tried this yourself with four and five year old children? The whole process for them can be confusing and even frightening for some. And relieving that anxiety and pressure is the purpose of preparing them for the testing situation. It is certainly NOT developmentally appropriate in any way. They get pulled out by a stranger and get 60 seconds to show what they know. I have seen the results of this test be so completely off from what a child can really, truly do on a daily basis that I put very little value on the results myself.
        As far as your comment on research on how children learn to read, I am a trained Reading Specialist. But I have learned much more teaching children to read daily for the past 25 years. I know exactly how they learn to read. I doubt that this test was created by someone who had any length of experience teaching young children to read. I haven’t yet met a teacher that believes the results show us anything of value; it’s just a hoop we have to jump through.


  14. This is WONDERFUL! i just started tutoring first-graders. I am not a formally-trained educator. Long story short, I want to help these kids with this mysterious thing i heard about yesterday: DIBELS! your blog has demystified the testing and given me some real tips so that I can help these kids. THANK YOU!

  15. To Anonymous:
    Well thank you!
    And to follow up on last year's scores, my students started out at 22% proficient in their composite DIBELS score. At the end of the year they were 85% proficient in their composite score. So I must have done something right, despite the large number of administrators that have left comments on this blog telling me that I have missed the point.

  16. I have taught first grade for ten years. I completely agree with the idea of explaining the nonsense words to children. A strong reading strategy involves sounding out a word and thinking, "Does this make sense?". Not practicing or even explaining the nonsense words is like teaching the rules of Rugby then sending the team to play Football. It's not going to go well…

  17. Heidi,

    Thank you for your post. I am evaluating a program so I need to understand how DIBELS is actually used in instruction, rather than how it is used to assess student learning.

    While I do not have years of teaching experience I have worked as a tutor and have worked with kids k-5 teaching phonics skills.

    The nonsense words make no sense to us because we know how to read. Logically, we would expect kids to also have the skills to make out these words. BUT it's more counterintuitive. The simple fact is that students often reach words that look like nonsense to THEM and they get afraid and start to guess. If we teach kids to not be apprehensive about using the literacy skills that they do in fact know and have practiced over and over, then kids will be more confident, learn quicker, and improve their reading skills. I can tell you that from my experience it is the nonsense words that eventually affect reading comprehension. If a student is too afraid of a big word or weird looking word, they forget about the main point of what they are reading.

  18. To Anonymous,
    Thank you for your comment; that's a really great point! And while I dislike having to test kids on the nonsense words in Kindergarten, I do agree with you. I would add that it is even more difficult for those that are learning a second language to figure out if a word is a nonsense word, too, since they just don't know all of the words in English that their peers might know.
    As far as your question in how DIBELS is used in instruction… well, we use DIBELS at our school to determine who should be getting the interventions. We use it as a predictor of who will have trouble in the future in language arts. If a child is below the norm in segmentation, then that child gets more instruction in segmentation, etc. In my experience, some teachers are more "in tune" with the DIBELS scores than others and place more value on how they come out. I would say that when the children do well, it is very encouraging! When they do poorly, I do ask myself why that would be, but I always take it with a grain of salt. These are isolated skills we are talking about here; all of them must be applied to be useful. I once had a little special needs child who could read fluently and who did well on comprehension tests. However, the DIBELS test puzzled him, and he could not seem to focus on them during that 60 time frame that is required. Therefore, his scores were extremely low in DIBELS, yet he was a very high achiever in language arts. The issue at play was autism, not phonemic awareness. He was brilliant- but had trouble following directions. So he really didn't need more phonemic awareness or phonics instruction; he needed help with other issues. It's the teacher's job to figure out what factors are at play and solve the problem, if possible.

  19. Thanks for the explanation of this assessment. As a parent, I am still somewhat confused. I see that this was blogged in 2012, so I hope comments are still open because I have some questions and would appreciate some insight.
    How accurate do you believe the assessments are in predicting potential future learning difficulties?
    Do you think that the benchmarks seem low?
    My kinder grade daughter received a 16/8 on letter sound recognition and 21/8 for letter sight recognition.
    Is the expectation really only 8 in one minute?

    My daughter is on the younger side for kindergarten; where we live, most parents late start their kids. Because of her age, I would have expected lower scores.
    Thanks again for the article

  20. Pingback: Sound Discrimination: What to Do When Children Cannot “Hear” Beginning Sounds | Heidi Songs

  21. Heidi,
    As a DIBELS trainer, classroom teacher, AND a big fan of yours, I strongly urge you to go to the official DIBELS website and read the research. Drs. Good and Kaminsky have spent years (20+) trying to make a sound, research based, simple tool that would serve to help teachers quickly identify those students who were most in need of help in literacy instruction. These wonderful researchers and their team could have “sold out” their DIBELS testing protocols to any one of the major manufacturers, but remained with a university setting (where it is still available for downloading for FREE.) Dr. Good (who trained me)shared that he wanted to keep it as inexpensive as possible so that it would be available for teachers to utilize.

    Timers – your proctors should be using timers that are digital (not sand) and with quiet, non-abrasive buzzers. Also, the directions are scripted – that is part of the control needed to keep the tests standardized.

    DIBELS should be viewed as quick data – just like your height, weight, blood pressure, and temperature that the medical technician gathers before the doctor comes in. Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy – these screening tests are just that – these are the indicators that things are okay OR not!

    I brought the DIBELS to my community in 2000 as part of my graduate school capstone project. It profoundly changed how we taught (groupings and interventions) and has allowed us to intervene in a much more targeted manner.

    As for preparing for the DIBELS – actually you should use the data to inform your instructional practices. Get your first set of scores (BOY = beginning of the year) and then see what your group needs. Our school uses DIBELSnet to enter data (at 1 dollar per child per year, it is the least expensive model but offers a lot of reporting views and models.)

    LNF = letter naming fluency- we found using a chart stand and putting up flashcards in a row and zipping down a row much closer to what they would encounter in a DIBELS LNF test (which has 10 random upper and lower case letters in each row.)

    NWF= Nonsense word fluency- Decoding letter by letter and then reblending into a whole word is a lower skill when compared to slowly blending a word. Have you heard about decoding using chorus/coda instead of onset/rime? Example:
    cat would be sounded out as /caaaa t/
    It sounds like you are hanging on the vowel; this chorus/coda way gives more phonemic input, allowing for more information/prediction for words. Now, when we work on decoding CVCs in our room, we do not do the segmented style. I encourage my students to go to the vowel and hold on. (I make a little mountain with highlighter with the top of the mountain on the vowel.)

    Whoops. Can you tell that I really like the DIBELS? See if you can go to the training classes. We are a beta school for the math – pretty awesome.

    p.s. I cannot get that song out of my head, “I, I, I, I, I is a word with one letter!” My kids – they just love you!

      • Hi, Heidi. Longtime fan and follower; first time responder…HA!
        Anyway, our district has been using Dibels for over 10 years and I have been using it longer (former district, etc.). I agree with many of your points, however, this last school year we were given the DibelsNext and administer it on IPads-there is no annoying beeper it is a silent timer that counts down and the screen turns yellow when there are 10 seconds left…this is my favorite new adjustment of the administration of this test. It makes it so much more user friendly and more gentle for our kinders! The data is entered automatically and you can input notes yourself. But get ready my friend, we had a training JUST ON WEDNESDAY for more…now we are Dibeling DEEP! It is a whole series of quick test that can pinpoint exactly where students are and where to begin interventions. I don’t know much yet nor have I had to use yet; but we begin next week–yikes!

        • Hi!
          Wow, that sounds a LOT easier! But… MORE TESTS? When is it ever going to be enough? Ugh. I have to say that I am glad I am on a leave of absence at this point!
          Keep me informed! I would love to hear that people are loving the new system and that the tests are revealing a lot of useful data that is helping children… and that they are NOT using the data to evaluate teachers! The data we had didn’t seem to help us drive instruction much… but it sure did eat up a LOT of time! It pretty much just confirmed the list of children that were already in my low group, and reconfirmed what I already knew- they were low in those phonemic awareness skills, and we really needed to work on them.

  22. We were so frustrated by my son’s scores. I now realize he wasn’t prepared in the least. I didn’t even know he was being tested. Thank you for your insights!

  23. I am a grandmother and my 6 yr old granddaughter stay’s with us during the week. She brought home this paper with the 3 lettered word’s on it and I was SO LOST it didn’t have Direction’s, I thank you for this information but it would help even more if there was an actual video to show how to do it. I TRULY THANK YOU, YOU ARE A TREMENDOUS HELP!!

  24. I think Natasha was truly thanking you. My son also brought homework from his school that had zero instructions and to be honest, some of the math was a puzzle. Very hard to figure how what and how they expected an answer. I realize they are practicing these different ways to think and learn about numbers but the lack of instructions provided by the workbook pages sent home can be frustrating. I just got my son’s Dibels score and the math score was horrible! It made no sense since he is getting exceeds expectations scores on his report card. It said he was well below typical which was shocking and sad. I shouldn’t be blindsided by “well below typical” when he does just fine with his homework and his report cards are good. I also appreciate that you put this information and explanations online. Our schools should be fully disclosing how this works when they send these results home or not send them at all and do it in conferences face to face.

  25. I appreciate the information provided in this post. Our school/district was rather late in implementing DIBELS, but we’ve had it now for two years and we find it is an excellent tool to help us pin-point areas in early reading development where our students need extra targeted instruction. As a first grade teacher and a reading specialist, I not only conduct the testing for K-1, but I also use the data to place students into intervention groups, and I teach those groups in K-1. What we have found is that if we focus on teaching the CCSS Foundational Skills well, then students will be successful on DIBELS (and in turn, they will be successful readers). We never teach to the test, rather we teach to the Foundational Standards and skills for early reading that the DIBELS were designed to measure. This is obviously NOT all that reading entails, but it is the foundation and the skills piece that has to be mastered in the early grades in order for our students to be able to read well and comprehend well. As far as exposing students to nonsense words as a teaching tool, I have used some of the recommended lessons on The Florida Center for Reading Research site, and there are a few lessons where students work with both nonsense and real CVC words. They decode them, and then determine if they are a real word or not. I personally feel that this is a good exercise for students because it allows them to strengthen their decoding skills and determine word meaning. It is a kind of word analysis that is a good skill to help develop accuracy early on. I believe that it is important to test nonsense word reading because it gives a measure of “pure” decoding ability. The student is decoding the word based on knowledge of sound-symbol correspondences, NOT based on the whole word having been memorized. Many years of research with students who struggle with learning to read has shown clearly that the most common problem we see in struggling readers is their difficulty with decoding words. If we can catch those difficulties early on, which is what DIBELS does, then we can target instruction and help students learn to decode well early on. DIBELS can also tell us more specifically why the student is having trouble with decoding, or it can lead us to other forms of assessment that can pin-point more specific problems (such as weak phonemic awareness skills or issues with rapid automatic naming). Last year our first grade group went from 5% at grade level at the beginning of the year, to 39% at grade level at the end of the year. We are a high poverty (93%) high ELL (55%) school. 39% is still not good enough and we do have a lot of work to do. We are excited about using DIBELS to help us improve our teaching and especially improve student learning.

    • Hi, Jeanette,
      I too use nonsense words to help teach children to decode words and to guide my instruction, but personally I don’t trust the results of the DIBELS test to guide my instruction as much as the authentic daily experiences I have with the children in my classroom. As an experienced teacher, I can tell what to do with my kids without the test… but we are still required to have the children take them. But I do know that there are others that really enjoy collecting data and examining it against norms. I think that data is helpful to administrators when they are checking to see how their students compare to others. And now that I am teaching a new grade level, I like to check in on the test scores and see how my students are doing compared to the students in other classes, specifically because I am new to teaching that content.
      In the past, my kindergartners at the Title One, low income school I taught at for 20 years used to regularly go from the 10th percentile to the 80th or better on the DIBELS test. However, I know that it wasn’t the DIBELS test that took them from 10% to 80%… it was my instruction. And I really didn’t use the results to guide my instruction at all, although I did start including nonsense words in my instruction as a result of the DIBELS test (to expose them to the concept,) and I’m glad I did, because it turned out to be a very useful teaching tool.
      But in any case, I’m glad you are enjoying using it and are excited about it!

  26. Thank you so much for this breakdown and for the free materials! Every little bit helps. I am a parent teaching my child through the state’s K12 curriculum this year because our state simply does not provide a brick and mortar school anywhere near us. (We aren’t even in a school district.) That being the case, this year (first grade) we’re having to subject our child to DIBELS, and that means that the prep for this instrument falls to us as well. I found this blog while searching for test taking strategies. A big problem we are having is in teaching our child to speak faster, as well as loudly enough into the microphone that the proctor can clearly understand what she’s saying. We’re also sometimes struggling to understand what the proctor is saying when giving words. It’s all completely maddening. Knowing that our child could be labeled “at risk”, and possibly held back, when we know she knows how to read is heartbreaking. Unfortunately, in the online world, the teacher only has the tests and our daily assessments to go on. She isn’t with us during the instruction day when we see our daughter’s abilities. If our daughter falls short of the benchmark, it’s going to hurt, so stakes are high for us. We are **absolutely** teaching how to take the test, because we know she knows the material. It’s the format and the adjustment to the pace that are the problem. As we practice, I’m having to teach her things like:
    – Don’t go back and correct yourself if you misspeak; move on! (This is very difficult for a conscientious child. It’s difficult to make her understand that if she misspeaks, she’s already gotten it wrong and lingering on it can only hurt her score more.)
    – Don’t look at the timer.
    – Speak loudly and with confidence so that the proctor can hear and understand you.
    – It doesn’t matter that what the proctor is calling a nonsense word is a real word that you know in another language. Don’t try to correct the misunderstanding. Just go with it, and be sure to Americanize the pronunciation. It also doesn’t matter that the nonsense word appears to be a misspelling of a real word. Go with it! Don’t correct it!
    – Listen carefully to the instructions so that you know when you are supposed to sound out (“finger stretch”) the word and when you are supposed to read it without sounding it out first.
    – It’s okay if you know you got something wrong. Don’t get upset. Go right on to the next thing as fast as you can. (This is a weird balance between trying to calm her enough that she doesn’t break down when she realizes a mistake, and avoiding the danger of teaching her that mistakes don’t matter.)
    – Test world is a special world with special rules. We may want you to take your time and check your work when we learn, but on the test speed is really, really important.

    DIBELS seems to involve a whole wealth of things that have nothing to do with a student’s literacy, so I am glad to see that there are educators examining how to minimize the stumbling blocks. I think that strategy is just as important as knowledge with this test, so we’re doing all that we can to prepare. I just hope it’s enough.

    • Hi, Kim!
      WOW. All I can say is WOW. That sounds just awful! I’m not sure where you are located, but this sounds like a terrible amount of pressure for your child! I understand your frustration completely, although I do understand the rationale behind the skills they are testing. However, if they have told you that your child will be held back if she does not pass these DIBELS tests, that seems just WRONG! I’ve seen many children do poorly on the DIBELS assessments for various reasons, but I would never use this measure as the only thing that would tell me whether or not a child should remain in a grade level or be promoted. And nobody at my school would use DIBELS to decide that either, and we ARE a DIBELS school! The school I’m currently at, though, is much more relaxed about the DIBELS testing and results than the last one. (Thank goodness!) Same district, different school and principal. Go figure!

      As far as your situation is concerned, you may want to check into an alternative homeschooling program. I have heard of many complaints about Check this website out, and then consider what you want to spend your time on: test prep, or the love of reading and writing?
      Good luck!

  27. Wow! You have down your research on DIBELS! I am a title 1 teacher in a kindergarten building and we use DIBELS! As a classroom teacher I hated it, I would get reports from the Title 1 team and not know what they meant other than the kids that I knew were struggling were also struggling on DIBELS. I didn’t know how to use the data to inform my instruction. Now, I understand completely. It’s important to remember that this test is meant as an indicator and teachers should have other forms of formal and informal assessments and observations to gauge what a child can and cannot do. It is not supposed to be used as a tool for teacher evaluations, or is meant to guide instruction. I like it because it follows the progression of phonemic awareness skills to phonics skills. I would warn you though to be careful about using nonsense words in your teaching. We test nonsense words to see if students have the skill of decoding or sounding out words. In your everyday instruction you should use real words to practice this skill. Using nonsense words on practice exposes students words that they are never going to see or really use. If you are going to use nonsense words try to use 2 nonsense words that make a multisyllabic word like; bas-ket or pic-nic. This way the students see how chunks of words can be put together.

    • Hi, Cassidy!
      That’s good advice! I never intended to teach kids to memorize the nonsense words. My intention was to familiarize them to the academic vocabulary of the testing situation and to expose them to the fact that there are situations when they will be expected to read something that is not a real word. I agree that children need to have the phonics and decoding skills in order to be able to attack multisyllabic words. I think that even just thinking of them as “nonsense syllables” makes a whole lot of sense!

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