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DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) is a series of short tests that assess early childhood (K-6) literacy.
It is a set of procedures and measures for assessing the acquisition of a set of K-6 literacy skills, such as phonemic awareness, alphabetic principle, accuracy and fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The theory behind DIBELS is that giving primary school students a number of quick tests, educators will have the data to identify students who need additional assistance and to monitor the effectiveness of intervention strategies.
This formative early literacy assessment was created by Dr. Roland Good and Dr. Ruth Kaminski of the Dynamic Measurement Group. Research about this type of testing was first done at the University of Oregon. DIBELS is used by some kindergarten through sixth grade teachers in the United States to screen for whether students are at risk of reading difficulty, and to monitor student progress and guide instruction.
The DIBELS comprise a developmental sequence of one-minute measures: recognizing initial sounds (phonemic awareness), naming the letters of the alphabet (alphabetic principle), segmenting words into phonemes (phonemic awareness), reading nonsense words (alphabetic principle), oral reading of a passage (accuracy and fluency), retelling (comprehension), and word use (vocabulary).
DIBELS has become a fairly widely used assessment for early reading intervention by many schools in the United States but since its development and release there have been many critics challenging the effectiveness and validity of the DIBELS assessments. One criticism has been that although the Official DIBELS homepage claims that there is an abundance of research validating the DIBELS assessments much of that was unpublished. “Of the 89 references listed, only 18 are published in professional refereed journals in the fields of psychology, special education, or music therapy, and eight are chapters in edited books” (Nancy Rankie Shelton, 2009). Reidel (2007) has a similar criticism in saying that the DIBELS developers claim that the research base was the reason for the widespread use of the assessments, but critics say the political pressure to use DIBELS as a part of the Reading First Initiative was the reason for the widespread adoption. In 2005 an article by Kathleen Manzo states; DIBELS got the competitive edge because its developers and their colleagues at the University of Oregon were consultants to the U.S. Department of Education for Reading First, with one of the main developers, Mr. Good, being one of the persons who evaluated 29 early literacy tests including his own product.
Brant Riedel (2007) wrote, “… the ORF [Oral Reading Fluency] task emphasizes speed rather than comprehension and may actually penalize students who are carefully searching for meaning within the text.” This is a concern that has been brought up by other researchers and teachers as well. Bellinger (2011) said that a 1 minute reading test may not be enough to measure comprehension, because they are only allowed to read for such a short amount of time, and the amount of information that is meaningful is limited. She goes on to say that because the ORF emphasizes students read quickly and correctly they may be more focused on reading for speed than meaning. Michael Pressley and educator at the University of Michigan states, “… if you want a test of whether kids can read fast with low comprehension, then DIBELS is great, and these [tested skills] become your end goal, DIBELS is leading teachers to infer the wrong end goal, which is to read words fast (Manzo, 2005).
Nancy Rankie Shelton and associates (2009) used DIBELS as an assessment in a research study with 2nd grade students, and compared it to fluency and comprehension with literature in the classroom. It is important to note that the retell fluency test (RTF) is meant to be used to validate the ORF scores, and is the only component in DIBELS that attends to comprehension. If the RTF score is at least 50% of the ORF score than it is validated, but if it falls below 25% the ORF score is not validated. The researchers used the RTF along with the ORF to help measure comprehension and found that the DIBELS scoring guide gave them no information about how to proceed with students whose ORF was not validated by their RTF scores. The findings of the study indicated that the DIBELS ORF/RTF score and the ORF/RTF score of literature in the classroom had no connection.
In 2007 Brant Reidel conducted a study of the effectiveness of the DIBELS subtests with 1st grade students. As noted above in the subtest section DIBELS recommends using the initial sound Fluency(ISF), Phoneme Segmentation Fluency (PSF), and Nonsense Word Fluency (NWF) subtests with 1st grade students adding in the ORF subtest half way through the year. Reidel (2007) found that the PSF score was a poor indicator of reading comprehension. He found that at the point when the 1st grade students began taking the ORF test it proved to be the single best predictor of comprehension at the end of first grade. With these results he speculated that if it was the goal of the DIBELS administration to help identify students who may be at risk for reading comprehension difficulties then administering any other subtests besides the ORF by the middle of first grade was unnecessary. Reidel also stated that although the RTF subtest was meant to be a measure of comprehension it proved to be a weaker indicator of comprehension than the ORF score alone.
Jillian M Billinger (2011) conducted a study to test the reliability and validity of the story retell task (RTF). In this study, examiners scored retells in live time and from a digital recording. Results indicated that there was a significant difference, with a large effect, between retells scored in real time verses those scored from a digital recording. In addition, there was a low relationship between retell fluency scores and scores from the Woodcock Johson Reading Comprehension Composite. She stated that, “The low level of predictive validity of RTF scores suggests that the 1 minute read and retell procedure may not accurately assess students’ reading comprehension.”
Oral reading Fluency was strongly related to performance on all ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) subtests except listening at all testing points starting in the winter of first grade (Stephen G. Schilling, 2007). Schilling worked with students in 1st through 3rd grades, and also stated that the scores from any other subtest except ORF at the end of 1st grade were minimal in predicting success on state testing. It should be noted that the teachers were encouraged to use DIBELS results in helping them make decision about reading instruction.
One research group, Amy R. Hoffman and associates, (2009) sent out a survey to classroom teachers, reading specialists, administrators, university teachers, and special education teachers. She also conducted face to face interviews asking professional if they use DIBELS and how, and what parts. The biggest response regarding the subtests was the RTF measure was the least frequently administered, and the disadvantages were an overemphasis on speed and the use of nonsense words.
Amy R. Hoffman, J. E. (2009). Using DIBELS: A survey of purposes and practices. Reading Psychology, 30, 1-16.
Catherine T. Goffreda, J. C. (2009). Preventive screening for early readers: predictive validity of the Dynamic indicators of basic early literacy skills (DIBELS). Psychology in the Schools, 46 (6), 539-552.
Jillian M. Bellinger, J. C. (2011). Is fluency-based story retell a good indicator of reading comprehension? Psychology in the Schools, 48 (4), 416-426.
Manzo, K. K. (2005). National clout of DIBELS test draws scrutiny. Education Week, 25 (5), 1-12.
Nancy Rankie Shelton, B. A. (2009). Does DIBELS put reading first? Literacy Research and Instruction, 137-147.
Riedel, B. W. (2007). The relation between DIBELS reading comprehension, and vocabulary in urban first grade students. Reading Research Quarterly, 42 (4), 546-567.
Stephen G. Schilling, J. F. (2007). Are fluency measures accurate predictors of reading achievement? The Elementary School Journal, 107 (5), 429-447.
Young-Suk Kim, Y. P. (2010). Does growth rate in oral reading fluency matter in predicting reading comprehension achievement? Journal of Educational Psychology, 102 (3), 652-667.