Upon entering the classroom of 5-year-olds, a buzz of activity
captures the visitor's attention. Children working in small groups
are busily pursuing a number of activities. One group is drawing
illustrations for the big book that the class wrote describing their
trip to Pizza Hut. Another group is creating menus for the restaurant
they are setting up in the dramatic play area. "Don't forget
to put `We have pepperoni' on your menu," one child says. The
other children nod their heads and continue drawing and writing on their
papers. One child is bent over a large sheet of construction paper,
marker in hand. He is carefully copying the words "Pizza Hut"
from the word wall the children have created. When finished, he tapes
the paper to two chairs he has placed in front of the dramatic play
area. "Here's the sign," he tells I the others. Three
other children are looking at a recipe book, discussing the "
gredients" they will need to make the pizzas. Another group is
looking at books about restaurants in the literacy corner.
These are some typical functional reading and writing activities
that one would find in early childhood classrooms throughout the United
States. The children are demonstrating their understanding of reading
and writing through purposeful experiences. Accurately and appropriately
assessing the progress of young children's literacy development is
a challenge, however. The teacher must select a type of assessment that
will document what the child can do, as well as what the child knows.
There are many types of authentic or performance assessments a teacher
could use to document the skills being demonstrated by the children in
this classroom: checklists, anecdotal notes, videotapes, and work
samples are some of the ways to accurately document, in a realistic
setting, the children's behaviors and skills.
A checklist is a list of sequential skills or behaviors arranged
into categories and used to determine whether a child exhibits the
behaviors or skills listed (Mandell, 2001; Puckett & Black, 1994;
Wortham, 2001). Teachers can quickly and easily observe groups of
children, and check the behavior or skill each child is demonstrating at
a particular moment. A number of published checklists have been
developed by researchers and leading authorities within the field. The
teacher may choose to use one of these, or create a new one based on the
unique goals of the program.
A checklist can document the many forms of children' s
emerging reading and writing skills. For example, the children from the
featured classroom who are drawing illustrations for the big book are
demonstrating the understanding that illustrations and text are related.
Their teacher could easily mark on a checklist which children are able
to draw pictures that relate to the printed text.
The same checklist could be used to document the children's
writing skills as they work on the menus and the sign. Careful
observation will allow the teacher to quickly determine if the children
are writing from left to right, using capital and/or lower-case letters,
creating spaces between words, showing an understanding that print has a
purpose, and demonstrating any other skills listed on the checklist. The
teacher places a check by observed skills or behaviors. As the teacher
moves throughout the classroom, she / he can easily document the
presence--or absence--of a variety of literacy skills.
When using checklists, it is important to remember that the skills,
and the sequence in which they are listed, are only guidelines. Each
child has her / his own developmental timetable and may or may not be
capable of using certain skills. It is also important to remember that
the checklist only documents the absence or presence of the skill or
behavior during the time of the observation. It does not mean that the
skill or behavior is not part of the child's repertoire.
Although checklists are easy to use, they cannot capture the
richness or depth of children's interactions as they engage in
literacy activities. Therefore, the teacher may want to use anecdotal
notes / observations to gather more details. Anecdotal
notes/observations are written descriptions that provide a short,
objective account of an event or incident. Only the facts are
reported--what happened, and when and where it occurred. This type of
information can be used to provide insights that will help the teacher
more fully understand a child's behavior or use of skills.
Anecdotal notes/observations are especially useful for documenting
interesting, humorous, and/or significant incidents involving individual
children (Puckett & Black, 1994; Wortham, 2001).
The teacher of the classroom described in the opening scenario
might have chosen to use anecdotal notes to record how one of the
children went about making the Pizza Hut sign. Although only factual
information is recorded during the observation, the teacher may want to
reflect upon the incident at a later time, to put the incident into a
context for this particular child.
The above anecdotal note/observation provides details that cannot
be reflected in a checklist. The teacher was able to capture the
intensity of Mark's effort, as well as specific information
regarding the strategies he used to accomplish the task.
Of course, this entire episode, or any of the other activities,
could be videotaped. Although anecdotal notes may provide more details,
the videotape can show an incident from beginning to end, capturing all
of the children's use of language, as well as their expressions and
subtle actions that otherwise could be missed while the teacher is
jotting down notes. The teacher can then review the videotapes when time
permits and record the information using checklists and/or anecdotal
notes. The teacher may decide to keep the videotaped incident to share
with parents at conference time, or reuse the tape.
If video equipment is not available, a tape recorder can be a
useful assessment tool. Audiotapes of children's conversations are
especially valuable if the teacher wants information about their
language development. An audiotape of the three children from the
opening paragraph who were looking at the recipe book and discussing
ingredients could provide the teacher with a wealth of information
regarding the children's vocabulary and their knowledge of sentence
structure, verb tense, enunciation, etc. Again, the teacher could listen
to the tape when time permits, document the information, and then decide
whether to save the recorded incident or tape over it.
Work samples provide another powerful example of what children can
do, offering the teacher opportunities to assess children's
behaviors and understandings as they engage in authentic experiences.
All teachers understand the importance of collecting and carefully
assessing children's written work. In the beginning scenario, the
teacher would have access to the children's illustrations, the
menus they created, and Mark's Pizza Hut sign. The teacher then
could document any skills demonstrated on the prepared checklist, or she
could choose to write a short anecdotal reflection.
Selecting the Strategy
The biggest challenge for teachers of young children is deciding
how to obtain the needed information about their literacy development.
The teacher must review the activities that are planned for the day and
determine which assessment strategy or strategies would be most
In the opening scenario, the teacher and children had decided to
create their own restaurant. The day before, they had brainstormed all
the things they would need to create and "run" the restaurant.
Based on this discussion, the teacher realized that children would be
engaged in many different experiences. Therefore, she decided to use her
literacy checklist to document the emerging reading and writing skills
the children were demonstrating. She also slipped into the literacy
corner and turned on the tape recorder while the children were
discussing "gredients" for their pizza. She chose to use an
anecdotal note to record how Mark created the Pizza Hut sign. By keeping
note cards and a pencil in her pocket, she was able to easily record the
incident and then, using the checklist, continue the assessments. To
determine the most appropriate assessment instrument to use for each
situation, this teacher determined what she wanted to assess and
considered the most efficient and effective means for recording that
Implementing the Strategy
Regardless of which types of assessment methods are chosen, the
teacher must schedule time to review and reflect on the collected
information. For an authentic assessment approach to be successful, a
teacher must take time to think about what children already know and are
able to do, and about what skills they will need to develop further.
Teachers need time to determine children's interests, abilities,
and any areas of concern. Regularly scheduling a time to review and
reflect will allow teachers to achieve the insight they need to develop
a clear understanding of the progress each child is making, and to plan
appropriate experiences that develop a positive attitude toward reading
and writing, along with the necessary skills and understandings.
Over time, the teacher's ability to authentically assess
children's emerging literacy skills will improve, and the process
then becomes a natural part of daily life in the classroom. A slow,
manageable, informed approach for using authentic or performance
assessment to document children's emerging literacy then can be
expanded into all curriculum areas. As teachers feel more comfortable
and confident, more methods can be added to their assessment repertoire.
The use of authentic or performance assessment will provide a more
complete picture of children's progress in all areas of
An additional benefit to using authentic assessment is that the
teacher can share information he or she collects regarding a
child's progress with the family. Family members enjoy seeing their
child on video or in photographs, as well as samples of his/her work.
Furthermore, the teacher has concrete evidence of progress to share with
the family. As the teacher is discussing the progress the child is
demonstrating, she/he can show the family actual evidence of that
progress. This helps families to better understand what the teacher is
assessing and how the child is demonstrating the skill(s).
Using authentic assessment strategies to document children's
emerging literacy skills is time-consuming, and may appear to be an
overwhelming task for teachers. With time and practice, however, the use
of authentic assessment methods can become a natural, daily part of
Nov. 14, 2000
Mark center time
(had announced during planning time that he would make the sign for
our Pizza Hut restaurant) Alone at table, with a large sheet of
construction paper and red marker Looks up from work, points to word
wall, squints when saying "p" points to "p" written
on paper with the marker he is holding "i" "z"
(follows same procedure as before), stops, looks at word wall, bends
down over the paper, writes "z" (tongue is sticking out of
mouth, brow creased) repeats process: "p-i-z-z-a! Like in
Mark does not typically choose to engage in writing activities.
Mark struggles when forming letters, and his effort was evident as he
stuck out his tongue and slowly formed each letter. This is also one of
the few times I have heard him naming letters. Mark shared his sign with
the class during sharing time and the entire class applauded. Mark
For Further Reading
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children to achieve: Excerpt from "Children achieving: Best
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I come.) Investigations in children's emergence as readers and
writers. Young Children, 49(6), 52-55.
Benson, T. R. (1995). Portfolio-based assessment: Tips for a
successful start. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 23(2), 21-23.
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collection of work enough? Young Children, 53(3), 4-10.
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Puckett, M. B., & Black, J. K. (1994). Authentic assessment of
the young child: Celebrating development and learning. New York:
Wortham, S. C. (2001). Assessment in early childhood education (3rd
ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Nancy J. ratcliff is Assistant Professsor, department of Childhood
Education, University of South Florida, Tampa.