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 Word Family Songs 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. (The new version of this DVD is animated though!)

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!

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  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. Wow what a wealth of information! Thank you for the freebies. My school does not use DIBELS but I have been hearing more and more about the program so I enjoyed your post. The blog meet up looked like a ton of fun! What a fun group of inspiring ladies!


    Sprinkle Teaching Magic

  3. I had so much FUN, Heidi!! Thank you so much for your awesome DVD's!! It was a HUGE highlight meeting you!

  4. I loved meeting you, Heidi! I can't wait to see you in Vegas!!!!

    What The Teacher Wants

  5. 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!

  6. 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!

  7. 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!!!

  8. Hi thanks for sharing, the following link didnt work help...
    fr Practicing Segmentation and First Sound Fluency:

    you have great ideaws

  9. Thanks, Lupe! We just now fixed it.

  10. It was so wonderful meeting you!!! I can't wait to show my kids your DVD!


    Apples and ABC's

  11. 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!

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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!!!

  15. It was so nice to meet you!! Thanks again for joining us and for bringing those DVDs along. You are such an inspiration to my teaching!


  16. 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.

  17. To Anonymous:
    I'm so sorry that your daughter is struggling! You can email me for more advice.

  18. 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.

  19. 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?

  20. 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

  21. 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?

  22. 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!

  23. 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.

  24. 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...

  25. 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.

  26. 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.


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