Help! My Child Failed the DIBELS Test!

When children fail tests, parents often panic.  And when children fail tests like DIBELS that parents have never even heard of and don’t understand, the feeling intensifies!  I have received two emails in the past week from worried parents that found my name online while they were searching for information after being told that their child failed the DIBELS test.  So, since this seems to be “testing time” in so many places, I thought I would post the questions (anonymously!) and the answers.   I hope that this is helpful to you!

DIBELS testing is coming up in my own classroom very soon.  You’ll never guess when the pull outs have been scheduled for…  February 14, VALENTINE’S DAY!!!  Gee, sounds perfect….   (Insert heavy sigh here.  We just moved our celebrations to the 15th.)

I also just found this document via one of the comments left by a reader.  It’s really a pdf version of an entire book, called  The Truth About DIBELS, What It Is-What It Does by Ken Goodman.  I just downloaded a portion of the book myself, free!

You can download parts of this book free at the link above.

Here’s another link for those of you that want to do more investigating:  I found it on this website called  The article is called, DIBELS: Pedagogy of the Absurd.  I can’t remember who sent it to me, sorry about that!


I just found out my kindergartner failed the DIBELS test. Her teacher overheard the testing and knows it isn’t that my daughter didn’t know the work but instead her shyness got the best of her. She freezes up under pressure but she is also a naturally quiet and shy person so not knowing the lady testing her just made this test more impossible for her to pass. I was told there was a lot of “you need to speak up, I can’t hear you” and “you can’t just stop, you have to keep going” being said. She knows the work. We go over her words every night and she is able to read to me by sounding out the words in her stories(with some assistance since not everything sounds just as it’s Your post from September gave me a lot of insight on what this test is about since I had never even heard of it before but have you encountered a child that just didn’t do well in a timed test or is shy? Her teacher is sending home a practice test for me since she doesn’t want my daughter to have to be put below grade level when she knows she isn’t below. Unfortunately even when I time her, she freezes up. I don’t know how to make this easier for her and I don’t want her held back in any way when she is doing so well in the class she is in every other day out of the year.  

Thank you so much for your informative post and any advice you may have,   


This is one of my teacher friend’s sons.  Isn’t he a cutie?


Well, I have seen this sort of thing happen lots of times with children that freeze up on timed tests, and also on tests given by strangers.  Unfortunately, your daughter is a victim of the system that penalizes shy kids like this.  

What I usually tell parents to do is to try to “desensitize” their child to the timer. 
Use a timer at home for other things so she can get used to it.  Use it for fun things and easy things, such as playing with dolls for twenty minutes until the timer goes off, or coloring in a coloring book until the timer goes off, etc.  See if you can find out what kind of timer they use for the DIBELS test and see if you can get the very same kind so that it looks and sounds the same. Once your child gets used to the timer under “friendly and fun” circumstances, then try using it with homework.  Just make sure that the amount of time you set is plenty of time for her to finish, at least to start off with.  After a bit, then you can play “beat the clock” and try to finish certain tasks before the bell goes off.  There should just be no penalty when the bell goes off, that’s all.  Just reinforce the fact that nothing bad is going to happen when the timer goes off.  

Request That the Classroom Teacher Be Your Child’s DIBELS Tester
There is another route that you might be able to take for this as well, although I don’t know if it will work or not.  You could go in to the school office and make an appointment with the principal.  Tell him that your child is being pressured and stressed out by the DIBELS testing process and you would like to request that your child be tested only by the classroom teacher, or not at all.  Tell him that you are uncomfortable with strangers that you haven’t met pulling your child out to test your child, even if it is only for a couple of minutes.  Just tell the principal that if the classroom teacher can’t be trusted to give your daughter the DIBELS test, then you would like your daughter to be excluded from the test.  She can’t fail a test that she doesn’t take, so they will have to use her overall achievement to place her for next year. Another option would be to request to be present when your child is pulled out for the testing, so that you can encourage your child to speak up and answer the questions.  You won’t be able to intervene during the test, or give your child any “cues,” but you should be able to at least be sitting on the other side of the room.  At least then if you can watch the testing process and you can see what happens for yourself, you won’t have to sit and wonder what happened during that time.  If your child sat there and said absolutely nothing, then you’ll know it.  

Practice, Practice, Practice
Here’s another alternative: there are other “Progress Monitoring” DIBELS tests that your child can be given in the classroom that mirror those same benchmark tests that the testers give.  (I have to give them to my lowest students every two and a half weeks.)  The children get used to them, and get reasonably good at them, simply because they become familiar, and become a part of the routine.  THAT’s probably what would help your daughter the most.  She needs her teacher to give her these Progress Monitoring (practice tests) every couple of weeks so that she can get used to them.  Maybe the principal will allow you to use those scores in place of the “official tester” scores?  When I do the Progress Monitoring tests with my very low kids, I show the group of kids the test, and we do several of the questions together and talk about them.  Then I pull the kids one at a time and have them do one timed test, and then another one.  The first one is just a practice “warm up” test, and the second one is the “real one.”  They always do better on the real one.  (Sometimes they don’t really need the “real one!”)  If you would like to know more about what is on those tests, please see my blog post here.

Good luck, and let me know what happens!




My name is D. and we live in Iowa.  Our school system uses the DIBELS testing system, and our daughter seems to do very poorly at this.  We feel she may be challenged some for reading, so we want to get involved and get after this to help in this problem.  I hope to try to get to some specific questions here and try to get to some better understanding of this. We have reviewed DIBELS processes and believe it to be multiple process of pictures for letter fluency, phonics, and nonsense words to help recognize the child’s letter recognition and sounds. Is this implemented in a time frame of 1 minute to see how many recognition processes can be performed or how can you put this into parent terms? I am a computer analysts and its just simple for me to see how things work or not, how with these tests does one determine what the problem is to work to solve it? It seems similar productivity work is done in the classroom, and our daughter gets 100% range consistently out of as many as 35 to 40 questions recognition and fluency processes used. The DIBELS tester is a different person, and we questioned in the summer test if it could have been a result of her comfort level with the person, but we feel we are past this, and now the recent testing was poor also.  So what do we do? We had the advantage to send her to PreK at 5 years old and now Kindergarten at 6.  Her birthday is a few days before 9-15-xx so we decided to start her since she could have been the youngest of the class. We expect to get a tutor involved one on one to work closer with her.   As parents we feel she does not work well with us, she is easily frustrated and does not have a great attention span after working all day in school. She will say that its boring and or that it’s been a rough day with a lot of work, etc. We have a 3 yr old that loves doing flash cards with us, but we can not seem to interest the 6 year old.  I would like to see a tutor or someone harness her drawing and coloring energy and get into the reading and phonics area. It seems she is working a lot more toward reading then when we were in school in Kindergarten!  I had some reading challenges early also, so I do not want to see this happen here, when reviewing DIBELS and other online your name pops up a lot so I am just bouncing ideas around..

 Any suggestions would be great.

 Thanks, DC


I will do my best to answer your questions.  You have a few misconceptions about the DIBELS program, but you are right about one thing:  DIBELS doesn’t tell you what is wrong; it doesn’t diagnose any problems that a child may have.  As far as I know, DIBELS is simply a means of predicting which children will be in need of academic help the following year, statistically speaking.  The DIBELS results are designed to help school districts predict who may “fall” next year and try to help them catch the children before they fall by giving those kids extra help, and by giving their parents a “heads up,” if necessary. The DIBELS tests are listening tests, mostly.  I have not seen any pictures in any of our DIBELS tests.  It depends on if the school district is using the old (original) DIBELS or the new “DIBELS Next,” which has been updated recently by the company that wrote the DIBELS program.  I am most familiar with the new DIBELS Next program, which is what my district now uses.  But as I recall when we used the old DIBELS tests last year, there were never any pictures. Here are the tests for the new DIBELS Next tests, as best as I can recall them.  

Kindergarten DIBELS Test 1: First Sound Fluency:  “Tell me the first sound of the word ____.”

They listen to an adult say a list of words, and then they give the beginning sound of each word as it is said.  The children have 60 seconds to give as many first sounds as they can.  They must focus, cooperate, and follow directions.  There are no pictures to look at.  The hardest part is that the child must try to listen for ONLY the beginning sound, and so if the word starts with two consonants, as in the word “sleep,” the children often want to give the sounds of both the S and the L.  They need to give the sound of the S only.  If the tester says a word such as “sheep,” then the child would give the “sh” sound.  The children have to give the sounds, not the letter names.  These tests can be hard for children that have poor auditory discrimination skills.  That means that they can’t seem to listen to sounds and tell the difference between one and another very easily.  For example, some children have a hard time telling the difference between the P and the B sound.  They are made in the same way with the lips in the same position, but they sound slightly different.  For the P sound, the vocal cords do not vibrate, but when we make the B sound, they do!  Some people have a hard time distinguishing between these sounds.  Sometimes, children who speak two languages have a little bit more trouble with this type of thing, and they develop the skills that are tested in DIBELS a bit more slowly.  This seems to be normal in that it happens fairly often, but not something that I would suggest you ignore.  Most children who are doing well in Kindergarten find this test to be quite easy by March.   

If your child still cannot figure out how to identify beginning sounds by spring of Kindergarten, I would certainly be quite concerned, and the first thing I would do is take the child to my pediatrician.  I would ask the pediatrician to first make sure that there is no underlying ear infection that is blocking my child’s ability to hear.  Then I would ask for him or her to give me a referral for a pediatric audiologist or perhaps an ear-nose-throat specialist, depending on how the ears look.  

The other thing that I would be concerned about is my child’s ability to focus and follow directions for sixty seconds.  I do believe that all Kindergarten children should be able to focus on this test for sixty seconds.  Now, I have found that most parents, when I suggest that a child may have problems focusing, will usually give a different opinion because they see their child focus on a computer or television screen for long periods of time.  I would like to point out that children need to be able to focus in school without the visual stimulation of the lights, bells, and whistles that electronics provide.   Children need to be able to focus and learn in a real school situation.  Denying that a problem may exist will not help your child get past this issue.  However, getting an evaluation from a professional may be the first step in getting some help.  (No, that doesn’t mean you have to medicate your child.  The information itself about your child is valuable and can help a teacher figure out what to do.)  It also may clear up any issues that arise if you have the child tested for ADHD and he does not have it, you can simply tell the teacher that you have had the child tested by a professional and apparently this is not the problem.  

Another possible reason that your child may have trouble with this test could be a deficit of auditory processing.  If your child simply doesn’t take in information or learn information (we call this processing) by listening, then a test that is based purely on listening skills is going to be particularly hard, if not impossible.  Children with auditory processing learning disabilities are smart children that simply don’t learn, or can’t learn exclusively by listening.  They can certainly learn in other ways, but just not through methods that are heavy on the listening end.  They need lots of visuals, movement, and speaking included in their lessons.  So, they need to use their other senses in order to compensate for the lack of the listening skills.  

Kindergarten DIBELS Test 2: Phoneme Segmentation Fluency  “Tell me all of the sounds you hear in the word ____.”

This is the name of the second test that kindergarten children take.  This is again a listening only test.  The tester says a word, and the children must tell them all of the sounds that they hear in that word.  So if the tester says “mud,” then the child must try to say “/m/ /u/ /d/.”  (The slashes indicate the sounds of each letters are said, rather than the letter names.)  If the tester says “hush,” then the child must say “/h/ /u/ /sh/.”  (The child would give the sound of the “sh” not the letters S and H that make the /sh/ sound.) The words on the list get pretty hard, such as “clunk,” and “pretty,” so it can be quite a challenge to give all of the sounds in the word.  And the children have to give as many sounds of the words as they can in 60 seconds.  They cannot freeze up and simply stop if they get frustrated.  They cannot ask questions; they must just keep going. The best thing to do is to practice with your child and make sure that telling the sounds that he or she hears in a word becomes commonplace.  The children are not penalized if they forget to name a sound in a word. They just need to keep going and tell as many sounds as they can in the sixty seconds that they have.  Start with beginning and ending sounds.  Once your child has mastered these, then start trying to pick out any middle sounds that your child can.  If you practice doing this even for just four or five minutes every day, your child will surely improve.  

Kindergarten DIBELS Test 3:   Letter Sound Fluency/ Whole Words Read  “Read these words.  These are pretend words.  If you can’t read the words, just say the letter sounds.”

 In this test, the children are given nonsense words to sound out and read.  They get a point for giving the letter sounds of each letter, but if they can read the whole word without sounding them out at all, then they are also given a point on a different test, called “Whole Words Read.”  It’s odd that DIBELS penalizes the children for sounding out the words, but it does.  So they are supposed to just read the word straight out without having to sound it out, and that makes them farther ahead than the child that sounds out the word carefully.   

The child that stops to sound each word out loud gets a score on the Letter Sound Fluency test instead. Basically, to do well on the letter sound fluency test, a child can be coached to simply ignore the instructions to read the words and give the sounds of each letter as fast as he or she can, and never mind trying to sound them out.  That is how the child can get the highest score on the Letter Sound Fluency test.

The child that can really read the Whole Words fluently, also gets credit for all of those sounds on the Letter Sound Fluency test. To get better at giving letter sounds fast, get a set of letter flash cards and a timer.  Have your child give the letter sounds as fast as he or she can.  Now try to beat your time.  Make a game out of it!  Do it every day a couple of times, and consider graphing your child’s progress.  With daily practice, you should start to see your child’s time decrease.  Letter sound fluency is a vitally important part of learning to read, so it is well worth your investment of time.

Good luck!


Follow me! Did you enjoy this post? Do me a favor and share it with your friends! And follow this blog by signing up for my email updates here, or follow on Bloglovin', or follow me on TPT! I'm also on Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, InstagramGoogle+ and YouTube, too! Don't forget to sign up for our email newsletter for special deals and promo codes that you won't find out about anywhere else.

Popular posts from this blog

How to Help Children That Have a Hard Time Learning the Alphabet

Teaching Second Graders to Write a Biography Report (Free Sample!)

Phonics Coloring Worksheets for Word Families! (Freebies!)

Teaching Phoneme Segmentation: Separating Sounds in Words (Freebies!)

Getting Control of a Very Difficult Class: TAKE TWO

Tips for Using the Michael Heggerty Phonemic Awareness Book

A Twist on the Headband Game!

An EASY Critical Thinking Game for K/1 Kids!

Instant Online Curriculum with HeidiSongs Pacing Guide/Curriculum Map and Internet Video!

New! Handmotion Posters to Supplement the Heggerty Phonemic Awareness Program!