How do I know if my students are really reading?

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Kids are great fakers.  If I’m honest, I was a pretty good faker in school too.  I’ll never forget a teacher saying he was going to give us a super hard test on a book and if we didn’t read it, there was no way we would make an A.  All I could think was challenge accepted, dude.   

If I didn’t like a book, I knew ways to fake it to get the grade I wanted.  Students in my classes know the same tricks – and maybe a few more (and better) ones too. 

I’m a part of a professional group that recently asked the same question.  The answers surprised me – many were playing a game of “gotcha” with kids usually via some horrendous quiz.  

This brought back memories of another teacher who assigned a book – a book I loved and read every word!  His quiz included questions such as how long was the rope that the character bought.  I got the question wrong, and I had read the book.  The fact I remember that 20+ years later tells you the impact it had on me. 

So, if we know kids fake it at times and we know “gotcha” quizzes can punish students who actually read, what do we do? 

Here’s what the research and experts suggest isn’t effective: 

  • Reading Logs– While reading logs are okay for informal formative assessments or information for the reader, they should not be used as a grade.  DonalynMiller once said that reading logs only measured which parent had a pen on Friday morning.   
  • Jots– Again, jots are not bad.  Jots just should be about instruction, reading growth, and the reader. Assigning 15 jots of at least 3 sentences each does little to ensure reading; rather, it often has the unintended consequence of students worrying more about jots than reading and thinking about reading. 
  • Incentive-based Programs– Whether this is a purchased program or a “homegrown” created program, incentives can often lead to diminished reading in the long run.  There’s lots of research on this.  I suggest checking out Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards (1995). 

So then what’s the answer?  Here’s some thoughts on where to start: 

  • Talk to students – Conferring is arguably one of the best ways to know if students are reading.  If we are using independent reading time in our class, during that time, we should be talking to kids about their reading!  Students should know we are a readersby the way we promote books, make recommendations, etc.  They don’t need to see us reading.  They need us talking to them about what they are reading! 
  • Get students talking to each other – While the teacher/student conference is incredibly important, it is equally important to have students talk to each other about their reading lives.  This can be done through book clubs or informal book talks or partner talks.  Students talking about books and their reading has so many positive implications, it really is a priority to implement it in every classroom.  But implemented well and with intention and purpose. 
  • Access and choice and time – Students have to have access to high interest books they want to read and the time to read them.  If we get students hooked in a book, they will read.  But we know that not every kid is going to be “hooked” by the same book.  Students need to have choice — and to have choice they have tohave access to lots of different, high interest books that are mirrors and windows for them.  Then, of course, it follows, if students have access to choose a high interest book, they will need to have time to read it.  What we spend time on in our classrooms reflects our values as educators.

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