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Data-driven literacy instruction: A step-by-step guide

Data-driven instruction is as simple as getting good benchmarks and providing the right support.

5 min read

Voice of the Educator

Data-driven literacy instruction: A step-by-step guide


Using data to drive instruction can seem like a big task, between the tracking, differentiation, and finding appropriate resources to meet students where they are. But at its heart, it’s no different than what we teachers have been doing for years: assessing student learning and helping them grow. To make it all seem a little more manageable, I start with solid data and progress one step at a time.

Begin with benchmarks

As a reading intervention specialist, a core part of my job is using student data to support and extend classroom learning and collaborate with our classroom teachers to ensure we are meeting each student’s individual needs. The first step, then, is collecting the data.

At the beginning of the school year, all students take a universal screener–we use Star Assessment–to determine baselines and find out who’s at or above the 40th percentile benchmark, who’s “on watch” (between the 25th and 40th percentile), and who needs to receive intervention or urgent intervention, which includes students who test at or below the 25th percentile. Star considers “working at grade level” or the term “Proficient” to best be represented at the 40th percentile as the screening benchmark.

To ensure that those beginning testing results are accurate we allow time for students to get acclimated into “back to school mode” from summer vacation by not testing the first week or two of school. Some teachers also use noise-cancelling headphones for highly distractible students to ensure quiet testing and minimal distractions for all.

We explain to students the importance of the test, reminding them that gathering accurate information means not wasting unnecessary time in intervention for those who really don’t need it, and keeping those students moving forward in their classroom with daily, rigorous, district-wide adopted reading instruction.

Some students have limited perseverance, especially younger students. To account for that, I help students build their stamina by rewarding their effort and time spent taking the test. I watch the diagnostic report for the actual time taken on the test, and we track our progress with scaled scores and time taken to test.

Differentiate and monitor

We use this baseline data to form our reading groups. My intervention group includes those scoring below the 40th percentile. I target instruction and provide practice for suggested interventions using my Instructional Planning Report.

This report provides skill recommendations within the range of scores in my groups, and we also have immediate access, upon testing, to a student’s grade-level equivalent, percentile rank, and the zone of proximal development, or the area of skills a student can do with the help of an adult, but not yet on their own. ZPD allows teachers to gear the students’ independent and instructional reading assignments according to Lexile metrics so that students get the optimal range of reading challenge to allow the most reading growth. At that time, I review data collected from the previous school year to see how each of my intervention students performed during the quarterly benchmarks and to identify trend lines from last year’s progress monitoring scores.

I also use Core Progress Leaning Progressions to determine the prerequisite skills my students need to understand and to determine the most critical “focus skills” students have demonstrated they need to learn.

Progress monitoring for our intervention students occurs every two weeks. Student goals are set and after four progress-monitoring data points, a trend line is formed. The trend line helps to confirm the efficacy of the interventions and to make sure student growth is occurring at an appropriate pace.

Our assessments and the data they generate allow for diagnostic and prescriptive instruction. Unlike many years ago, I have all the tools I need to provide the data-driven instruction to satisfy our local and state level reporting requirements.

The Star Standards Report illustrates the level of mastery demonstrated for each standard and for every student, aligned with the Ohio State Standards. The report gives the projected growth toward each standard for every student. The Pathway to Proficiency Report has strong correlations (0.70) to our State test in Ohio, and the line recalibrates each time the student takes a test, so teachers instantly know if a student is on track for reaching proficiency on the state test and can integrate this data into their instruction.

Give teachers time

The poet William Wordsworth said that, “Habit rules the unreflecting herd,” and sometimes teachers can fall into the trap of not wanting to step out of their habitual comfort zones. They may not enthusiastically embrace the concept of integrating data into their instruction in favor of sticking with the way they’ve always planned and taught before. Teachers must be given time, which our district provides, to reflect on and analyze the data.

Mary Brown is a reading intervention specialist at Franklin Local School District in Duncan Falls, Ohio. She can be reached at


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