When I first moved from teaching primary to intermediate grades almost ten years ago, I quickly adopted the practice of having students regularly write about their reading in the form of reading response letters. Every other week, each of my fourth graders was responsible for crafting a letter that demonstrated a deep understanding of something they were reading independently. I spend a great deal of time setting up elaborate systems of when the letters were due, how they were handed in and graded, and the precise formula of three structured paragraphs I expected to see. I spent an even greater amount of time reading each of these (mostly) poorly written letters and writing back to each of my students. I asked many of them to try again, truly believing that making them write more (mostly) poorly written letters would somehow improve both their writing and their reading.
Thinking back now, I feel like I should probably sit down to write each of them a perfectly structured, mostly formulaic three paragraph letter of apology to express how sorry I am that we all suffered through that experience. While my students did become better readers each year, I believe now that it had very little to do with the effort (or lack thereof) that they put into writing required response letters to me. Instead, I’ve since realized, their improvements in reading had everything to do with opportunities during Reading Workshop that were tailored to meet their needs, individualized, motivating, incorporated choice, and provided time to think deeply and share their thoughts about their reading with others.
That is what good writing about reading looks like. Goal 13 of The Reading Strategies Book provides 23 amazing strategies to help teachers support students with a variety of options for writing about reading.
“Teaching children to write well about their reading is about teaching them that their thinking about books matters.” (p. 350)
Writing about reading is a balancing act. Although we want our students to develop the habits of recording their thinking and fully developing their ideas around texts, the reading itself is always most important. Serravallo, citing Nancy Atwell (2014), emphasizes that writing about reading should be filled with choices: when to write, what to write, and how to write. Serravallo advises teachers to use caution when writing about reading with students in the primary grades, where the heavy focus should be on developing emergent reading behaviors. (A majority of the strategies in this chapter are most appropriate for students in upper elementary grades and middle school.)
According to Serravallo, strategies for writing about reading fall into several distinct categories:
- Reflection about reading habits, history, and identity
- In the moment writing that occurs during reading, mostly through the use of sticky notes and annotations to capture thoughts while engaged with the text
- Longer writing to expand on ideas and develop deeper understanding through and across texts
- Revisions to writing by revisiting previously-written responses to evaluate and improve upon their writing.
There are several instances in which focusing on writing about reading as a prioritized goal is appropriate. Some students may need to document their understanding of a text while reading in order to recall their thinking at a later time. Others may demonstrate strength as a writer but lack the ability to think deeply about their reading. Still others may need to focus on this goal when they are able to discuss a text at much higher levels than they can articulate their thoughts in writing.
As I think about the types of writing about reading I want to see in my own classroom, here are some of my favorite strategies from this goal:
13.9 My Reading Timeline Students have an opportunity to reflect on their history as a reader and develop a visual representation of their life as a reader. This is a strategy I’ve used with young students, older students, and even teachers, and it is highly engaging and provides a great deal of information about reading identity.
13.6 What Can I Do With a Sticky Note? and 13.7 What’s Worth Keeping? Although these are two separate strategies, I like to pair them together. We all know that students who are just handed a stack of sticky notes will make good use of them–by using all of them. 13.6 focuses specifically on guiding students toward using sticky notes in meaningful ways. 13.7 builds upon this strategy by pushing students to reflect on the notes they have taken to determine what is useful for developing their understanding as readers and how they might further organize and develop these ideas in their reading notebook. Both of these strategies work well with whole or small groups and I’ve found that students often need repeated exposure to these ideas to be successful with using sticky notes while they read.
13.22 Idea Connections and 13.23 Pile It On These strategies are also very similar. In 13.22, students look across several of their best sticky notes from a text to look for connections, similarities, and differences. 13.23 builds upon this idea by asking students to collect all of the sticky notes on a common idea and synthesize them to demonstrate their thinking and share a new idea. Both of these strategies are for more advanced readers and will support taking students to much deeper levels of understanding as they read.
As I reflect on this chapter, I think what is most important is that it provides so many different options for supporting students in their writing about reading. Sometimes we want students to simply record their thoughts quickly on sticky notes, while other times we want to encourage them to sit down and really think on a deeper level about their reading and the meaning behind the text. This chapter supports both.
As you think through your own reading habits, your classroom work with writing about reading, and your work within this chapter, I’d love for you to reflect upon and share your thinking about some of these questions:
- How do you record your ideas and write about reading as an adult reader?
- What systems do you put in place to support your students in writing about reading regularly in your classroom? (In other words, what works for you?)
- How do you make writing about reading authentic and meaningful for your students?
- What strategies from Goal 13 have you tried? What has worked well with your students?
I can’t thank Croft’s Classroom enough for hosting this blogging book study of The Reading Strategies Book over the past few weeks. A fantastic collection of ideas, thoughts, lessons and resources for each of the goals have been shared by each of these amazing educators:
If you haven’t read them already, make sure you check them all out!