Using DIBELS Data to Design Literacy Instruction

With the wide use of Response to Inteyoung girl readingrvention, many school districts are using DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) assessments to identify students in need of interventions and monitor reading progress. DIBELS data can also be used to design effective literacy instruction to prevent reading difficulties.

Why do early literacy skills matter?

Research overwhelmingly supports that reading skills are closely linked to overall school success. Poor readers are more likely to experience behavioral and academic difficulties than students meeting grade level standards in reading. Juel (1994) found that students struggling in reading at the end of first grade were not likely to ever catch up. Struggling readers in first grade were at greater risk for reading difficulties through high school. Early prevention of reading failure is critical to the future school success of students.

How do literacy skills develop?

Literacy skills begin in infancy with the acquisition of oral language. Without instruction, most children acquire spoken language naturally. However, this is not the case with written language. Reading is not a naturally acquired skill and must be taught. Exposure to print begins awareness that there is a connection between print and oral language. Children first learn to recognize distinct letters and that these letters represent sounds in spoken language. Children must be taught to link letters with corresponding sounds in order to decode print. Beginning readers are taught that words can be segmented into particles of speech called phonemes (the smallest unit of sound in a language). Once able to decode, meaning is attached to the text in order to comprehend what is read.

What about preschool programs such as Head Start to reduce future reading problems?

Head Start was initiated as a school readiness program to preschool children with environmental risk factors. Long term research has established that school readiness programs have immediate positive effects for students entering kindergarten. However, in a report summarizing the long-term effects of Head Start, there was no meaningful difference between students who participated in the program and the control group with the same risk factors. Preschool programs alone are not sufficient to guard against reading problems related to environmental factors.

What can schools do to prevent reading failure?

Early interventions that are frequently assessed and modifying instruction based on assessment data ensure that all students meet reading standards. According to Good, Gruba, and Kaminski (2002), a system designed to prevent reading failure must incorporate the following three factors.

  1. Ongoing and frequent measurement of growth in foundational reading skills
  2. A mechanism to predict success or failure based on an established criterion
  3. Provision of instructional goals related to assessment data

How can DIBELS help?

DIBELS were developed at the University of Oregon for the purpose of monitoring the growth and acquisition of early literacy skills. DIBELS are designed to prevent reading difficulties by identifying students in need of intervention and evaluating how well students are responding to the interventions. DIBELS measures foundational reading skills in the following areas:

  • Phonological awareness: the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds of language
  • Alphabetic principle: knowledge that letters represent sounds and sounds can be blended into words
  • Accuracy & fluency: smooth and immediate recognition of words

DIBELS assessments are brief and easy to administer and score. There are multiple forms so that the assessment can be administered frequently to monitor student growth. DIBELS have high reliability and validity meaning that the assessments measure what they are designed to measure and provide accurate data.

DIBELS Content

DIBELS measures early literacy skills using a series of subtests. It is important to note that not all subtests are administered to every student. Subtests are administered based on the student’s grade and time of year (fall, winter, spring). Below is a description of DIBELS subtests.

Initial Sound Fluency (ISF)

ISF measures a child’s ability to produce initial sounds of orally presented words. The child is shown four pictures that the examiner names. For example, “This is sink, cat, gloves, and hat. Which picture begins with /s/?”

Letter Naming Fluency (LNF)

LNF measures a child’s speed and accuracy naming letters. The student is given a sheet with random upper and lowercase letters. The child is instructed to name as many letters as he can in one minute.

Phoneme Segmentation Fluency (PSF)

PSF assesses a child’s ability to break words into individual phonemes. For example, the examiner says “sat” and the student responds /s/ /a/ /t/ for 3 possible points.

Nonsense Word Fluency (NWF)

NWF assesses alphabetic principle (letter-sound correspondence and the ability to blend letters into words). The student is given a sheet with VC and CVC nonsense words (e.g. sig, ov) and asked to read as many words as he can in one minute. Students can either name individual sounds (/s/ /i/ /g/) or read the whole word. Because this is a timed measure, students able to blend sounds into words obtain a higher score than those naming individual sounds.

Oral Reading Fluency (ORF)

ORF measures speed and accuracy in reading grade level passages. A student is provided with a passage and asked to read aloud for one minute.

How can DIBELS data be used to design literacy instruction?

DIBELS provides benchmark goals for reading achievement based on a trajectory of progress to ensure that all students are on track to meet grade level literacy standards. Based on DIBELS data, students are classified into one of these three areas:

  • Benchmark: The student is on track to achieve typical grade level literacy standards
  • Strategic: The student is slightly below grade level and may need additional instructional support
  • Intensive: The student is below grade level and is in need of immediate interventions to prevent further reading difficulties

Generally, about 80% of students should achieve benchmark using the core curriculum. About 15% will need specific targeted support in a particular area. Roughly 5% of students will need intensive, carefully designed instruction in order to achieve grade level standards. Interventions for students in the strategic or intensive ranges should supplement, not replace, classroom instruction. Interventions should be designed based on the student’s deficit areas of literacy. Here are some suggestions for linking DIBELS assessment data with the interventions.

Low in ISF and PSF: Teach phonemic awareness

Activities may include: rhyming, phoneme blending (“What word is /s/ /a/ /t/?”), phoneme segmentation (“What are the sounds in ‘mat’?”), oddities (“The words are mat, sat, hat, and cup. What word does not belong?”), phoneme deletion (“What is ‘mat’ without the /m/?”), phoneme manipulation (“What would ‘mat’ be if you changed the /m/ to /s/?”)

Low in NWF: Teach alphabetic principle

Activities may include: letter-sound cards, word lists, practice changing initial and final consonants in words

Low in ORF: Teach strategies to increase reading speed and accuracy

Activities may include: repeated reading, graphing increases in words read per minute, partner reading, echo reading, listening to audio books, teach phrasing

Steps for creating interventions using DIBELS data

Student data should be used to drive the decisions that are made regarding interventions. Using this model, ineffective practices are quickly abandoned and interventions that improve student literacy are embraced.

Step 1: Identify students who may need additional support. DIBELS assesses all primary students one-on-one at least three times per year.

Step 2: Validate the need for instructional support. There are many reasons why a student’s DIBELS scores may be low (e.g. time of day, familiarity with examiner, mood). If scores are not consistent with classroom performance, retest under different conditions.

Step 3: Plan instructional support. DIBELS provides a map of expected progress for each student in order to meet established goals. The plan should include the instructional goal, the essential skills being addressed, the amount and type of support (who/when/where), what instructional materials, and a measurement plan to evaluate the student’s progress

Step 4: Evaluate and modify instructional support. Assessment and intervention are not unrelated activities. Assessment information should be used to evaluate instruction and modify the plan based on the student’s progress. If the plan is not supporting the student’s progress toward meeting the goal, it needs to be changed. Progress for students in the intensive range should be monitored weekly.

Step 5: Review outcomes. At an individual level, decide if services need to be discontinued. At a systems level, evaluate if the core curriculum and instruction is supporting all students in achieving reading outcomes. Trends in the data help to evaluate a school or district’s overall effectiveness in achieving positive reading outcomes for all students.


Good, R., Gruba, J., & Kaminski, R. (2002). Best practices in using Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) in an outcomes-driven model. Best Practices in School Psychology IV, Vol. 1. NASP Publications; Bethesda, MD.

Juel, C. (1994). Learning to read and write. Journal of Educational Psychology. 80: 437-447.


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  1. This post is priceless. Where can I find out more?

    • Dr.Hill says:

      Thanks for your comment! Here is a link to the DIBELS website:
      Let me know if there is something in particular you are looking for. Perhaps it will give me an idea for a future blog. 🙂

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