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Five strategies for measuring growth & understanding without losing the magic of independent reading

Middle school students love independent reading. The struggles many classroom teachers face is maintaining clear expectations without compromising engagement, and assessing student’s understanding so we can best support our students when they’re all reading different texts. The good news: teachers can easily do both! Independent reading can be engaging, instill a love of reading, and still give teachers a clear measure of students’ skills so we can work to support our students and help them improve as readers of literature. 

Research shows that when students are provided choice in their reading, they read more and academic achievement goes up (Hayes, 1988; Hayes & Ahrens, 1988; Nagy, Anderson, & Herman, 1987; Stanovich, 1986; Ivey & Broaddus, 2001). Here are five ways methods that help teachers set clear expectations while maximizing student engagement:

1. Give Students a Reading Habits Survey

After sharing the research with students on the benefits of independent reading (I share snippets of this article from the American Library Association), I hand students a reading habits survey and challenge them to track their reading habits for one week. The reading habits survey is not graded. It is not a tool meant to hold students accountable like an old-school reading log. It’s meant for students to track habits so they can become more aware of what works and what gets in the way of their independent reading.  

Many students are not aware of their own reading habits and how to improve them. Instruct students to track their reading habits for one week (download a free reading habits survey here). Check in throughout the week to discuss what is working and what is getting in the way–make this a student-led conversation. At the end of the week, create an anchor chart of what works to help build strong reading habits. Create a second anchor chart listing common obstacles along with tips for overcoming them. It is important that this conversation is student-led. It will be eye opening to hear the realities of the challenges and pulls that our students face outside of the classroom. Fellow classmates can also lead the discussion of what realistically works for them.  

Emphasize the importance of prioritizing reading and building good habits, like putting phones in a different room, reading as part of a bedtime routine, and using study halls to read. For students who are busy with extracurriculars, talk about strategies like audio books in the car or reading in the space between school and practice. For students with babysitting responsibilities, discuss the possibility of reading to or with younger siblings. 

It is important to keep expectations realistic. Reading volume does matter (research shows 20 minutes each night drastically improves students’ overall academic performance); however, it is also essential to work with students and understand the wide variety of unique needs. Students can be good readers and they can struggle and they can have very little quiet time outside of school. All of those things can be true, and we can support our kids while they work to build the best habits possible. 

2. Help Students to Set Goals

When students set effective goals, they tend to achieve at higher levels (Locke & Latham, 1990). Why not apply goal setting strategies to independent reading?

Setting goals with students is simple. Using a goal setting log like the one pictured above, and instruct students to record the date and their reading goal for one week. Model reasonable, achievable, measurable goals. Model goals that would not be measureable or achievable and encourage students to avoid those. 

Check in half way through the week and reflect on what is working and what is getting in the way of progress. At the end of the week, check in on goals and reflect. Individually, students should reflect on what worked and what got in the way of reading. Discuss successes and struggles as a whole class. 

3. Practice Teacher Conferences

In their article, “Facilitating engagement by differentiating independent reading,” Michelle J Kelley and Nicki Clausen-Grace recommend taking a “Status of Class” during independent reading time. Show students that independent reading is valued and supported by conferencing with students as they read.

Teacher conferences can be short and simple. Check in on the books students are reading and how far along they are in the text. Ask them their favorite event or character so far. Gauge if each student is engaged in their reading. Notice if students are “fake reading” or struggling to find the right book. I often serve my reluctant readers book stacks after asking them about their interests and their favorite book or movie of all time. When I see a student make eye contact with me (instead of their book), during independent reading time, I check in to make sure their book is engaging. If they’re struggling to focus, a book change can often help.

Use this simple status of class sheet to track student reading and engagement.

4. Give Book Talks

The very best reading response projects are interactive, social, spread the love of reading and build community, AND allow teachers to gauge students’ reading comprehension.

Book talks can be a simple, two day event. Here’s how:

Task students with answering four questions in one to two sentences: 

  1. Hook your partner. Read an attention grabbing quote, share something interesting, or paint a picture of the characters, setting, and major conflict with words. 

  2. Open your book! Tell the title and author. Give some background without spoiling the story. Read a short excerpt (less than a page). 

  3. Open your mind. What does this book make you think more deeply OR differently about? Describe your thoughts and feelings connected to the book. Why is this book meaningful to you? 

  4. Knockout! Who would consider this book a knockout, homerun, amazing read? 

It took my 7th graders almost 20 minutes to answer these four questions well, and then we read for the rest of our first class. The next day, students gave book talks “speed dating” style. Students sat across from a partner and each student delivered their book talk. After each student shared their book talk, one partner rotated (ex. Every partner sitting closest to the front of the room moves to the right). With their new partners, students delivered their book talks again. Repeat this process several times. 

After delivering and hearing multiple book talks, ask students if they heard about any books they would like to read. Hand in completed book talks for grading OR grade book talks during class as students are presenting. 

You can grab my independent reading program and journal with Book Talk guides here.

5. Write Letters to Authors

Writing letters to authors is by far my favorite summative assessment of independent reading. You can grab my independent reading program and journals, including our letter writing lessons and materials, here. In letters to our authors, students are tasked with sharing a reflection on the impact of a book. Because they’re writing a letter to an author, they must avoid summary and instead focus on how elements of the author’s writing impacted them as readers. The results are awe-inspiring. 

Not only are students practicing a form of literary analysis, but they are also reflecting on how reading impacts them as human beings. Students explore the power of literature! 

Additionally, students are motivated because they have an authentic audience. Not all authors have the time to write back or even accept letters. However, when we do receive a letter back, our whole class celebrates. Big time authors have written back to my students and shared their common experiences, their appreciation for student readers, and their praise for my students’ writing. 

Writing letters to authors is an authentic way to gauge students’ understanding of literature while keeping the passion for reading alive. 

Since my college methods professor introduced me to Nancie Atwell’s work over 20 years ago, I have been passionate about independent reading in the secondary ELA classroom. Research supports the practice of independent reading in schools, and students truly love it. The key is to balance engagement with learning experiences. When engagement in reading and rich learning experiences come together, you can build an unstoppable reading community with your students. 

Check out this post on Passion Projects and this one on Five Alternatives to Book Reports Your Students Will Love for more inspiration. 

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