Activity: Experience with an Informal Reading Inventory


The purpose of this activity is to enable you to experience an informal process for finding out if a reading selection is a good match for an individual reader.  In reading the passage aloud and answering questions about the passage, you will get a basic understanding of how the process works. You will also get an idea of how students might feel while reading aloud to someone who is paying attention to how smoothly they read the passage. In doing this activity, you may see both its usefulness and potential drawbacks.


To complete this activity, you will need a friend who is a good reader and who is willing to spend about twenty minutes listening to you read aloud the passage below and asking you the five comprehension questions about the passage. Please don’t read the passage or comprehension questions below ahead of time. This activity will be more authentic if the passage and the questions are new to you.

  • Make a copy of the passage for your friend and ask your friend to listen while you read the passage aloud. Ask him or her to listen for any words that you mispronounce, substitute another words for, or leave out, and underline or circle those words as you read.
  • Have your friend read aloud to you the five comprehension questions about the passage and jot down your answers.
  • Together with your friend, count up the number of words you mispronounced, substituted another word for, or omitted.
  • Now, ask your friend how many comprehension questions you answered correctly.
  • Based on the following categories, decide whether this reading selection is at a good readability level for you:

Too hard (frustration level) = You read 41 or more words incorrectly by mispronouncing the word, substituting another word for it, or omitting the word.  You answered none or 1 of the comprehension questions correctly.

About right (with instructional support) = You read somewhere between 10 and 40 words incorrectly by mispronouncing the word, substituting another word for it, or omitting the word. You answered 2 to 4 comprehension questions correctly.

Maybe too easy = You read almost all the words correctly, with only slight hesitations and a mispronunciation or two. You answered 4 or 5 of the comprehension questions correctly.

  • Reflect on whether this process was a good indicator of the match between the reading selection and your reading level. Answer, for yourself, the following questions:
    • Do you think the reading aloud part of the activity was a good way to see if the selection was at a good difficulty level for you?  Why or why not?
    • Do you think the reading comprehension questions were a good check of your understanding of the passage?  Why or why not?
    • What words would you consider “hard” words because they might be unfamiliar to some readers?
    • Did any specific cultural experience help you to understand a word or a part of the passage?
    • What features of the text suggest that this is the beginning of a story, rather than an informative passage, a poem, recipe, or other form of writing?
    • What is one change you could make to this read-aloud-and-answer-questions process to make it a better check of the match between the reading selection and a reader’s comprehension level?

INSTRUCTOR’S NOTE: If you are using this activity with a group of students in a paraprofessional training program or workshop, you might want to organize pairs of students for the activity, with one being the “reader” and one being the “teacher” for purposes of conducting the informal reading inventory. After the activity, a small-group discussion could include the questions for reflection as well as a discussion of any differences between what the “readers” learned from the activity and what the “teachers” learned.

Reading Selection for Activity

Excerpt from Life in the Iron Mills, by Rebecca Harding Davis.

A cloudy day: do you know what that is in a town of iron-works? The sky sank down before dawn, muddy, flat, immovable. The air is thick, clammy with the breath of crowded human beings. It stifles me. I open the window, and, looking out, can scarcely see through the rain the grocer’s shop opposite, where a crowd of drunken Irishmen are puffing Lynchburg tobacco in their pipes. I can detect the scent through all the foul smells ranging loose in the air.

The idiosyncrasy of this town is smoke. It rolls sullenly in slow folds from the great chimneys of the iron-foundries, and settles down in black, slimy pools on the muddy streets. Smoke on the wharves, smoke on the dingy boats, on the yellow river,— clinging in a coating of greasy soot to the house-front, the two faded poplars, the faces of the passers-by. The long train of mules, dragging masses of pig-iron through the narrow street, have a foul vapor hanging to their reeking sides. Here, inside, is a little broken figure of an angel pointing upward from the mantel-shelf; but even its wings are covered with smoke, clotted and black. Smoke everywhere! A dirty canary chirps desolately in a cage beside me. Its dream of green fields and sunshine is a very old dream,—almost worn out, I think.

Comprehension Questions for Reading Selection

  • What covers the whole town?
  • Name two animals mentioned in this passage.
  • How does the speaker feel about the town?
  • Is the speaker inside or outside the house? Explain your answer.
  • What can you infer about the narrator from the fact that she mentions the broken angel figurine and the dirty canary?