Literacy assessments: the importance of reading with understanding

By Peter-Sam Hill, Education Consultant, Oxford Policy Management

“Literacy stands at heart of the 2030 Agenda. It is a foundation for human rights, gender equality, and sustainable societies. It is essential to all our efforts to end extreme poverty and promote well-being for all people.” Ban Ki-Moon, 2016

Great things are expected of literacy: if more people become literate they will learn more, be healthier and participate more productively in civic life. Governance will improve, economies will grow, nations will be better off. Through the Sustainable Developments Goals the UN seeks to ‘measure what matters’. Clearly, literacy skills matter. However, how you measure them also matters.

The importance of meaning

If literacy is going to produce all of the benefits we are hoping for, it is not sufficient for children to only learn how to make the correct noises indicated by written symbols. Children need to learn to extract meaning from text and convey meaning through writing. A recent review commissioned by DFID and led by academics from the University of Oxford and The Promise Foundation looks at current practice in literacy assessment and emphasises the importance of meaning in foundational literacy and language acquisition.

The development of literacy skills is complicated for a number of reasons, not least because these skills don’t progress in a linear sequence (see, for example, a blog post and a paper questioning linear stage views of learning). Instead, literacy skills both influence and are influenced by each other: understanding the meaning of text and knowing the sounds associated with different letter combinations are mutually reinforcing.

Giving centre stage to meaning, however, has far-reaching implications for the assessment of foundational literacy and language skills. It informs decisions about what should be assessed, how these skills should be assessed and how assessment results should then be reported.

Finding the right assessment

Both reading words correctly and understanding the words read should be central to what is assessed. Together, these skills assess reading with meaning. Assessments of all literacy skills should be designed in a way that reflects the drive towards reading with meaning.

When designing assessments there are options where assessors can choose to point towards reading with meaning or away from it. For example, reading accuracy is often tested using lists of words or non-words. Assessors record the number of words/non-words that are read accurately within a given time period. I would argue that words should be used instead of non-words, primarily because using non-words may send a message to teachers and pupils that extracting meaning from the words is not important.

Similarly, reading fluency tests are very popular, but assessors tend to focus only on accuracy and speed. In the field of applied linguistics, fluency refers to ‘prosody’ as well as accuracy and speed. What is prosody? It’s the intonation, stress, tone and rhythm, which mirrors the reader’s understanding of what they are reading. You cannot read with expression if you do not understand what you have read. Including prosody in fluency tests therefore reflects the importance of reading with meaning.

How should results be reported?

There seems to be a tendency for data to be analysed at the level of individual items whereas drawing data together from different assessments is essential to provide a broader picture of literacy skills, helping avoid simplistic conclusions that ignore the interplay between different skills.

For example, in one cited case, an assessment identified that “students are not able to identify one third of letters”. The implication for teachers and policy makers was that they should “help children learn all of their letters, especially the letters children most struggled with: Q, W, Y, J, I, L and G”. This seems to assume that children must master all letters before they are able to start decoding words. It denies the interdependent relationship between different literacy skills (like decoding, phonological awareness, comprehension etc.). Instead, results should be reported in a way that is sensitive to the end goal of reading with understanding rather than being focussed on item by item performance.

Towards 2030

Venezuela, Literacy Method ««Yo si Puedo««At the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals, Ban Ki-Moon described them as “a to-do list for people and planet”. Item 4.6 on that to-do list reads:

“By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy”.

The way we measure literacy skills will, in part, determine what benefits are felt once the world has ‘ticked off’ this task. We might find that we have only enabled the newly ‘literate’ to respond to text with the right noises. Rather, we must ensure that they can extract meaning from text and convey meaning through text. Life-long learning, development and active citizenship ride on the distinction.



  1. Can I make one key point in relation to this post. It is one which I and colleagues in language in development education feel we need to make again and again until it is taken on board. I take no issue with the very proper matters which the post deals with in respect of the teaching and assessment of reading; they have been the bread and butter of the teaching of initial reading for decades. However, a more fundamental question is: are children learning to read in – and then continuing to get their education through – a language which they speak well. Many, throughout the developing world are not. The fact that this is the case puts a low ceiling on what they can learn and grossly depresses their educational achievement. Low school achievement as a consequence of, quite simply, not understanding the content of lessons, is very widespread, very damaging to the education of individuals and very probably a key factor in the failure of developing countries to grow economically at the rate they they should. It is often this more than anything else which accounts for poor reading ability levels. Medium of instruction is a first-order issue: it undermines – or facilitates – everything else. NGOs and aid agencies all over the developing world, however, are only just waking up to this issue and ministries are largely still blind to it. We need as a matter of urgency to face this language question and get it right, Only then can we move towards thinking about the very important matters which this blog is concerned with.

    1. Thank you for your comment. You raise a very important point. The focus of the review (and this post) was on doing assessment well. The issue of language of instruction is clearly pressing and complex and fits within the contextual issues discussed a little more in the review.

      I would be interested to hear what your solution would be, but I would contest the assertion that language of instruction policy needs to be ‘fixed’ before we worry about improving literacy assessments. The two are not mutually exclusive and improving literacy assessments is necessary to provide the information policy makers need to make good decisions on the language of instruction.

      1. The article, the piece, the comments are not only profound but very true. Developing Africa needs intervention in Literacy with Understanding. It is from the grass roots, both in community and foundation level of children that Literacy is taught well for it to be effective. as an NPO dedicated to extend this cause we need as much assistance as we can, need guidance to effectively and efficiently executing the role we have dedicated and committed to achieve. We need to partner with key stakeholders in Literacy. Please email us on /

  2. This is one more review which sets literacy in the context of other language, cognitive and social skills. Unfortunately this puts the cart before the horse. The review skips the essential first stage of perceptual learning, where the poor fail: Concatenating letters through practice to the point where the brain recognizes them as faces. Only then is comprehension necessary. Letter-by-letter practice is crucial to get to this stage. Working memory requires speed, so this stage is crucial for comprehension. But the very poor get too little practice, so they don’t get to that stage for years. So they don’t understand.

    The perceptual learning aspects of reading are poorly known, so the otherwise excellent report excludes them. But this unfortunately means that interventions based on reading as language will fail. And DFID funds will again be wasted.

    1. Thanks for your comment. You are right to say that as a literature review, the report responds to the assessments that are out there and therefore leaves gaps where there are gaps in the literature. The author does discuss what she understands to be the most significant gaps. The report also focuses on assessments rather than all aspects of literacy. It’s purpose is not to review different views of – or theories about – literacy development. However, our understanding of how literacy skills develop should shape the assessments we use and the way we analyse results.

      I’m sure we also agree that the limited access to reading materials in many contexts is a factor in restricting practice and slowing progress. Interestingly, this relates to the previous comment in a somewhat contradictory way. If a lack of print materials is a significant impediment to learning then in order to teach literacy in a language, we need to establish a reasonable base of materials in that language – a significant task in many cases.

      Is there evidence you could point me to about the importance of perceptual skills in later literacy development?

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