Home > Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary > How to Use Running Records with Decodable Text

How to Use Running Records with Decodable Text

Running Records with Decodables

Running Records with Decodable Text

Running records provide an effective means of reading assessment. Using running records helps teachers determine the strengths and challenges of individual readers. From these periodic  observations of the reading process, teachers can make informed choices as to how to help students improve their reading. Running records also help teachers select which books and reading resources will provide optimal instructional and independent reading levels within, as Vigotsky termed, the individual’s zone of proximal development.

The MSV (meaning, structure, and visual) cueing strategies readers use to make meaning of text provide the teacher a window into the complex process of reading. Good readers apply a balance of semantic, syntactic, and graphophonic skills to interact with the author and comprehend narrative and expository text.

Frequently, the visual (or graphophonic) cueing skills require remediation with below grade level readers. The visual cues rely upon auditory cues to map phonemes (the speech sounds) to the orthographic (spelling) rules and patterns. Because learning the sound-spelling system is a complex skill, a multitude of reasons may contribute to phonics deficits, including but not limited to a lack of phonemic

Remediate reading

Catch up and keep up!

awareness, the lack of explicit and systematic phonics instruction in kindergarten-second grade, ear infections, little literacy support at home, school attendance, transiency, poverty, etc. However, the good news is that sound-spelling deficiencies can be effectively remediated to enable students to develop the automaticity necessary to fluently attend to the meaning of the text.

All too often teachers and parents assume that if children are reading and spelling (decoding and encoding) below grade level after the primary grades, these students will be doomed to remedial or vulnerable reader status for the rest of their lives. This is not the case if prescriptive diagnostic assessments determine individual strengths and weaknesses, and caring and informed teachers and parents provided the appropriate assessment-based instruction to address to build on the strengths and teach to the deficiencies. Indeed, students can catch up, while they keep up with grade-level instruction. Running records can be helpful formative assessments to monitor the effectiveness of interventions and to adjust resources and instruction to best meet the needs of the individual student. Running records can be particularly helpful to monitor phonics and sight words acquisition.

First of all, before we get into the how-to section about using running records, let’s first agree that no one teacher, reading guru, or reading program has cornered the market on what must constitute running records, how to use running records with or without guided reading, and how often teachers should do running records with their students. Running records are simply one helpful instructional tool to improve reading; there are other ways to do so without using running records. Now that these caveats are out of the way, following are a few tips to make the most of running records with your students. Following these tips, I’ll provide a nice running record form that works especially well with decodable text. Of course, the form also works for leveled books. Plus, since our focus in this article is on decodable text, I’ll provide three FREE Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books for you to use with your new running record form. See the end of the article.

How to Use Running Records with Decodable Text

1. Determine which students need decodable text and specific instruction in the alphabetic code. In other words, which of your kids have not yet mastered their phonics? You could certainly use running records for a month or two to determine which sound-spellings each child knows and does not know. However, a diagnostic assessment gets those results quicker and more efficiently. Remember that running records are primarily formative assessments, not diagnostic. I strongly urge teachers to use comprehensive, not random sample, diagnostic assessments. A random sample phonics inventory or spelling inventory which indicates problem areas necessitates further, more refined assessment to pinpoint teachable sound-spellings. Why not give comprehensive, teachable assessments up front to any of your students whom you suspect may need visual (graphophonics) instruction. Good assessments will indicate which levels of decodable books will be appropriate and not appropriate for your individual students. You don’t want to force Johnny to read short vowel books if he only needs help with his diphthongs. Teachers can assign these books and teach individually, or teachers can group students with the same instructional needs and teach them the un-mastered sound-spellings in guided reading groups, perhaps in rotating literacy centers, early-late reading sections, reading intervention pull-outs, etc.

The author recommends two diagnostic placement assessments to place your students in the right decodable texts with the reading resources that will improve your students’ reading in the shortest amount of time: The Vowel Sounds Phonics Assessment and The Consonant Sounds Phonics Assessment. Go ahead! Download both of these assessments (each even has an audio file including test directions and the assessment itself to make life easier) to ensure that you are placing your students in the right books.

Vowel Sounds Phonics Assessment

Use this comprehensive 52 item whole class assessment to determine your students’ mastery of short vowels, long vowels, silent final e, vowel digraphs, vowel diphthongs, and r-controlled vowels. The assessment uses nonsense words to test students’ knowledge of the sound-spellings to isolate the variable of sight word recognition. Unlike other phonics assessments, this assessment is not a random sample of phonics knowledge. The Vowel Sounds Phonics Assessment includes every common sound-spelling. Thus, the results of the assessment permit targeted instruction in any vowel sound phonics deficits. The author’s Teaching Reading Strategies reading intervention program includes corresponding worksheets and small group activities to remediate all deficits indicated by this assessment.

Vowel Sounds Phonics Assessment (10:42) *

Vowel Sounds Phonics Assessment

Consonant Sounds Phonics Assessment

Use this comprehensive 50 item whole class assessment to determine your students’ mastery of consonant digraphs, beginning consonant blends, and ending consonant blends. The assessment uses nonsense words to test students’ knowledge of the sound-spellings to isolate the variable of sight word recognition. Unlike other phonics assessments, this assessment is not a random sample of phonics knowledge. The Consonant Sounds Phonics Assessment includes every common sound-spelling. Thus, the results of the assessment permit targeted instruction in any consonant sound phonics deficits. The author’s Teaching Reading Strategies reading intervention program includes corresponding worksheets and small group activities to remediate all deficits indicated by this assessment.

Consonant Sounds Phonics Assessment (12:07) *

2. Decide why you want to use running records with decodable texts. If your purpose is to measure progress, assign an unpracticed decodable story which introduces a specific sound-say the /ow/ as in cow sound and complete a running record. After teaching the book or books which focus on the different /ow/ sound-spellings, post-test on the introductory story to measure progress. However, if your purpose is to monitor progress, use practiced decodable stories to determine what has been learned to mastery and what requires still more practice.

3. Decide how often you wish to complete running records and with which students. A few guidelines will be helpful: If a student has severe phonics deficits and is working on short-vowel and consonants/consonant blends mastery, running records should be performed more often than if the student has mastered all short vowels and consonants, consonant blends, long vowels and vowel teams, diphthongs, and r-controlled vowels, but is still working on derivational language sound-spelling patterns, such as the schwa. Keep in mind that assessing with running records is instruction, but you do have other subjects to teach! Once per week for more needy students and once at the end of a phonics collection-say, diphthongs, for less needy students makes sense.


4. Where you do running records matters and deserves some planning. Ideally,  a quiet corner of the classroom or a table and chairs outside the classroom, if weather and classroom supervision so permit, make sense. Running records takes concerted concentration for both student and teacher. By the way, assessing with running records is not rocket science. A well-trained instructional aide or parent can be a life-saver in helping you with running records. Of course, you the teacher need to analyze the results and adapt instruction accordingly.

5. Find the decodable texts that will match both your students’ instructional needs and level of maturity. Please don’t use primary stories with primary characters and illustrations for older readers. Yes, these older students may need work on the short vowel /a/, but every effort must be made to provide dignity to struggling readers if we want to keep them motivated to learn and become life-long readers. Additionally, find running records which include the text of the student’s story or scan, paste, and copy the story to a blank running record or form. Ideally, use running record forms which include word counts. I personally don’t believe that a student needs to read the entire story to give the teacher the necessary data for a running record. Most teachers have students read from 150-250 words during a running record reading to ensure an adequate sample size. I use exactly 200 words for each running record in my Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books to avoid word counting and minimize calculations. (KISS) Keep it simple, stupid, always works for me.

6. The teacher writes the student’s name, date, and teacher’s name on the running record form and instructs the student to concentrate on reading the story for meaning. Help the student relax and enjoy the one-on-one time.

7. Say, “Ready, begin.” The student begins to read the story and the teacher uses coded responses to assess the student’s reading performance. Please note that the teacher may choose to use some or all of the marks for different running records.

Key Running Record Marks

  • E = Error
  • SC = Self-Correction
  • M = Meaning (Semantic Miscue)
  • S = Structure (Syntactic Miscue)… sentence structure and grammar issues
  • V = Visual (graphophonic)… phonics, onsets and rimes, and sight word problems

The student reads the story until the 200th word has been read, or teachers can allow the student to finish the story if time permits. At this point the teacher may choose to ask the student to do a re-tell if the entire story has been read or not.


8. The teacher uses tally marks in the columns to the right of the story text to tally the errors, self-corrections, and categorize the types of errors (Meaning, Structure, or Visual) and types of self-corrections (Meaning, Structure, or Visual).

  • E Rate = How many errors out of the words read
  • A Rate = Accuracy Rate… Words read, e.g. 200 – (errors ÷ 2) = % of accuracy
  • A Rate is used to adjust reading levels for leveled books
  • SC Rate is the self-corrections + errors % self-corrections to develop a ration of 1: ____
  • Word fluency is the # of words read correctly, including self-corrections, but excluding teacher-prompted words

9. The teacher then determines the error rate, accuracy rate, and self-corrections rate, using the formulae on the running records form. Teachers familiar with running records will especially appreciate the design of the FREE running record provided at the end of the article. Each running records assessment has exactly 200 words. No counting is necessary! The first 200 words of each story constitute the running record. And it’s all on one page!

Reader Observation Remarks

10. Make additional pertinent comments on your running record observations. Because running records affords teachers with such an intimate look at the student’s reading process, it would be a shame to ignore this qualitative data and solely concentrate on the quantitative data. For example, the graphophonic data themselves include both decoding and sight words. Making note of these different error miscues certainly makes sense. The fluency, inflection, attention to punctuation, concentration, posture, eye movement and other factors may be important to note, remediate, and monitor. My running record form includes these components as check boxes to serve as reminders and to save the time it takes to write out comments.

11. Have the student complete a re-tell of the story or section of the story read. Make comments on the students’ knowledge or story structure, sequencing, and comprehension.

12. Ask both recall and inferential questions about the text and make comments on the students’ answers. Stay text-dependent; don’t wander away from the text with application questions on how the story relates to another story or the student’s life. Of course, these are interesting questions and may build comprehension, but the purpose of running records with decodable text is to assess a particular reading and the sound-spelling skills taught in the text. Note that the FREE decodable books at the end of the article each have five embedded comprehension questions, one for each of the SCRIP comprehension strategies (Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict).

13. The teacher may write evaluative notes and recommendations for interventions and/or resources in the Comments/Interventions/Resources section at the bottom of the running records form. Remember that assessment without assessment-based instruction is simply paper-pushing. Make use of your running records to refine instruction for each student.

Note that the last step when using running records for leveled readers is to determine whether the level of text is too easy, too hard, or just right for instructional guided reading and/or independent reading. The teacher move students up a level if the student has read at an independent level or down a level if the student has read at a frustration level. However, because  decodable readers are not leveled readers (determined by vocabulary, sentence length, etc.), level re-assessment is not needed.

Good decodable books have a sound-spellings and sight words instructional sequence in which successive books build upon and review the sound-spellings and sight words in the previous books. Each book is a link in the chain which should build a solid reading foundation in the visual (graphophonic) cueing strategy for your students. Many teachers who use guided reading instruction choose to allot two days per week to decodable texts and two days per week to controlled vocabulary leveled books.

I’m Mark Pennington, author of the Teaching Reading Strategies intervention program and the Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books.


Get the Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books, Diagnostic Assessments, and Running Records FREE Resource:

Guided Reading Phonics Books Literacy Center

Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books





Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.