As a classroom teacher, reading interventionist, and member of my school’s leadership team, I have seen the need for diagnostic phonics assessments in elementary schools. These phonics tests identify students’ current phonics proficiencies to determine those in need of intervention as well as student placement for small group instruction. I believe every student should have grade level instruction, regardless of the grade level or student ability. However, I also believe that every student should also receive small group instruction targeted to their specific phonics needs (if they have them). For many students, that means they’re also spending time (depending on the grade level and need) working on the phonics level they are currently at. For others, though, that means most of their small group instruction is targeted to comprehension or other needs. A diagnostic phonics test is the key indicator to determine a students’ decoding needs.
Assessing Students for Phonics Deficiencies
Begin with a Reading Screener
In many places, a screener is in place to determine students in need of further diagnostics. It identifies students working below grade level or those with holes that make them at risk for not progressing as expected. In many places, that screener is computerized. It makes sense- let’s start with something easy to administer to all students, and then spend our efforts drilling down to those students that need it. NWEA and iReady both are computerized screeners that are used widely. With that said, I think one should err on the side of caution with these. One assessment a former district of mine used did not assess phonics and phonemic awareness for third grade and above, and didn’t do phonological awareness above 2nd grade. If your district uses an electronic one, I would recommend assessing phonics needs for all students just at or below grade level, or having a second data source to help determine which students are in need of targeted phonics assessments.
The first, and probably most well-known screener, is DIBELS. It’s evolved over the years with further depths of assessments included. Companies have worked with the University of Oregon to make the materials and data more teacher-friendly and technologically accessible, though the original version was paper-pencil. DIBELS 8 printable materials can be downloaded for free from the University of Oregon website. Newer versions of the DIBELS assessment are part of Acadience Reading. As DIBELS has evolved over the years, it’s deepened and become more targeted. However, it remains a high-quality, data backed screener.
After the screener comes diagnostic assessments. Think of the meaning of the word diagnostics- things that diagnose. A diagnostic assessments’ aim is to identify what areas a student a student struggles with. With reading, 80% of below level readers have a decoding issue. A diagnostic phonics assessment will help you know where exactly a student’s weaknesses are and where to target your instruction.
As the “Science of Reading” has increased the need for systematic and sequential phonics, more and more states are passing laws requiring frequent and early diagnostics of foundational, phonetic skills. Therefore, your school or district may already have these things in place, or your state may already have guidance. But, in my experience, there are a lot of schools that aren’t yet systematic in their diagnostic assessments. These resources I’ve included here are high quality, free, or reasonably purchased by a teacher or school looking to drill down with their phonics assessments.
Move to Diagnostic Assessments
Once you have identified which students are in need of further tests to determine proficiencies, you are ready to start giving diagnostic assessments. For early readers, most diagnostic assessments focus on phonics and phonemic awareness. As students progress through the years and early skills can be eliminated as being the crux of reading difficulties, other diagnostic assessments can be given to help determine students’ weaknesses.
If you are looking for one resource you can use to identify and diagnose students’ reading deficiencies beyond just phonics, I would recommend CORE’s Assessing Reading: Multiple Measures book. It’s comprehensive, easy to administer, and includes interpretation and scoring guidance. It includes tests for phonological awareness, phonics or decoding, spelling, high-frequency words, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. It’s a great one stop shop to have in your back pocket when you want to dive deeper into a students’ needs. Because the assessments are individually administered, however, it’s best to use for students that you truly need a deeper dive with. Or, use the individual assessments to fit the hole’s in your existing assessment program. It’s relatively affordable for one individual teacher to purchase, though it’s on the more expensive end of the resources I’m sharing here. Certainly, it’s super affordable for an individual building to purchase, though.
Diagnostic Phonics Assessments
In my opinion, every K-3 student should receive a diagnostic phonics assessment at least twice a year- at the beginning and middle of the year in order to determine differentiated small groups. Beyond third grade, I think it’s worthwhile to give individual phonics tests to students not performing at grade level in reading using universal screening data. There are too many students that learn words through memorization, but struggle with phonetic skills, that start to struggle once texts get harder in 3rd and 4th grades. By assessing everyone, we’re not bypassing those on-level readers that truly do have deficiencies.
My favorite diagnostic phonics assessments include two key components: They are broken down by phonics skills and include nonsense words.
Some phonics tests I’ve seen out there aren’t broken down to the level that correlates well with phonics skill instruction. If we want to use the data from the assessment to identify where to start our phonics instruction or intervention, and we should since that’s the point, we need the assessment to be as equally as targeted as our scope and sequence of instruction. Mixing all vowel pairings together, for example, combines both diphthongs and vowel digraphs, making it difficult to identify exactly where students need instruction. Often, our instructional scope and sequence separates long vowel vowel teams from other vowel combinations. I’ve even seen some separate predictable vowels (ai and ay, for example that always make the long a sound) from unpredictable vowels (ea, for example, which is sometimes a long e sound but other times is a short e sound).
Some phonics programs include assessments with them to determine where to start instruction. If yours doesn’t, however, or you are looking for one for other reasons, the best one for you will align well with your current phonics scope & sequence. I suggest choosing an assessment that is broken down well. You can always look at the data in a more focused way and combine the information. It’s much harder to take a broad view and know how to best target your instruction.
I also prefer diagnostic phonics tests that include nonsense words. This ensures we aren’t misidentifying students in need of phonics practice that are great word recallers. It’s surprising, sometimes, when students that seem to be strong readers stumble through the nonsense words test. There are some differing opinions on using them with readers. In my opinion, as long as we are explicit with students that they are nonsense words, then they’re a great tool for measuring phonics (as well as practicing it). This ensures they’re not trying to identify it as a real word. I’ve seen too many students reach my 3rd grade classroom that have decent oral reading abilities, but start to fall apart and just guess when they’re presented with more complex texts with words they don’t already know. It’s important that we identify those students to give them the phonics instruction they need.
Here are my favorite affordable or free diagnostic phonics assessments and why they made the list.
My Top Choices for Phonics Tests
- The Quick Phonics Screener by Dr. Jan Hasbrouck includes not only a phonics screener for decoding, but also a new Quick Spelling Survey which can be used to screen for phonics needs based on encoding. For many students, their spelling is not at the level of their reading, so using the QSS to screen students for further needs, is a great baseline. You can find older editions of the QPS in Google searches for free. I really like that this tool moves from letter names and sounds all the way to multi-syllable words and words with prefixes and suffixes. If there’s one tool that could be used in elementary buildings, this is my top choice.
- The CORE Phonics Survey: This one is not my favorite due to the CVCe words being mixed with other long vowel spellings. While some programs do teach all of the long vowel spellings at the same time, I prefer assessments that separate these skills. They also include the word “dodge” in the short vowels and digraphs section and I feel it’s out of place there and better served within a later section. With that said, I’m aware of these “issues” with the assessment and it is still quite useful.
- EL Education’s Skills Block Assessments: EL Education’s Skills Block is aligned with Ehri’s phases. The assessments are intended to be used to determine placement within the program. However, they also do a great job of looking at students decoding and encoding. Both versions of the assessment (decoding and encoding) should be used to determine students’ placement in the phases and error analysis can be used to determine exactly which skills students are proficient in. It’s not as broken down as others, due to its alignment with the phases, but I still think it’s a worthwhile free option. The assessments, instructions, and scoring guidance can be found within the K-2 Resource Manual. You could then record observations based on the assessments to know where to target instruction.
- Really Great Reading’s Decoding Surveys: They offer a suite of decoding surveys for various grade levels and even include a free web-based Grouping Matrix. The beginning and advanced decoding surveys include high frequency words (they call them sight words), words in context, and a separation between real and nonsense words. Their error analysis pages are also super helpful to help identify skills students need. The 1st grade foundational skills survey, which includes some work with multi-syllable words, could replace the beginning decoding survey, in my opinion.
Looking to Track Your Phonics Data?
Once you have given your diagnostic phonics assessments, you need to look at the data and use it to drive your instruction. My data serves two purposes: to look at my class as a whole and determine instructional needs for all and within my small groups; and to set individual student goals. Over the last several years, the building I’ve worked in hasn’t had a set way of tracking the data across the year. I’ve created this phonics data tracker to help me keep track of my students’ individual performance, and to help me look at their phonics subskills to create my small groups.
One thing I love about this tracker is that the student data pages auto-populate without any extra work! This makes it so easy to look at individual student performance to set goals for RtI, MTSS, and IEP meetings. It also helps me have data conversations with individual students. It is preset with the Quick Phonics Screener skills and scoring, but it is editable so you can use it with any phonics assessments you’re using.
I created a video tutorial to walk you through how to use this phonics data spreadsheet. You can watch it above but I’ve also included it within the file for easy access. To get your free diagnostic phonics assessment data tracker, fill out the form below. It’ll be sent to you immediately after you confirm your email.
Phonological Awareness Assessments
For many students, the root of their decoding troubles is phonological. For students with reading disabilities, it’s frequently a phonological processing deficit that makes learning to read a challenge. I use the information I get from my phonics assessments to determine which students are in need of a phonological awareness assessment. It’s the students that correctly say the sounds in the word but blend it into a different word. Or, students that struggle to move past the blends level. Students may be struggling with other areas of phonological awareness, but blending and working with words with 4+ sounds is usually the big indicator for me that we need to further assess phonemic awareness to find skills to target. With that said, that’s my thinking with older students- those that should already be proficient with phonemic awareness. For younger students, in kindergarten and first grade, I believe a phonemic awareness or phonological awareness assessment should be given to every student and tracked throughout the year.
- Heggerty offers screener assessments for 2nd grade and above on their website. There are also additional strand assessments they help identify where in the Heggerty program to begin instruction with students in need of intervention. There are also assessments for kindergarten and first grade focused on expected skills at those grade levels. You can access the screener, and their additional assessments, for free on the Downloads section of the Heggerty website.
- The PAST test (Phonological Awareness Screening Test) by David Kilpatrick is quite common. Equipped for Reading Success is a tremendous book by Dr. David Kilpatrick that walks teachers through explicit practices to improve a students’ phonological awareness. It includes the PAST assessment along with resources to target instruction after determining student need.
- Really Great Reading’s Phonological/Phonemic Awareness Survey might be my favorite phonemic awareness assessment that I can use to drive instruction. It begins with phonological awareness tasks such as combining compound words, two-syllable words, and onset-rimes. Then it moves into phonemic level work including matching, identifying, blending, segmenting, and manipulation. Rhyming is not included, which you may miss, but rhyming isn’t as important of a skill as phonemic level skills. I tend to think of it as a byproduct, rather than a skill that must be practiced on its own.
- EL Education’s Phonological Awareness assessment is focused on the phoneme level with the exception of rhyming. While it leaves out other phonological awareness tasks, it’s a great option for determining a students’ phonemic awareness deficiencies in order to target instruction.
For more information on phonological and phonemic awareness check out
Or, if you’re looking for phonics resources, take I list my favorites here: 6 Top Sites for Phonics Resources to Enhance your Instruction