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What are DIBELS?

Article Date: 
16 March, 2012 (All day)

As parents we attend Parent/Teacher Conferences because we are concerned about our children. We want to know how they are doing in school socially, academically, and gain some insight into our children’s lives when they are away from home. Teachers dutifully tell us our child’s academic strengths, weaknesses, and provide some knowledge regarding social growth. At some point during the conference DIBELS scores are mentioned. The purpose of this article is to provide basic information regarding DIBELS so you, as parents/guardians, will have a better understanding of what DIBELS scores mean for your child. It is important to understand how DIBELS works so you will be better equipped to be your child’s advocate. So, what are DIBELS?

DIBELS is an acronym for Dynamic Indicators in Basic Early Literacy Skills. DIBELS were developed to identify children who are in need of support to achieve reading goals as well as measure growth and development over time. Most often the data from DIBELS is used to monitor individual student growth. Think of DIBELS as indicators of general reading ability in the same way we think of a car’s control panel as indicators of the cars overall capability to perform at optimum levels.

DIBELS are indicators of the five basic early literacy skills children need in order to learn to be successful readers. The five basic literacy skills as outlined by the National Reading Panel are: Phonemic awareness, Alphabetic principle and phonics, Accuracy and fluency with connected text, Vocabulary, and Comprehension. To better understand each DIBELS measure it is necessary to understand each of the basic literacy skills. Please keep in mind that these skills are not taught in isolation, reading is carefully orchestrated so that all parts are taught together, but one area may receive more of an emphasis at one time or another.

Phonemic Awareness is a set of skills that can be done with eyes closed. Phonemic awareness skills are gained through listening and speaking. Rhyming, alliteration, and singing, are phonemic awareness activities. These activities broaden a young child’s schema or background and begin to prepare him/her for more advanced skills. Children who are read to acquire these skills naturally and are easily able to demonstrate skills related to phonemic awareness. Don’t forget talking to your toddlers and preschoolers is also key to acquiring phonemic awareness and provides a head start to an extensive oral vocabulary. As phonemic awareness skills become strong, children automatically begin to realize that sounds (phonemes) are represented by symbols or graphemes. 

Phonics instruction helps children learn the relationships between the letters of a written language and the sounds of their spoken language. Reading and writing go hand in hand. Encourage writing. When your child “writes” something encourage him/her to” read” it to you. Explicit phonics instruction teaches children the sound symbol relationship and they begin to learn conventional spelling and learn decoding skills. Alphabetic principal is the systematic and predictable relationships between written letters and spoken sounds. When alphabetic principal is understood and phonics instruction is underway children are eager to begin reading connected text. An emerging reader asks excitedly, “Do you want to listen to me read this book?”  The book that is being “read” is usually a favorite that has been memorized after many repeated readings. This type of “reading” is the next step toward becoming a fluent reader.  

Fluency is often misunderstood. Fluent reading is the ability to read a text quickly, accurately, and with proper expression while bringing meaning to the text. Fluency is NOT reading as fast as possible. The part of fluency that is confusing is that a child needs be able to read a certain number of words correctly per minute in order to comprehend what is being read. The flip side is reading too fast is just as detrimental to comprehension. These children simply become “word callers” and are often considered “good readers” because they can read above the specified number of words per minute for their grade level. When asked to tell about what was read there is very little recall.

Comprehension is the purpose for reading.  A vast oral vocabulary is valuable to readers. A broad oral vocabulary enables a reader to recognize and understand unfamiliar words when encountered in print. Children who read more than their peers tend to have larger oral vocabularies than their peers who read less. A large vocabulary has a direct impact on reading comprehension. Now with some understanding of the five basic literacy skills it will be much easier to understand the measures that indicate areas of strength and weakness as determined through the use of DIBELS.  Remember the analogy of the car control panel? When a light comes on it means that there is something in the car that needs attention. The light may be an indicator that it could be a minor problem if dealt with quickly. However, if the light is ignored serious car problems may develop. DIBELS indicators work in much the same way.

 Benchmarks are established. If a child is “At or Above Benchmark”, that child is most likely to be a successful reader and may continue the course of current instruction. When a child falls into the area that falls “Below Benchmark” this child is considered to need strategic support. Children in the “Below Benchmark” area need support that may be given by the classroom teacher in the form of small-group-differentiated instruction or the support may come from small-group-targeted instruction from the school intervention program under the direction of the reading teacher. The area of most concern is that of “Well Below Benchmark”.  Children who are well below benchmark need intensive support to provide them with the necessary tools and skills to get them to benchmark. Intensive support may be provided by the reading teacher or may be through the Special Education Department. Hopefully, this explanation of the five basic literacy skills and DIBELS used as a screening assessment will help you, as parents, ask the “right” questions when it comes to your children and reading. 

When a light comes on in your car’s control panel you take your car to the expert to avoid further problems. Think of DIBELS as lights in your child’s “reading control panel”. When a “light” comes on don’t ignore it hoping it will eventually go out or blink brighter if the problem worsens. Seek help from experts immediately. Success in reading equals success in life.