Informal Assessment
Conducting Informal Evaluations
Matching Readers & Texts
Five Finger Method for Evaluating Books/Texts

Evaluating the Learner

Before starting any tutoring, it is important to gather some information about the academic needs of the student. This is not meant to be an exhaustive assessment of the learner's abilities, but more of an informal evaluation of content or skills in which the learner would like additional support.

Informal Assessment

Our focus is on informal assessment rather than formal assessment. Informal sources of information are powerful tools for evaluating learner's needs and don't require a great deal of experience or expertise in analyzing test reports. Below we offer examples of both informal and formal assessments:

Informal Assessment Formal assessment
  • Observations of the learner
  • Interviews or conversation with the learner (what the learner says he or she wants and needs)
  • Listening to a learner read or work a problem
  • Learner think-aloud with class work, homework, a book
  • Input from teachers and parents
  • Student retellings of a text
  • Standardized tests (End-of-Grade and End-of-Course tests)
  • Ability tests (IQ)
  • Teacher created tests and quizzes

Both forms of assessment offer valuable information, but as tutors and mentors we have greater access to informal assessment which can be just as useful in identifying the needs of a learner as formal assessments.

We offer some tools that can help you assess your learner's needs. The initial interview questions listed on page 8 and the ice breakers are good tools. In the back of the handbook we also share the Literacy PALS Survey.

The Literacy PALS Learner Survey

Use the first meeting to get to know the learner informally. By the second meeting, have the learner fill out the Literacy PALS Learner Survey. You will turn in a copy of the Learner Survey to ReadWriteServe but more importantly, it can be used to guide your tutoring by:

  • Identify learner strengths and weaknesses
  • Provide a starting place in which to tutor

Conducting Informal Evaluations

You can begin conducting informal evaluations as soon as you begin working with a student. In the initial meeting you can ask questions in which you learn about the learner's needs. You might also get some ideas from the learner's parent(s) or teacher. Here are some specific assessment tools you can use to get information about a learner:

Tutors can use this:  To learn this about a learner:
Talk with the student (learner) about school—about strengths and challenges (an interview). Students are great sources of information. They know and usually are willing to talk about those things that challenge them. They might not put it in the language of tutoring, however.
Ask the student to read a passage or section from a book or text (a read aloud). Read alouds are excellent tools for seeing and hearing what is going on in a learner’s reading and learning. Read alouds allow tutors to see the challenges students face. You can evaluate fluency and decoding, for example.
Ask the student to talk about what they just read (we call this a retelling). Retellings help us “see” what the student is learning and comprehending. Retellings are a great tool for assessing comprehension.
Tutors show students how to do a Think-Aloud.

Think-Alouds have been described as “eavesdropping” on someone’s thinking.”

Have the learner work a few problems or jot down answers to some homework problems. Or, you can have the learner write something brief (a writing example). First the tutor and then the student learner verbalizes or describes the things they are doing as they read a text or work a problem.
Ask the student learner’s teacher or parent(s). This is a lot like the Think-Aloud, but in written form. You get to see how the student responds to a problem or assignment or get some information about their writing.


Think-Alouds are great tools for modeling reading and learning strategies or processes. When modeling, the tutor or mentor reads a section of text or a problem aloud and describes orally the things he or she does while the read or work with the problem. The purpose of the think-aloud strategy is to model for students how skilled readers construct meaning from a text.

Below are the steps for conducting a Think-Aloud as outlined by Reading Rockets


How to use Think-Alouds

  1. Begin by modeling this strategy. Model your thinking as you read. Do this at points in the text that may be confusing for students (new vocabulary, unusual sentence construction).
  2. Introduce the assigned text and discuss the purpose of the Think-Aloud strategy.  Develop the set of questions to support thinking aloud (see examples below).
  • What do I know about this topic?
  • What do I think I will learn about this topic?
  • Do I understand what I just read?
  • Do I have a clear picture in my head about this information?
  • What more can I do to understand this?
  • What were the most important points in this reading?
  • What new information did I learn?
  • How does it fit in with what I already know?
  1. Give students opportunities to practice the technique, and offer structured feedback to students.
  2. Read the selected passage aloud as the students read the same text silently. At certain points stop and "think aloud" the answers to some of the pre-selected questions.
  3. Demonstrates how good readers monitor their understanding by rereading a sentence, reading ahead to clarify, and /or looking for context clues, Students then learn to offer answers to the questions as the teacher leads the Think-Aloud.


A Retelling can be used as both an informal assessment and an instructional strategy. The information gathered through this assessment can be beneficial in planning mini-lessons to practice comprehension skills.

  1. Select a short instructional level text about one to two pages.
  2. Explain briefly what a retelling is; a retelling is when we retell a story we want the listener to understand the story as we understood it when we read it. Retellings are like summaries, but they are longer and have more details.
  3. Provide an example of a retelling
  4. Allow the child to practice on some short passages that you read.
  5. Have the student retell a passage from the text selected.


A retelling should NOT be a reproduction of a text, instead encourage the student to decipher what was important.

It is important to start tutoring with a general understanding of the learners’ needs, so take time to do some informal assessment. You can conduct the learner assessment in the back of the handbook and structure tutoring to meet those needs. Often, students’ needs will change from week to week so be flexible.

Matching Readers & Texts

Tutors often wonder how to pick a book that is suitable for a particular student or learner. Most importantly, we suggest you pick books and texts that interest the learner but also a book that is neither too difficult nor too easy. We call this an instructional level book or text. Books that are easy for a learner are instructional level and books that are too challenging are frustration level.

Independent Level  Relatively easy for the learner to read (95% word accuracy)
Instructional Level Challenging but manageable with help (90% + accuracy)
Frustration Level Difficult for the student to read even with help (less than 90% accuracy)

Five Finger Method for Evaluating Books/Texts

This informal reading assessment is used to quickly determine if a book is at a learner’s independent level of reading.

  • Select a book
  • Select a passage that is approximately 100 words or one page
  • Allow the student to read the passage aloud (older students may want to read the passage silently)
  • While the learner is reading, you or the learners should count the number of errors made
  • Keep track of these errors by putting up one finger for each word they don't understand
  • If you count more than five errors, then the text is not a the student’s independent reading level and he/she will need assistance in reading and comprehending that book
  • Have the student choose another book if he/she is planning to read it alone
Independent or easy: 0 - 1 errors
Instructional or "just right" for tutoring: 2-3 errors
Frustration or too hard: 4 - or more errors

  • Independent Reading Level: Easy reading. In oral reading, a child would have four to five word calling errors in 100 words of text, with solid comprehension about the story.  A student could read it alone with  ease.
  • Instructional Reading Level: The word error range allowed while reading orally is from 2 to 5 word calling errors per 100 words of text (90% accuracy or better), with reasonable comprehension on simple recall questions about the story. Reading at this level requires the assistance of a teacher or tutor.
  • Frustration Reading Level: This is too hard for the reader. Word errors are 9 or more per 100 words of text. Comprehension is not strong.