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Writing About Reading: Lifting the Level of Reader’s Notebooks

Writing About Reading

For many years, when I heard the word “jot,” my mind went straight to an explosion of sticky notes. I pictured post-its falling out of students’ books, littering the classroom floor, crumpled up in notebooks, book baggies, and bins. Hastily scribbled notes meant to be tossed in the trash rather than used in any meaningful way. That’s what writing about reading once looked like in my classroom.  But once I learned how to expand my own concept of writing about reading and to provide deliberate structure and purpose for jots (and model other methods besides the cursed sticky!) writing about reading became a central component of my students’ work as readers.

Reading teachers know just how much goes into skilled reading -how the many intertwining strands of language comprehension and word recognition have to work together for reading comprehension to occur  – and how difficult it can be to parse out the part that may be holding our students up.  Writing about reading not only provides us with insight into students’ processes and thinking; it also allows students to deepen their analysis and comprehension of texts.

We are going to cover ways to lift the level of writing about reading and make it an intentional, impactful part of your students’ reading lives.

Impact of Time Spent Reading

Every minute of reading counts! Students who read for just ten minutes a day access 1.2 million words a year.  In order to help our students make the most of each of those minutes, we can lean on their reader’s notebooks to help them make connections between ideas in their books, synthesize and integrate information from different sources, and reflect on their interpretations of the text.  In “Writing to Read: A Report from Carnegie Corporation of New York Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading,” authors  Steve Graham and Michael Hebert explain that writing about reading “provides students with a tool for visibly and permanently recording, connecting, analyzing, personalizing and manipulating key ideas in a text.” 

Source: Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters By Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst

Source: Writing To Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading

Big Ideas about Writing about Reading

So what should writing about reading look like?  It’s more than just a book report, reading response, or sticky note here and there; it’s a practice that allows students to process text in real time and record and revise their reading theories.

 

Here are the beliefs at the foundation of cultivating writing about reading practice in your classroom:

  • It should be choice-based rather than task-based. We want students to be the decision-makers in their reading lives. We can give tools and structures to support their writing about reading, but they have to be intentional about jotting based on what they read!
  • There are a variety of ways to capture thinking! If we only show one way to jot, it closes off our students’ creativity and choice!
  • Writing about reading varies with bands of text complexity. Depending on the demands of the texts our students are reading,  their writing about reading will look different!
  • Writing about reading has utility! It is a necessary tool to launch a conversation and not just a “have to.”
  • Writing about reading can and should be revised. If students only see their jots as a one-and-done experience, they will not get into the habit of rereading and noticing where they’re thinking has changed or grown as they read on in their books.

*KEY: Writing about reading needs to be modeled before we can expect it to be done independently!

Writing About Reading Through Read Aloud

This type of thinking about text is complex! In order for students to get the most out of their reader’s notebooks, they need substantial time to practice and engage in different types of writing about reading. And as with any new skill, they need explicit instruction and modeling. Your read-aloud time is a great opportunity to provide explicit instruction and modeling. 

How to Select a Text to Model

Picking a text that lends itself to interesting jots is essential! To provide a meaningful entry point for students to practice writing about reading, consider the following criteria as you determine which texts to use:

  1. Knowledge
    • What prior knowledge is necessary?
    • How does this text support knowledge development?
    • Does this text have a purposeful connection to other texts?
  2. Vocabulary
    • Are there enough interesting and high-leverage words?
    • Are there context clues that can help?
    • Will unfamiliar words give students chances to apply knowledge of morphology?
  3. Language
    • Does the text include varied and interesting text structures?
    • What are verbal reasoning demands (figurative language, rhyming, repetition?
    • How is the text structured, both within and across paragraphs?
  4. Relevance
    • How does the text connect to students’ lives?
    • How does the text include representations of your students and others?
    • How does the text depict people, groups, and cultures in affirming ways?
  5. Accessibility
    • What support will students need to develop a robust mental model?
    • How does the text position students to be agentive as readers?
  6. Engagement
    • What about this book is likely to draw students in?
    • What strong emotions, universal themes, or important ideas does the text communicate?
    • What will students be eager to think about and discuss?

Once you’ve picked your text, it’s time to plan your interactive read-aloud!  Here are some steps to guide you:

  1. Prepare Access Points
  2. Provide a Text Introduction
  3. Utilize Culturally Responsive Pedagogy
  4. Model the orchestration of multiple reading skills
  5. Prepare prompts for talking, jotting, and thinking
  6. Build in opportunities to practice previously taught strategies
  7. Facilitate a whole class conversation

Practicing Literal Comprehension and Analytical Thinking Skills

Once you have selected a text as your anchor, plan to practice writing about reading to support both literal and analytical thinking. Students can use your prompts to stop and jot, and then as they read on their own, they can lean on these prompts to support their own writing about reading.

Literal Comprehension

  • Orienting: As we read the blurb, think and jot: What are we learning about the characters? What are we learning about the problem?
  • Envisioning: What are you picturing in this part? Make a sketch!
  • Monitoring: Let’s pause and think. Who are we learning about? What’s the big action?
  • Word Solving: This phrase is tricky. What does it mean? Why did the author include it?
  • Predicting: Think about what we know so far. What might happen next? Why?

Analytical Thinking

  • Character’s Feelings, Traits, Motivations, and Change: Describe the characters’ feelings and what causes those feelings. Be alert to how those feelings change by the end of the text. 
  • Problems: Identify how the problem grows and evolves across parts of the text. Notice if there is more than one problem and how it gets resolved.
  • Setting: Describe where the events take place.
  • Themes: Track multiple themes that emerge across the story. Remember that themes are often related to issues that characters face in the story.

Supporting Students with Writing About Reading

Now that your students have practiced jotting through read-aloud, they are ready to practice in their own texts. As they go off and read independently, have them determine which kind of jot will best suit their reading work that day. Then create a routine to collect their jots and analyze them. Read through some of their jots, and explore what students are doing well and ways to push them. As you analyze their jots, ask yourself the following questions to determine the next steps:

  1. What are students already jotting about?
  2. How are students already writing about reading?
  3. Are students writing about reading? Too much? (TIP: We aim for writing about reading to take 10% of their total reading time! Usually, this will mean only about 3-5 minutes are spent jotting, so they can sustain strong reading volume!)
  4. Are students doing the same kind of writing about reading over and over?

Pro Tip: The information you glean will guide your minilessons and can inform your small groups and conferences.

Modeling When and What to be Writing about Reading

Provide Different Models so students broaden their understanding of what writing about reading can entail. You can show them:

  • What to jot about in different parts of the book
  • What to jot about depending on the genre
  • How to structure different types of jots
    • Make a timeline
    • Create a chart
    • Map out a setting
    • Make a character web
    • Write long!

You can also structure the notebook to include different ways to write about our reading lives:

Student Facing Rubrics

We know how important it is for students to continually self-assess and goal-set. You can co-create checklists and rubrics with your class so students can analyze their jots and find ways to outgrow themselves. This gives students a guide for what to include as they write about their reading!

Reading Notebook Self-Assessment Checklist

  • Do my jots/entries reflect the current unit’s work? Check the anchor chart for current strategies.
  • Is my work similar to exemplar and mentor jots/entries shared by my teacher?
  • Are the included jot/entry types varied? Am I trying out many different ways to jot and capture my thinking?
  • Have I used specific language and story elements when writing about a text? (Theme, character trait, setting, etc)
  • Are specific details from the text included as text evidence?

Other Ways to Use Writing About Reading to Support Independent Reading

Think outside the box! Ask your students what else they want to record in their reader’s notebooks and build in structures for those authentic purposes as well. Here are some of our other suggestions:

  • Reading Lists: What I’m reading and what I want to read next
  • Reading Log: Tracking the page I’m on each day. I can total my pages at the end of each week.
  • Reading Ladder: Each trimester  I sort my books into a ladder of difficulty and reflect on my goals. This helps me set goals for the next part of the year.
  • What Should the Teacher Buy Next List: Students suggest titles for the classroom on a chart
  • Student Recommendation Shelf: Students put sticky note reviews on the covers of books and the books are displayed on a shelf, like in a bookstore.
  • “Dear Reader” letters: Students recommend books by writing brief reviews on the inside cover
  • Reading Guides: Students create reading guides with discussion questions based on the book and put them in the back of the book.

 

Once I made a shift to writing about reading with these guidelines in mind, our whole culture of reading changed. When readers got to the end of the reader’s notebook, it was cause for celebration and a congratulatory awarding of the new notebook to start afresh.  As students filled pages of their notebooks with jots about their thinking about texts, I witnessed growth in their comprehension, discourse, and identities as readers.  The writer’s notebook was the physical embodiment of their immense work as readers, and it was a living, breathing record of each student’s reading experience. This is what writing about reading can offer when done with purpose and creativity. 

 

Book Recommendations

Take your learning to the next level with these book recommendations.

Shifting the Balance by Jan Miller Burkins and Kari Yates

Breathing New Life into Book Clubs by Sonja Cherry-Paul

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