Linking Assessment and Instruction via Web-based Technology: A Case Study of a Statewide Early Literacy Initiative

Heather Partridge
Marcia Invernizzi
Joanne Meier
Amie Sullivan

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In this article, we describe the technology used to support a statewide early literacy initiative in Virginia, USA. For thousands of elementary teachers, cutting-edge technology enables them to use the World Wide Web to record and interpret information from early literacy assessments and plan instruction accordingly. We also present a broader perspective by discussing how administrators and classroom educators in other states, provinces, and countries might use Web-based systems to evaluate programs and make schoolwide instructional decisions. We describe Virginia’s technological efforts as an example for others who are grappling to use literacy assessment information effectively in their schools.

Introduction | Teachers and Web-based Reports | Linking Assessment With Instruction | A Wider Lens | Conclusion | References

Paying bills and making airline reservations are just a few of the day-to-day activities made easier as a result of the World Wide Web. Web usage is becoming increasingly commonplace, but one must ask whether Internet conveniences are fully realized in the classroom to assist with teachers’ daily tasks. The implementation of technology in today’s classrooms is often incompatible with teachers’ needs or the time they have available (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000, online document).

Technology can be used effectively by teachers to help simplify everyday tasks, however. For example, technology can help with record keeping, tracking student progress, and accessing student assessment data to share with parents and supervisors. Access to such data also helps teachers discover ways to bridge the gap between student assessment and classroom instruction. This article describes how the state of Virginia has implemented a Web-based system in conjunction with the “Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening” (PALS) to assist teachers at the early elementary level with assessment tasks. In addition to discussing Virginia’s Web-based approach to meeting instructional and administrative needs, this article describes how other U.S. states might benefit from PALS or similar approaches.

The Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (Invernizzi & Meier, 2002; Invernizzi, Meier, Swank, & Juel, 2002) is a statewide early literacy screening tool that identifies kindergarten through third-grade students in need of additional instruction. (Note that PALS is available to Virginia teachers free of charge, and can be purchased for use in other states.) The PALS technology system is used to record and track students’ early literacy development across multiple school years. After entering student assessment data into the secure website, teachers receive immediate feedback that details their students’ emergent, beginning, or instructional-level reading development.

Kindergarten teachers track their students’ progress in phonological awareness, alphabet recognition, letter sounds, invented spelling, and concept-of-word development. In the first through third grades, teachers track student development in word recognition, spelling, oral reading in context, accuracy, fluency, and reading comprehension, as well as the prerequisite skills assessed in kindergarten. While the website helps teachers track early literacy development over time, the Internet-database interface provides an immediate link from assessment to instruction. Principals and district literacy personnel also use the system to gain valuable information for determining instructional emphasis, staff development, and program effectiveness. A graphic organizer summarizing the levels of information provided by the PALS website is shown in Figure 1. Users can take comfort in the fact that built-in constraints, frequent validity checks, and surveys ensure that the Internet database is a reliable means of collecting assessment data.

Figure 1

graphic organizer showing levels of information provided by the PALS website

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Teachers and Web-based Reports

Teachers register on the secure PALS website and enter student scores from the PALS screening at the conclusion of the fall and spring windows. Teachers receive immediate analyses and summary reports — data that are then available for teacher use at any time. Several different reports can be generated, as summarized in Table 1 and discussed in more detail below.

Table 1
Summary of PALS Reports

Report Audience Purpose
Class Summary Sheet Teachers Provides an overall look at class performance
Class Report Teachers Identifies students who should receive intervention
Groups students by instructional reading level and spelling/phonics knowledge
Links to appropriate instructional activities
Student Summary Report Teachers, parents, collaborating specialists Communicates current screening results for individual students
Compares student performance to state benchmarks
Score History Report Teachers Tracks student growth across school years
Compares student performance to state benchmarks from preschool to third grade
School-wide Reading and Spelling Levels Report Principals, collaborating specialists Provides within-grade and cross-grade grouping for reading and spelling/phonics
Grade Level Summaries Principals Designates students at each grade level who should receive intervention
Identifies staff development and curricular needs
School History Report Principals Tracks school performance across screening windows
Provides program evaluation
District History Report District literacy personnel Tracks district performance across screening windows
Provides program evaluation
Title I Report District literacy personnel, Title I teachers Completes required U.S. federal forms
District Data Download District literacy personnel, assessment directors Determines school-level staff development needs
Tracks school histories longitudinally
Determines resource allocation needs

The reports and data available through PALS may be used for many different purposes, but their primary benefit lies in the links they facilitate between assessment results and instruction. Information from the Web-based reports help teachers group students by reading level, phonics-knowledge level, and by specific knowledge domains, such as alphabet recognition or letter sounds. In addition, the results highlight students who are performing below grade-level expectations. Several of the PALS reports are described in more detail below.

Class Summary Sheet

The Class Summary Sheet compiles the literacy scores for a given class; the scores can be sorted by specific task (e.g., alphabet knowledge, spelling) or alphabetically by student name. This report provides each teacher with a concise, comprehensive reference of class performance. The format of the Class Summary Sheet (see Figure 2) is designed to enable comparisons among students and observations of trends across a whole class. A sorting function allows teachers to view trends across students (i.e., lowest to highest sum score, word list score, and spelling score).

Figure 2
A Sample Class Summary Sheet

sample PALS class summary sheet, showing individual student assessment scores

A teacher can also use this report to take a closer look at particular students’ performance. For example, a kindergarten teacher might want to pinpoint students who would benefit from additional small-group instruction in rhyme awareness. The teacher knows that the fall benchmark for rhyme is five (out of ten possible points), so she determines which students know fewer than five rhyming pairs. To do so, she simply scans down the Group Rhyme and Individual Rhyme columns and highlights those students, quickly identifying a group that needs additional instruction in this area. As the sample Class Summary Sheet in Figure 2 shows, Maria, Ellen, Travis, Aaron, Hannah, and Sheila could benefit from additional experiences with rhyme.

Class Report

To take a closer look at assessment results, a teacher can refer to the Class Report. Two groups emerge in this report: (1) students who need additional instruction, and (2) students who are achieving literacy benchmarks according to expectations. The Class Report also details scores for the students who need additional instruction, with an item-by-item comparison of each child’s score in relation to each benchmark. Any literacy task on which the student scored below the expected benchmark is marked with an asterisk. In addition, the teacher may select any task name on the Web-based report to link to instructional activities for that reading component. For example, on the sample Class Report shown in Figure 3, Maria Diez did not meet the benchmark for alphabet recognition. By clicking on the column header “ABC Lower,” the teacher accesses activity pages with printable materials for teaching the alphabet. Included is a sample alphabet activity tailored to Maria’s needs.

Figure 3
A Sample Class Report

sample PALS class report, showing individual student assessment scores and groups

In addition, the PALS Class Report for first through third grades includes information about students’ reading levels and spelling and phonics knowledge (see Figure 4). This report is especially helpful to teachers who find it difficult to form instructional-level groups for guided reading. The oral reading in context task requires students to read a grade-level passage while the teacher takes a running record for accuracy and fluency. The teacher enters the number of errors made by the student, and the Web-based program calculates the accuracy (as a percentage) of the student’s word recognition. Although reading and spelling groups are dynamic and can change throughout the year, the Class Report provides the teacher with an excellent starting point for grouping children for instruction.

Figure 4
A Sample Class Report Showing Instructional Levels

sample PALS class report, showing instructional levels and groups

Student Summary Report

This report summarizes an individual student’s assessment results (see Figure 5). Because of its clear format, this summary helps teachers communicate a student’s literacy development to parents and support staff. The student’s score on each task is compared to the benchmark score for that task. For instance, in first through third grades, teachers enter the total time it took the student to read a passage, and a reading rate is calculated. This reading rate is compared against expected rates for the level of the particular passage. Teachers often use these reports in parent-teacher conferences.

Figure 5
A Sample Student Summary Report

sample PALS student summary sheet showing scores on various tasks

Score History Report

Student scores remain in the PALS system from year to year. Once teachers create their class list for the new school year, they can view the student scores from previous years. This information allows teachers to gain an immediate understanding of their students’ literacy performance even before the start of the school year, thereby enabling them to begin appropriate literacy instruction from the first days in a new class. The Score History Report (Figure 6) also allows teachers to monitor student progress across the years. For instance, a teacher might discover that a particular student scored significantly higher than the benchmark in kindergarten and first grade, but scored below the benchmark in second grade. Another advantage of this storage of data is that student records travel electronically with a student if she or he moves within the state. By using the Score History Report, the teacher can quickly gauge a student’s prior literacy knowledge, even if the student is new to the school.

Figure 6
A Sample Score History Report

sample PALS score history report showing scores on various tasks over time

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Linking Assessment with Instruction

The Web-based PALS system provides information that leads to a detailed understanding of students’ literacy strengths and weaknesses. For example, by using PALS, a kindergarten teacher might learn that half of her students need to focus on basic alphabet recognition and beginning sound awareness, while the other half solidifies understanding of letter-sound relationships. A second-grade teacher might identify five of his students who need direct spelling instruction on short vowels, and another five that need lessons on more advanced phonics skills, such as r-controlled vowel patterns. A third grade teacher may be daunted by the discovery that some students in her class are reading at a preprimer level, while others are reading at grade level.

Without a bridge to instructional strategies, assessment results serve a limited purpose. Internet technology has the potential to link specific assessment results to appropriate classroom instruction. Once teachers have used PALS to review assessment results and identify the needs in their classrooms, they can select links to activities that address the specific instructional needs of students. Teachers may return to the website at any time to explore and use the activities, which are available to anyone with Internet access. Each activity is presented as a concise instructional plan that includes materials, instructions, and evaluation procedures. In addition, Web technology allows materials for many of these lessons, such as game boards and activity sheets, to be linked and printed.

Teachers may also use PALS to submit and share successful literacy activities used in their own classrooms. For instance, the alphabet recognition activity “ABC Walk” was submitted by a Virginia teacher. In this activity, students walk in a circle on letter cards as music plays. When the music stops, each student must stand on a card. The teacher writes a letter on the board, and the student standing on that letter says the letter name, makes the letter sound, or says a word that begins with that letter.

Activities are organized by category. Phonological awareness categories include rhyme, beginning sounds, blending, and sound-to-letter segmentation. Literacy categories include alphabet recognition, letter sounds, concept of word, spelling, word recognition, oral reading in context, fluency, and comprehension. The user selects the skill of interest as well as an appropriate grade level grouping (prekindergarten, kindergarten, or grades one through three). Many second- and third-grade teachers are familiar with students who struggle to read, yet are embarrassed by the simplicity of alphabet or concept-of-word activities. The ability to select an appropriate grade level helps control for this problem.

The PALS screening tools include developmental spelling inventories, which inform the teacher of the spelling features that students need to study. The features assessed are initial consonants, final consonants, short vowels, consonant blends, consonant digraphs, long vowels, long vowel patterns, r- and l-controlled vowels, and ambiguous vowel patterns. After the teacher determines the spelling features students need to work on, the PALS activities page can guide the teacher’s spelling instruction. For instance, the teacher may select short vowels. The PALS site then provides a weekly progression of lesson plans and activities for teaching that feature. For instance, the day-by-day progression for studying short vowels is as follows:

Teachers are given instructions on how to carry out the activities. For example, to conduct a word hunt, students search through classroom reading materials that they can easily read, hunting for words with the short vowel feature being studied. Students then highlight words or record them in word study notebooks.

A crucial element of any effective reading program is matching students to books at their instructional reading level. By looking at the Class Report, a teacher finds the instructional reading level for each student. When school systems use basal readers written at a particular grade level, it is often difficult for teachers to locate materials for each student or reading group not reading at that level. Furthermore, there are numerous methods of coding and leveling books, including basal levels, Reading Recovery levels (Reading Recovery Council of North America, 2000), developmental reading assessment levels (Beaver, 1997), guided reading levels, (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996), and Lexile levels (MetaMetrics, Inc., 2000). The PALS Book Equivalencies Chart helps teachers locate the book leveling system used in their school, as well as learn how one system relates to another.

Kim Patterson, a teacher from Cold Harbor Elementary School in Virgina, described how she used assessment results and the available PALS technology to guide her classroom instruction:

Upon looking at the results of the test, I discovered that I had three distinct reading groups. One group was able to read on the primer level. They needed work on long vowel sounds. One group was on the preprimer level. They knew consonant sounds but needed work on short vowel sounds. One group did not meet the PALS benchmarks. Further testing indicated that they knew the letters and individual sounds but could not blend sounds to read new words. They needed to work on some phonemic awareness activities. During parent conferences, I shared some of the phonemic awareness activities with the parents.

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A Wider Lens

Administrators, including principals and district literacy personnel, play vital roles in optimizing the use of assessment data. In Virginia, these educators use the PALS reports available to them to evaluate the needs of each school in terms of instructional emphasis, staff development, and possible intervention programs. Principals interested in within-grade or cross-grade grouping can access the School-wide Reading and Spelling Levels Report (Figure 7), which groups students accordingly. The School History Report (Figure 8) provides a glimpse of schoolwide progress across the years, based on changes in the numbers of children identified as needing additional reading instruction; a similar report is available to allow districtwide comparisons.

Figure 7
A Sample School-wide Reading and Spelling Levels Report

sample PALS School-wide Reading and Spelling Levels Report

Figure 8
A Sample School History Report

sample PALS school history report showing scores on various tasks over time

After getting an overview of the identification rates, administrators are able to take a more in-depth look at the performance of individual students by viewing the Summary of Identified Students Report. From this report, administrators may start to notice trends. For instance, when looking at the Summary of Identified Students Report shown in Figure 9, it becomes evident that many of the students in kindergarten are struggling with letter sounds and spelling. A principal or district coordinator could use this information to target staff development in the area of letter-sound correspondence.

Figure 9
A Sample Summary of Identified Students Report

sample PALS Summary of Identified Students report

As it does for teachers, the Web also simplifies time-consuming tasks for administrators. Many administrators find it helpful to download the school or district data files, which can then be saved into a statistical processing or spreadsheet program. These data files allow administrators and assessment coordinators to perform more advanced analyses. The system also automatically supplies information for required forms, such as paperwork that seeks to determine the impact of Title I services (within the U.S. federal compensatory education program) on school achievement (Figure 10).

Figure 10
Sample Title I Report

sample Title I paperwork

Taken together, the reports available to principals and district staff allow them to assess student progress, plan appropriate professional development, evaluate the power of one intervention program over another, and reduce time spent on administrative tasks.

Mary Maschal, director of elementary education in Hanover County, Virginia, explains how the PALS Web-based database has helped her district. At the same time, she acknowledges the obstacles encountered in its implementation:

The PALS database has allowed our school district to have access to all students’ pre- and posttest scores for PALS. This supports us in developing a clear understanding of individual and group instructional needs. The information obtained from the data bank has been placed into our student profile computer program, allowing principals and central office instructional personnel to monitor student progress over time. The greatest problem to overcome with all teachers entering the data was making certain that every teacher recorded the student name and student identification number correctly. To use the information with the student profile, this must be accurate.

Some of the instructional changes that have occurred in kindergarten after studying the data have included an increase in small group instructional time, explicit teaching of letters and sounds, attention to phonemic awareness, and the use of word study activities. Overall, participation in PALS has forced us to look at our initial instruction in reading and to make changes that support at-risk students. These changes have included adding a volunteer reading tutorial program for at-risk students in the primary program, purchasing reading materials that contain recurring phonics features and controlled vocabulary, implementing balanced lessons that include appropriate activities for each reading stage, and providing additional training opportunities for teachers. Finding time for training teachers and additional money to purchase materials were two of the most difficult tasks. Providing training in a timely fashion was a challenge, as teachers became aware that they needed additional strategies to support at-risk students and requested training.

While this quote refers to the program’s effect on a particular school district, it serves as a good example of the potential impact that a comprehensive Web-based system can have on school districts nationally and internationally. In the United States, as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, states are encouraged to apply for grants through Reading First, a program intended to ensure that students in kindergarten through third grade receive effective instruction in reading. The PALS tool and Web-based component align with many Reading First standards, and can be used for screening, diagnosing, and monitoring progress of students. As a result, states outside of Virginia have elected to use PALS as the assessment measure for Reading First grants, and to implement the accompanying Web structure.

While Virginia has considered PALS to be a great success, it is not without limitations. Access to technology varies across the state; therefore, it has been a challenge to configure the system in such a way that all users have access to the functionality and visual features of the website. More general issues related to a statewide literacy initiative include difficulties in providing comprehensive information about the literacy skills of second-language learners, as well as limitations in ensuring that schools are providing effective intervention. While PALS provides valuable information, it has the same inherent constraint as most assessments in that it provides a profile of a student’s skills at one point in time. It is important for educators to assess their students’ developing literacy knowledge on an ongoing basis.

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The vast number of students screened each year results in an immense amount of data collected across the state of Virginia. Ninety-eight percent of the districts in Virginia voluntarily participate in this early literacy initiative, which averages 300,000 students screened each window. Given the sheer quantity of data, it would not be possible to implement the program without an advanced technological system. Cutting-edge technology has not only made this reading intervention program possible, but also popular. This popularity is due in part to the user-friendly data entry process, the availability of immediate feedback from online reports, and the connection of assessment results to instructional strategies. The PALS survey results consistently demonstrate that the majority of teachers have an excellent experience with the PALS Internet database and receive valuable information from the online reports.

The future of Web-based technology holds much promise for helping teachers close the gap between assessment and instruction. With each successful year, the database allows reading educators and researchers to gain valuable insight into children’s literacy development. Equipped with this knowledge, educators are able to make informed decisions to improve upon early literacy assessment and instructional practices.

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Beaver, J. (1997). Developmental reading assessment. Parsippany, NJ: Celebration.

Fountas, I.C., & Pinnell, G.S. (1996). Guided reading: Good first teaching for all children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Invernizzi, M., & Meier, J.D. (2002). Phonological awareness literacy screening (PALS 1-3). Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.

Invernizzi, M., Meier, J.D., Swank, L., & Juel, C. (2002). Phonological awareness literacy screening (PALS-K). Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.

MetaMetrics, Inc. (2000). The Lexile framework for reading. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved September 2003, from

National Center for Education Statistics. (2000, April). Teacher use of computers and the Internet in public schools. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved September 2003, from

Reading Recovery Council of North America, Inc. (2000). Reading Recovery book list 2000. Columbus, OH: Author.

About the Authors

Heather Partridge is the co-project manager of the PALS project at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, USA. She is a doctoral student in reading education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, where she also received her masters degree in elementary education.

Marcia Invernizzi is a professor of reading education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. She is also the director of the McGuffey Reading Center. Formerly an English and reading teacher, Marcia continues to extend her experience through her work with Book Buddies and PALS, the early literacy screening tool she coauthored as principal investigator of Virginia’s Early Intervention Reading Initiative.

Joanne Meier is an assistant professor of reading education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. As codirector of PALS, Joanne has helped develop and disseminate early literacy screening tools for kindergarten through third-grade teachers in Virginia. Her research on early literacy and the schoolwide implementation of effective teaching strategies has led her to work closely with many schools and teachers.

Amie Sullivan received her doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Virginia. She is the coauthor of the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening for Preschool (PALS-PreK) and is an adjunct professor for the University of Virginia’s Continuing Education Department.

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Note: All student, teacher, administrator, and school names in this article are pseudonyms.

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Citation: Partridge, H., Invernizzi, M., Meier, J., & Sullivan, A. (2003, November/December). Linking assessment and instruction via Web-based technology: A case study of a statewide early literacy initiative. Reading Online, 7(3). Available:

Reading Online,
Posted November 2003
© 2003 International Reading Association, Inc.   ISSN 1096-1232