Methods of Assessing Cognitive Aspects of Early Reading Development

S. Wren, 2002 SEDL


If all children are to become successful readers, teachers need to become extremely sophisticated and diagnostic in their approach to reading instruction. To help teachers develop a sophisticated understanding of the cognitive development that takes place as children learn to read, SEDL has created The Cognitive Foundations of Learning to Read: A Framework. This framework describes in some detail the various cognitive domains that research has shown to be necessary for reading acquisition, and it also illustrates the interrelationships that exist among these various cognitive domains.

In addition to understanding what is important for all children learning to read, it is also very important that teachers understand how to assess individual children’s development in each of the cognitive domains described in the framework. Assessment should always inform instruction. Individual children come with such diverse backgrounds and skills that it is necessary to cater their instruction to their individual strengths. Ongoing assessment is necessary to discover each child’s reading instruction needs.

There are a variety of approaches that can be used to assess early reading skills, and teachers should be familiar with the different approaches commonly used to assess early reading skill development. To assist teachers in their assessment of the reading development of their students, common approaches for assessment for each of the cognitive domains outlined in SEDL’s framework of reading acquisition are described in this paper. This description of the various assessment techniques can be used to help teachers to design their own classroom assessments, and may help teachers to better understand the district or campus assessments that are already being used with their students.

Certainly “reading assessments” should not be strictly restricted to the cognitive development of each child — it is important to also assess other, more affective aspects (such as motivation, enjoyment, interest and habit), as well as situational aspects (such as availability of appropriate literature and home support). The assessment approaches described in this paper focus on the cognitive development that research has shown to be important for developing early reading skills, but teachers are advised to use a broader sample of assessments to inform their instruction.

Before examining these assessment descriptions, it may be useful to take some time to familiarize yourself with SEDL’s framework of reading acquisition ( Because the framework provides a useful guide to inform both instruction and assessment, it makes sense to use it to inform the current discussion of assessment approaches.

Referring to the framework, we will begin with the “top three” elements on the framework, reading comprehension, decoding, and language comprehension. Then we will move to a description of assessments that are commonly used for the various cognitive domains that support language comprehension (background knowledge, linguistic knowledge, phonology, semantics, and syntax). And last we will discuss assessment approaches commonly used for the cognitive domains that support decoding (cipher knowledge, lexical knowledge, phoneme awareness, letter knowledge, knowledge of the alphabetic principle, and concepts about print).

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