Letter: DIBELS worse than ‘nothing’: DIBELS harms children!

October 8, 2007


The following is important and I hope you will share it with your readers.

From: Reading Research Quarterly

The DIBELS Tests: Is Speed of Barking at Print What We Mean by Reading Fluency?

S. Jay Samuels, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA

As one of the reviewers of Brant Riedel’s study of DIBELS, I reflected on his revisions and findings. I concluded that his study was important for the following reasons. He investigated the extent to which five DIBELS instruments predict poor versus satisfactory comprehension; his literature review incorporated a comprehensive overview of research that attempted to validate DIBELS as a test, and he pulled together reports that are critical of DIBELS.

In Riedel’s study, students were administered the following tests: Letter Naming Fluency, Nonsense Word Fluency, Phoneme Segmentation Fluency, Oral Reading Fluency, and Retell Fluency. These tests were used to determine if they could predict students’ first and second-grade reading comprehension status. He concluded that:

“If the goal of DIBELS administration is to identify students at risk for reading comprehension difficulties, the present results suggest that by the middle of first grade, administration of DIBELS subtests other than ORF is not necessary. The minimal gains do not justify the time and effort.”

Other than the test of Oral Reading Fluency, Riedel’s findings lead one to question whether the widespread use of the other DIBELS tests is justified.

The DIBELS’s battery of tests, which are used to assess more than 1,800,000 students from kindergarten to grade 6, aim to identify students who may be at risk of reading failure, to monitor their progress, and to guide instruction. With the widespread use of DIBELS tests, a number of scholars in the field of reading have evaluated them, and not all of their evaluations have been flattering. For example, Pearson (2006, p. v) stated,

“I have built a reputation for taking positions characterized as situated in ‘the radical middle’. Not so on DIBELS. I have decided to join that group convinced that DIBELS is the worst thing to happen to the teaching of reading since the development of flash cards.”

Goodman (2006), who was one of the key developers of whole language, is concerned that despite warnings to the contrary, the tests have become a de facto curriculum in which the emphasis on speed convinces students that the goal in reading is to be able to read fast and that understanding is of secondary importance. Pressley, Hilden, and Shankland (2005, p. 2) studied the Oral Reading Fluency and Retelling Fluency measures that are part of DIBELS. They concluded that “DIBELS mispredicts reading performance much of the time, and at best is a measure of who reads quickly without regard to whether the reader comprehends what is read.”

If Riedel’s conclusion that administration of subtests other than Oral Reading Fluency is not necessary for prediction of end-of-first- and second-grade comprehension, in combination with the critical evaluations of DIBELS by some of our leading scholars in reading is not enough to raise the red flag of caution about the widespread use of DIBELS instruments, I have an additional concern about the misuse of the term fluency that is attached to each of the tests. Because each of the tests is labeled as a fluency test, it is only fair game to see if that term is justified.

I contend that with the exception of the Retell Fluency test, none of the DIBELS instruments are tests of fluency, only speed, and that the Retell Fluency test is so hampered by the unreliability of accurately counting the stream of words the student utters as to make that test worthless. Let us not forget that, in the absence of reliability, no test is valid.

To understand the essential characteristic of fluency, and what its window dressings are, we must look to automaticity theory for guidance (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974). At the risk of over-simplification, in order to comprehend a text, one must identify the words on the page and one must construct their meaning. If all of a reader’s cognitive resources are focused on and consumed by word recognition, as happens with beginning reading, then comprehension cannot occur at the same time. However, once beginning readers have identified the words in the text, they then switch their cognitive resources to constructing meaning. Note that a beginning reader’s strategy is sequential, first word recognition and then comprehension.

How can we describe the reading process for students who have become automatic at word recognition as the result of one or more years of instruction and practice? For them, the reading process is different. When the decoding task is automatic, the student can do both the decoding and the comprehension tasks at the same time. The fluency section in the National Reading Panel report (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000, p. 3-8) stated precisely the same idea: “The fluent reader is one who can perform multiple tasks-such as word recognition and comprehension-at the same time.”

It is the simultaneity of decoding and comprehension that is the essential characteristic of reading fluency. Secondary characteristics of fluency such as speed, accuracy, and expression are indicators, but not the essential characteristics.

For example, I can read Spanish orally with accuracy and speed, but I am unable to understand what I have read. Am I fluent in Spanish? No! Nor does the ability to read nonsense jabberwocky with expression capture the essential characteristic of fluency. Thus, one criticism I have of the DIBELS tests is that, despite their labels, they are not valid tests of the construct of fluency as it is widely understood and defined. They assess only accuracy and speed.

The creators of DIBELS are guilty of reification. By attaching the term fluency to their tests, they create the false assumption that that is what their tests measure. I have another criticism. As Riedel reports in his research, about 15 percent of the students who take the Oral Reading Fluency test get misidentified as good readers, when, in fact, they have poor comprehension. These misidentified students are often English-language learners who have vocabulary problems that interfere with comprehension.

Almost all the validation studies for DIBELS have used a procedure that mimics what beginning readers do when they read a text, but not what fluent readers do. As I described (1994, p. 821) in my updated version of the LaBerge and Samuels (1974) model of reading, beginning readers first decode the words in the text. Having decoded the words, the reader then switches attention over to getting meaning, a two-step process. In validating the DIBELS tests, the researcher is likely to get a reading speed score on the DIBELS test, and at a different time, on a different test, such as comprehension, the researcher gets a score for the student on the second test. Then the scores are correlated, and under these conditions the two scores may correlate quite well. However, this two-step sequence is what beginning readers do when they read, not what skilled readers do.

What we need, instead, are tests that mimic fluent reading, that demand simultaneous decoding and comprehension. In order to do that, the researcher must inform students that as soon as the oral reading is done, the student will be asked comprehension questions. Under these conditions, the student must decode and comprehend at the same time. When such testing conditions are used, at least one researcher (Cramer, in press) has failed to find a significant correlation between oral reading speed and comprehension. Failure to find that reading speed and comprehension correlate significantly makes sense when the reading task demands simultaneous decoding and comprehension. If one reads too fast, comprehension is compromised; thus, slowing down can improve comprehension. Graduate students studying for exams know that reading speed can be the enemy of comprehension.

Let me summarize my position.

The most legitimate use of oral reading speed is as Deno (1985) brilliantly conceptualized it: a way to monitor student progress. However, the danger of using reading speed as the measure of progress is that some students and teachers focus on speed at the expense of understanding. One should note that the misuse of the term fluency is not found in Deno’s original groundbreaking work on curriculum-based measurement. The developers of DIBELS would do the reading field a service by dropping the term fluency from their tests. That said, there is need to develop new tests that that can measure fluency developmentally across grades. To do this, the testing demands would require that students simultaneously decode and comprehend using texts that increase in difficulty. Because the reading field already has a theory for conceptualizing fluency, and the expertise for developing standardized tests, it is time to move forward in developing theoretically and pedagogically sound measures of fluency.

S. JAY SAMUELS is a professor of education psychology and of curriculum and instruction at the University of Minnesota (College of Education and Human Development, Department of Educational Psychology, Burton Hall, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA; e-mail He served on the National Reading Panel and coauthored the fluency section of the panel’s report. He is the recipient of the International Reading Association’s William S. Gray Citation of Merit and the National Reading Conference’s Oscar S. Causey Award, and is a member of the Reading Hall of Fame.


Cramer, K. (in press). Effect of degree of challenge on reading performance. Reading and Writing Quarterly.

Deno, S. (1985). Curriculum based measurement: The emerging alternative. Exceptional Children, 52, 219-232.

Goodman, K.S. (2006). A critical review of DIBELS. In K.S. Goodman (Ed.), The truth about DIBELS: What it is, what it does (pp. 1-39). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

LaBerge, D., & Samuels, S.J. (1974). Toward a theory of automatic information processing in reading. Cognitive Psychology, 6, 293-323.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Pearson, P.D. (2006). Foreword. In K.S. Goodman (Ed.), The truth about DIBELS: What it is, what it does (pp. v-xix). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Pressley, M., Hilden, K., & Shankland, R. (2005). An evaluation of end-grade-3 Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS): Speed reading without comprehension, predicting little (Tech. Rep.). East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University, Literacy Achievement Research Center.

Samuels, S.J. (1994). Toward a theory of automatic information processing in reading, revisited. In R. Ruddell, M.R. Ruddell, & H. Singer (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (4th ed., pp. 816-837). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Priscilla Gutierrez

Outreach Specialist

New Mexico School for the Deaf


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