Let’s Not Forget the Major Value of a Really Old Practice

Dr. Dick Burnett, Professor, Emeritus, UMSL

St. Louis Suburban Council


The informal reading inventory (IRI) goes back to teachers trying out books available to them on a new kid coming into their classrooms, attempting to find the one that seemed to ―have the best fit for the student in terms of which group he or she might be placed in to best advantage. That might be a considerable range in a one room schoolhouse with eight grades in a single classroom.

Through the years, teachers collected printed passages from the available books rather than asking the kids to read from several different books. With the popularity of ―graded readers based on the use of readability formulas, that practice became more standard.

College reading methods textbooks in the 20th century taught teachers various versions of the practice. It was after World War II, that Emmett Betts is credited with popularizing his criteria for constructing, administering, and recording results from this informal assessment strategy. Betts began the "formalization" of the process by coming up with his system for recording oral reading "errors" and criteria for determining instructional, recreational, and frustration levels of functioning.

In reading education classes of the past, students were often required to develop their own IRI and administer and interpret the results for a variety of kids, usually at least twenty-five, at various ages and grade levels. Today, a wide variety of published IRI‘s are available for use by teacher-education students and practicing teachers.

Interestingly, the opponents of structured reading instruction and reliance on graded reading textbooks also touted the practice of using materials of varying levels of difficulty to assess readers. Kenneth Goodman, a promoter of the Whole Language movement, researched and popularized "miscue analysis," a variation of Betts‘ system. Notice how much more positive the term "miscue" is than the term "error."

Through the years I‘ve often heard teachers complain, "I don‘t use IRI‘s. They‘re just too time-consuming for me to give to my class." Well, they miss the point. First of all, it was never intended that an IRI be given to every student in a class. Such assessment can be reserved for those individuals who appear to have especially troublesome deficiencies in reading. Secondly, the greatest value of IRI assessment is in the forming of a teacher‘s power of observing and inter-preting a reader‘s behaviors to draw valid instructional implications. With enough of that kind of experience, a teacher can make valid judgments while observing day-to-day performance. Unfortunately, without such formative experience in their past, teachers can remain dominated by published materials and unable to vary their instruction to meet individual student needs. If anything, the use of IRI‘s is at least as critical today as it has ever been in the past. That will hold true as long as we have the range of reading performance that we know may exist in "normal"classes, primary grades through high school.

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