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Action Research on Checks for Understanding Increasing Students’ Knowledge of Vocabulary,

Reading Comprehension, and Self-Perception of Learning

Jesse W. Franzen

Presented to

Professor David Erickson

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for

C & I 595 Professional Project

Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences

The University of Montana at Missoula

July 30, 2010



This action research study seeks to discover if increased checks for understanding, a universal

intervention in the Response to Intervention [RTI] model, increases students’ knowledge of

vocabulary, reading comprehension, and self-perception of learning. Research was conducted in

an urban middle school in a rural state with four sections of one English teacher’s regular 8th

grade classes. The researcher applied checks for understanding in two classes, periods three and

seven (treatment group), but none with the other two classes, periods one and four (no-treatment

group), during a poetry unit. A pre/post test survey was administered to measure student self-

perception of poetic terms and poetry in general. Results showed an overall improvement for all

groups in regards to self-perception of knowledge with a smaller increase for the treatment

group. Reading comprehension was measured using a multiple-choice and short-answer test,

which signified an important difference, 12%, between the groups. Vocabulary was dually

measured using a multiple-choice and a vocabulary application test. The multiple-choice

responses, measuring memorization, signified an important difference between the groups, 24%.

The vocabulary application, measuring critical thinking, signified no important difference, 2%,

between the treatment and no-treatment groups. The universal RTI intervention of checking for

understanding does yield increased results in the area of reading comprehension and vocabulary

memorization and does not decrease student performance, thus making it a beneficial

intervention tool.

Keywords: Checks for understanding, response to intervention [RTI], engagement, direct

instruction, vocabulary, reading comprehension, self-perception of learning.


Introduction and Need for Study

Problem Statement

In current education, teachers are asked to do more with the same or less amount of time

with increased societal pressures and constraints. The impose for teachers is to help students

learn quickly, learn more, and help those not at grade level rapidly advance. Assisting in this

charge, a myriad of organizational responses all claim positive results. One answer currently and

increasingly being adopted is Response to Intervention [RTI], which consists of systemic school

changes in instruction and assessment to create effective prevention. A pivotal RTI instruction

component is intervention, which has three levels: ―Universal, secondary, and tertiary‖

(National Center on Response to Intervention [NCRTI], n.d., About the NCRTI section, ¶ 2),

where at each level strategies become more individual and intense. A major component of

universal intervention is increasing checks for understanding in oral language, questioning,

writing, projects, performances, and tests. With more frequent checks for understanding,

proposed benefits include that students will be more engaged in school, more willing to do class

work, learn more during direct instruction, and be better critical thinkers. What this study seeks

to discover is if increased checks for understanding increases students’ knowledge of

vocabulary, reading comprehension, and self-perception of learning.


Many schools across the nation, including rural areas, are adopting Response to

Intervention [RTI] as their guiding model for student achievement, mine included. This year, my

school began the initial process of adopting an RTI model. The principles of RTI seem logically

sound, for example, educators systematically monitoring ―students’ academic and behavior

progress to make data-based instructional decisions‖ in order to increase student achievement is


a noble goal for all schools (National Center on Response to Intervention [NCRTI], n.d.,

Definition of RTI section, ¶ 1). There are four essential components of RTI: A school-wide,

multi-level system of intervention, which includes: ―Screening, progress monitoring, and data-

based decision making for instruction‖ (NCRTI, n.d., About Us section, ¶ 1). RTI is an all-

encompassing school system, which takes resources and staff approbation to be effective.

Education is always looking for the best teaching practices, which can then be improved

upon, but the ultimate goal is to educate children to be life-long learners with the measure being

standardized testing and progress monitoring as part of RTI. Many years ago, before RTI,

Madeline Hunter delineated elements of effective instruction and as Barlow (2003) states: ―Her

contribution was not the invention of an instructional practice. She observed effective teachers to

see what practices they had in common and deduced a general model for instruction‖ (p. 68). If

one desires to be a good teacher, one models her own practices to that of the effective teacher.

Thus generalized: Good teaching is just good teaching and if one is looking for improvement

from a good teacher and her strategies, it will be incremental, unless the environment around her

focuses on how students learn. One specific quality important to this study was that, as Hunter

deduced: ―The teacher needs to determine whether the students understand what they are

supposed to have learned before moving on‖ (as cited in Barlow, 2003, p. 68). This effective

practice has now become core to behavior prevention systems; RTI labels these interventions.

After many meetings, trainings, and observations in my district, I decided to test the RTI

universal intervention methods of checking for understanding against my current methods to

discover if there was a significant increase in student comprehension and perception of learning.

Being coupled with a best practice among educators, part of Madline Hunter’s model for

effective instruction, and part of RTI, it would seem logical that checking for understanding

would be well accepted by educators. And taken on its own merit, it is accepted. For

administration and educators, RTI methods have a wow factor that seems to create a buzz and

becomes readily acceptable for building a RTI model. Although Fisher, Frey, and Lapp (2009)

showed an increase in student performance (Process 6, ¶ 3-4), there is no data showing which

component of RTI — screening, intervention, or progress monitoring —contributes to the


The intervention methods here being study are intensely and directly teacher driven being

―done continually during every period, the whole period‖ (Hintze, 2007, slide 5), which is in

contrast to other well researched methods like constructivism and project-based learning, which

is intensely student driven where the teacher takes the role of facilitator. There is a middle

ground, where a teacher can be both teach some subjects and skills in a direct manner and have

students construct their own knowledge through project-based learning. This study focuses on

enhancements of direct instruction techniques – applying checks for understanding as a universal

intervention – how those enhancements add to student learning, and does not represent either

direct instruction or constructivism as a better method of instruction. As my building is adopting

an RTI systemic change, the staff needs to be persuaded that this is what is best for student

learning and is deserving of the change and time commitment. If local data were presented on the

positive benefits of universal intervention techniques, more staff would have better information

on how to adopt the RTI model into their own teaching.

Literature Review

Importance of the Question

This study focuses on one teacher and four of his 8th grade English sections. The goal of

the English subject is for students to become better readers, writers, listeners, speakers, and

thinkers. The charge of the teacher is to ultimately know ―what the enduring understandings of a

lesson should be and what knowledge, skills, and strategies are needed to progress to that level‖

(Fisher & Frey, 2007, p. 137). To achieve this end, there are many different means. The current

and widely adopted teaching philosophy among educators is constructivism, which places the

student in control of her learning and the teacher as facilitator. Although, a constructivist teacher

may use some checks for understanding, the philosophy is in contrast with the behaviorist

method, which has the same educational goal, but instead puts the teacher in control of student

learning, where she directly instructs all of the students, utilizing many more checks for

understanding and expending more time on these tasks than a constructivist. Many of the

checking for understanding methods fit neatly with much of the direct instruction methodology,

which is the nature of intervention. Yet, effective checks for understanding do not come naturally

and are a learned skill for any teacher. Any learned skill takes time and practice and any

teacher’s time is already heavily taxed. Therefore, in order to learn a new skill, it must be

effective for student learning and thus, worthy of teacher scholarship. Although Response to

Intervention has been well-documented to increase student achievement, individual components,

like interventions, have not been broadly studied to show their effectiveness within the system.

This study looks at the effects of the universal intervention, checking for understanding, in the

areas of vocabulary, reading comprehension, and self-perception of learning in a poetry unit.

Current Status of Response to Intervention

Response to Intervention [RTI] has a proven record of improving students’ scores on

standardized tests and formative assessments. Once the four-tiered system is in place

(intervention, screening, progress monitoring, and data-based instructional decisions) and given

enough time, there is student achievement. Fisher, Frey, and Lapp (2009) assisted implementing

a systemic RTI transition for one school, Western, over the course of two years and their

―observation and interview data had shown a significant trend in the use of content literacy

interventions‖ (Process 6, ¶ 2). From that treatment, Western had moved from a 12% literacy

rate, unchanged for five years, to a rate of 56% in three years with an increased graduation rate

from 67% to 73% (Fisher et al., 2009, Process 6, ¶ 3-4). Guthals (2009) study of school-wide

positive behavior systems [PBS], an RTI intervention system, found ―a consistent pattern of low

administrative stress levels associated with higher rates of PBS components present‖ (Abstract, ¶

4) and there is a known correlation of higher student achievement when administrative stress

levels are low. What is not as well known is what specific intervention treatments, like checking

for understanding, are actually working to improve student learning in the RTI model.

Relationship Between the Literature and the Problem Statement

Checking for understanding during student learning/instruction has become a central

tenant in the intervention strand of Response to Intervention and is the focus of this study.

Students, even if they wish, are not ―always self-regulated learners‖ and ―may not be aware of

what they do or do not understand‖ (Fisher & Frey, 2007, p. 1). When this occurs, which is in

every class in every school, they need an intervention to help them succeed in learning; besides

checking for understanding, other interventions are: increasing task structure, increasing task

relevance and practice, increasing engaging academic responses, mini-lessons on specific skills,

and decreasing group size (McCook, n.d., slides 51-54). These are all substantial interventions

individually. Not as well studied is the systematic approach to formative assessment, checking

for understanding. Fisher and Frey (2007) state that checking for understanding ―completes the

circle of assessment, planning, and instruction by providing teachers and students with evidence

of learning‖ (p. 14). The methods of checking for understanding are many and nebulous, but it

does require teachers to ―move beyond asking questions and giving tests to determine whether

learning has occurred‖ (Fisher & Frey, 2007, p. 135), but specific direct instruction treatment

methods utilized within the classroom have not been studied for effectiveness.



Participants in this study are 8th grade, 13-15 year old male and female students in a

public middle school. The school qualifies as Title I, having a free and reduced lunch rate at

nearly 50% and a total school population, grades 6-8, of 620 students with 53 educators on staff.

The community’s largest employers are government or government related positions, so poverty

fluctuation is relatively flat. There were four total groups (four periods of mainstream English

classes) used in this study, two each were used as treatment and no-treatment groups. Each

period was held daily, five days per week, for a length of 53 minutes each, except period three,

which had an extra four minutes for announcements, which had no effect on the results. There

were a total of 22 instruction days over the course of a month and a half, from the middle of

March to the end of April, during which there was also a six-school-day break. The teacher of

all sections remained the same (See Table 1).

Period Number of Time of Day Male Female

Treatment 3 30 9:56-10:53 AM 16 14
7 25 1:53-2:45 PM 14 11
No-Treatment 1 15 8:05-8:58 AM 10 5
4 30 10:57-11:49 AM 16 14
Table 1. Treatment/No-Treatment Group Size, Time of Day, and Gender

Research Design

The teacher/researcher applied checks for understanding as outlined in detail in Fisher

and Frey (2007) and measured the amount of specified checks applied in both treatment and no-

treatment groups. The treatments were divided into four categories: Oral language, questioning,

writing, and tests. The specified treatments in Oral Language are Retellings (p. 26), Think Pair

Share (p. 30), and Whip Around (p. 34); in Questioning, they are Thumbs Up/Down (p. 49); in

Writing, they are Read Pair Share (p. 64), Summary (p. 66), RAFT (p. 67), and Graphic

Organizers (pp. 87-89); in Tests, they are Multiple Choice, Short Answer, and Performance (p.

98). These treatments were applied in an 8th grade English, poetry unit. Specific understanding

revolved around seven poetic terms and reading comprehension of the poem, ―The Rime of the

Ancient Mariner‖ (Coleridge, 2004, p. 5).

Data Collection

Operational definition of all variables.

Independent variable.

The difference between the number of checks for understanding given to the treatment

group compared to the no-treatment group is the independent variable. A chart of checks for

understanding was created for each group, for each day, and was measured by the administrator.

Dependant variables.

Student perception.

Participants were given a pre and post-test, measuring their attitude toward reading

poetry and how well they felt they understood the seven poetic terms. These were measured by

15 multiple response questions.


Participants were given a pre- and post-test, seven multiple-choice questions, on the

seven given terms.


Vocabulary application.

Participants were given a post-test with two poetry passages, one they have read, and the

other they have not. The students were given a bank of the seven terms without definitions and

then marked each passage with the codes matching the terms. Each term was worth two points

for each of the given poems, for a total of 28 points with two points as free-bees. This was a

performance test, measuring how well each student could apply the knowledge of the terms


Reading comprehension.

Students read ―The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‖ (Coleridge, 2004, p. 5) in class and

were tested on key plot and character points within the story. The reading comprehension test

consisted of 11 multiple-choice questions and four short answer questions. Each question was

worth one point, except for the moral-of-the-story question being worth five points.

Reliability and validity of instruments.

The validity of instrumentation was well protected from external forces. Multiple

treatments, if there were any, were buffered because of the number of subjects and the length of

the experiment. The internal validity of the instruments is quite high. There was no threat of

maturation within the group, the pretest had a negligible effect, there was no unnecessary

instrumentation fatigue, and there was no regression within the participants. The only potential

threat would be the isolated selection of participants. For this particular experiment, where

results are shared locally, it is the best selection, but if results are carried into academia, they

would be limited in their generalizability.


Results of the Data

Independent variable.

The number of checks for understanding given to the treatment group compared to the

no-treatment group was 86% greater overall (see Figure 2). By analyzing each type of check for

understanding and comparing the set as a whole, the weakest applications were minute in

number and should have little to no effect on the end-results. Because the number of checks for

understanding were notably higher, the results signify an important difference.

Period 1 4 3 7
Oral Language 0 1 1 19 9 28 27 96.43%
Retellings (p 26) 0 0 0 8 5 13 13 100.00%
Think Pair Share (p 30) 0 1 1 11 4 15 14 93.33%
Questioning 0 0 0 53 44 97 97 100.00%
Thumbs Up/Down (p 49) 0 0 0 53 44 97 97 100.00%
Writing 5 7 12 18 13 31 19 61.29%
Read Pair Share (p 64) 1 1 2 1 3 4 2 50.00%
Summary (p 66) 0 1 1 3 1 4 3 75.00%
RAFT (p 67) 0 0 0 1 1 2 2 100.00%
Graphic Organizers (p 87&89) 4 5 9 13 8 21 12 57.14%
Tests 5 6 11 5 5 10 -1 -10.00%
Multiple Choice 3 3 6 3 3 6 0 0.00%
Short Answer 1 2 3 1 1 2 -1 -50.00%
Performance 1 1 2 1 1 2 0 0.00%
TOTALS 10 14 24 95 71 166 142 85.54%
Figure 1. Total Checks for Understanding Applied to Treatment and No-Treatment Groups by

Count and Percentage

Dependant variables.

Student perception.

The data collected from the 15 question pre-test survey establishes that the treatment and

no-treatment groups are not correlated (p = .71), which is expected. The same survey delivered

after the treatment, resulted in a similar correlation (p = .79), which was unexpected. The

significance between applying checks for understanding and students’ self-perception of poetic

terms and perception to poetry in general cannot be verified.

Comparing treatment to no-treatment groups based on the percent of change from pre-test

to post-test, the no-treatment group, in general, view themselves as better at identifying the seven

poetic terms and improved their personal view toward poetry, which is opposite of the

expectation. Either way, by using checks for understanding or not, by the end of the treatment

period, most students had a more positive view about reading poetry and their understanding of

poetic terms as well. One interesting change is that while the participants who replied ―Disagree

Strongly‖ to ―I like poetry‖, their perception became more positive, but the participants who

replied ―Agree Strongly‖ or ―Agree‖ decreased, and so, the middle became larger. The same is

true for the ―I understand poetry‖ question. (See Figure 3)

Disagree agree or Agree
Strongly Disagree disagree Agree Strongly
1 I like poetry. -11.80% 10.10% 7.20% -1.40% -4.00%
2 I understand poetry. 0.00% -0.90% 5.00% 4.60% -8.90%
3 I read poems for fun, not necessarily for a grade. -5.70% 6.30% 0.20% 0.40% -1.10%
4 Poetry mirrors people’s emotions. -3.60% -2.70% -1.10% 3.90% 3.60%
5 Poetry mirrors how people think or reason. -5.60% 2.90% -1.20% 1.80% 2.20%
6 Poetic terms are useful. -6.70% -3.60% 6.80% 6.60% -3.10%
7 I understand and can find assonance in a poem. -10.00% -5.10% -10.40% 22.00% 3.50%
8 I understand and can find consonance in a poem. -6.80% -10.10% -21.90% 35.40% 3.40%
9 I understand and can find alliteration in a poem. -3.80% -12.20% -6.30% 22.20% 0.20%
10 I understand and can find rhyme scheme in a poem. -3.90% 0.90% 2.10% -9.30% 10.10%
11 I understand and can find internal rhyme in a poem. -6.10% 0.90% -13.70% 11.00% 7.90%
12 I understand, can find, and name the meter of a poem. -5.50% -7.10% -1.00% 9.20% 4.30%
13 I understand and can find onomatopoeia in a poem. -8.90% -0.60% -13.50% 11.80% 11.20%
14 Poetry has no importance for people. 1.50% 11.70% -4.70% -6.50% -1.80%
15 I would like to read more poetry. -6.60% 4.60% -7.10% 11.10% -2.10%

Figure 2. Percent Change of Student Perception from Pre/Post Survey Results. Highlighted

areas indicate a negative change, where un-highlighted areas are positive increases.


Participants answered seven multiple-choice questions, one for each of the seven poetic

terms studied. The pre-test returned a treatment to no-treatment result of 2%. The post-test

revealed a 24% difference with a high coefficient (p = -.08). (See Figure 4)

Pre-test Post-test
Mean % Mean %
TREATMENT 3.64 52% 4.85 69%
NO TREATMENT 3.48 50% 3.15 45%

Figure 3. Results of Multiple-Choice Vocabulary Pre/Post Test by Mean and Percentage

With confidence, the application of checks for understanding does yield a positive effect on

memorized poetic vocabulary knowledge.

Vocabulary application.

Participants individually identified poetic terms within two given poems. The percent

difference between the treatment and no-treatment groups was 6% with a coefficient rate well

outside the level of acceptance (p = -.33). Applying checks for understand does not yield a

greater positive influence in vocabulary application (See Figure 5).

Reading comprehension.

After participants read the poem, ―The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‖ (Coleridge, 2004,

p. 5), they applied their understanding to a multiple-choice and short answer reading

comprehension test. The difference between the percent of total scores of treatment and no-

treatment groups was 12% with a high coefficient (p = -.08) (See Figure 5).

Test Treatment No-treatment % Difference

(%) (%) (%)
Vocabulary Mean 73 67 6
Reading Comp 78 67 12
Figure 4. Vocabulary Application and Reading Comprehension Results as Percentage of Correct


With confidence, the application of checks for understanding does yield a positive effect on

reading comprehension.


This study was conducted in English courses at a middle school, so generalizing to other

middle school aged students with a similar demographics in studies of reading or vocabulary

would be applicable. Rural demographics will perhaps limit generalizability. In the area of this

study, the population is mostly Caucasians of middle and lower socio-economic status. Culture

of the western United States tends to differ from the eastern and southern states on family values,

religious beliefs, and political views. Our subgroup populations on standardized testing are

special education and poverty, while nearing the qualifying percentage of American Indians. All

of these factors have potential to affect the generalizability of results from the sample to the



This information was compiled into a simple but deeply informative website, using

GoogleSites, http://sites.google.com/site/checksforunderstanding/, to concisely transmit the

information to my building’s staff. First, this information was shared with our building’s reading

coach and principal, and together we decided how to proceed communicating with the rest of the

staff. We decided I present only highlighted findings where the staff are then directed to the

website for the full details. This allows people at their own desire to go deep into the information

if interested or just skim if they have little desire. Via the website, the information will always

be available to the world whenever the need arises.

Implications and Reaction

Participants in the treatment group responded 12% better in reading comprehension and

24% better on the memorized vocabulary knowledge because of the application of checks for

understanding. Although not correlated to the treatment, the students perceive themselves not

understanding and not enjoying poetry as well compared to those in the no-treatment group, but

at the same time, they increased both their understanding and enjoyment of poetry from the

beginning of the treatment period. It should be remembered as Thomas (2009) states: ―The oft-

forgotten real purpose of assessment is to maintain a dialogue around quality that nurtures

student development‖ (The Teacher’s Cycle, ¶ 11). Student perception of knowledge is an

important component of learning because it affects confidence, which can effect performance

and student development.

The treatment group out-performed the no-treatment group on vocabulary on the

multiple-choice test, measuring memorization. Yet, the results do not correspond to vocabulary

application, measuring critical thinking, where both groups performed equally. Treatment

participants knew the poetic definitions, but struggled equally with the no-treatment participants

when it came to finding and labeling those same terms in a poem. It may be that applying checks

for understanding will increase standardized test scores in the area of vocabulary, but when it

comes to real-life application of vocabulary knowledge, there is no increase in student

knowledge using checks for understanding. Because testing should reflect understanding,

teachers should look for another intervention method for students to increase their knowledge of

vocabulary application.

Applying checks for understanding, like teacher led discussions with increased student

responses, does result in increased understanding of reading comprehension of poetry by 12.

Because reading comprehension is cross-curricular, where students are reading for understanding

in nearly every subject, it would be beneficial for all teachers who have students reading for

knowledge to use checks for understanding to help improve student comprehension.

Although, the results of applying checks for understanding were not as dramatic as

anticipated, there are positive results. Because the checks for understanding allow the students to

repeat and practice the given skill in multiple formats, students become better memorized in

terminology and reading comprehension. For the expense of retraining and changing teaching

technique, it does pay in student learning. The bottom line is that it does not decrease student

understanding, it can only help. Self-perception may be the exception. Even though self-

perception was not correlated with checks for understanding, something did make the treatment

group’s self-perception lower than the no-treatment group. I suggest there be future testing done

on why when one increases direct instruction techniques, standardized test scores increase, while

student perception and morale decreases. I want students to learn more and more quickly, but

more importantly, I want students to enjoy learning, because curiosity and research are life-long



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