Reading assessments known as IRIs -- informal reading inventories -- help reading teachers and specialists find the grade levels of texts that students can read, to uncover and address reading problems and to track student progress easily and frequently. Whereas infrequently and formally given standardized reading tests provide comparative scientific data for schools, policy makers and researchers, regularly and informally given IRIs help educators keep assessment and instruction aligned all year long.

Narrative vs. Expository Texts

From an early age, most children hear bedtime stories and fairy tales -- or narratives. In part, that familiarity with stories makes reading them easier than reading expository texts -- or informational texts of the kind found in social studies or science textbooks, for example. Increasingly read from grade three onward, students often find exposition -- such as passages on primates in a science textbook -- harder to follow than narratives. Although a child can easily get a fifth-grade short story, he may be reading informational texts at a lower level. Most IRIs sold help educators find reading levels for both kinds of texts.

Independent-, Instructional- and Frustration-Level Texts

Reading educators also use the diverse reading passages and comprehension questions in IRIs to learn which texts students can read on their own -- or independent-level texts. Students independently read texts at this level for enjoyment and to develop reading accuracy, speed and expression, or fluency. IRIs also aid in finding challenging texts that students can read with instructional help, named instructional-level texts. Students read texts at this level to further develop reading and vocabulary skills and to learn content. Finally, IRIs help educators spot which texts to avoid because they are too hard for students to read even with help -- these are named frustration-level texts. This information helps teachers of all subjects cater to the individual reading levels of students across and within classrooms by, for example, stocking classroom libraries with books at different reading levels that teach the same content and skills.

Reading Comprehension

Professionals use IRIs informally and frequently to assess the development of varied reading comprehension skills. For example, strong readers make inferences that help them understand and interpret what they read. Weak readers, on the other hand, may simply be on autopilot while they read, failing to make meaningful connections between the page and what they already know about the subject. Answers to before and after reading questions in IRIs help reading teachers and specialists identify such problems so they can target instruction. In this case, educators would focus on teaching inference making.

Reading Fluency

Reading experts use the word lists, timed reading passages and error analysis tools in IRIs to initially assess and keep track of how fluently students are reading. Disfluent readers don't accurately and effortlessly recognize enough words in texts. Struggling with the code of the English language distracts them from meaning making, and comprehension is the Holy Grail in reading. As is the case with making inferences, IRI results can help educators isolate phonics and fluency problems for special attention. However, IRIs are not the best phonics assessments out there, reports Nina L. Nilson of the International Reading Association in a 2008 article published in "The Reading Teacher."