The research of Steve Graham and Michael Hebert clearly shows the importance of integrating writing about reading into your reading curriculum. In their landmark study, Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can improve Reading, the authors invite teachers to ask students to write brief informal responses, summaries, notes, answers to questions, as well as analytical paragraphs and essays. Download this extensive study; it’s free. Go to: www.carnegie.org/literacy
In this newsletter I will focus on informal journal writing—brief responses to your read alouds as well as journal responses to instructional and independent reading. When students respond to read alouds, I recommend that they use their readers notebooks.
USE READERS’ NOTEBOOKS AND LAPTOP COMPUTERS
Students can record their responses to reading in readers’ notebooks and/or laptop computers. If you have access to laptops for all your students, use them when students respond to their instructional and independent reading.
You can use marble covered notebooks for students’ responses to reading or hand-made notebooks that consist of composition paper stapled between two pieces of colored construction paper.
Readers’ notebooks should remain at school because sending them home to complete responses usually results in several students not bringing them to class; store notebooks for different sections you teach in a plastic crate. If you assign a written response for homework, have students use composition paper. After you read students’ homework entries, have them staple or tape them into their notebooks so they have a continuous record of their thinking.
Before class starts, ask three to four students in each class to hand out readers’ notebooks as the group files into your room. On the chalkboard write the day’s heading that includes your name, the date, and any additional heading you want students to write. Having notebooks available, ready to receive students’ responses during read alouds and mini-lessons enables you to be more spontaneous about invitations for students to respond. Responses can be written, drawings, drawings and writing.
Informal Journal Writing
As I read aloud, I pause and ask students to respond once or twice. These pauses should invite short responses so as not to interrupt the flow of the read aloud. With narrative texts, you can pose a question, ask students to react to a character’s decision or plan for solving a problem. With informational texts have students respond to unique details, specific words and phrases, or make a connection to similar data being studied in content classes.
Let students know that you will listen to the responses of two to three volunteers. If you avoid setting parameters, this short lesson can eat into the entire class period leaving little to no time for instructional or independent reading. Keep a list of students for each class you teach. Explain that you’ll put the date next to the name of each student that reads a response so that in future classes, you can call on students who haven’t shared. Sharing is important because it demystifies responses, enabling students reluctant to write to see that they are capable of composing a similar response.
Four Informal Responses to Literature
Students give high ratings to the four informal responses that follow. They work well after you’ve read aloud a poem or short narrative or informational piece and with students’ instructional and independent reading books. Have students head each response by writing the title, author, and pages the response covers. Students need to use text evidence—details and logical inferences from the text-–to support their responses. Reading means that students use the text to support their reactions, hunches, conclusions, and inferences. Background knowledge improves and deepens comprehension. But writing about reading needs to focus on using evidence from the text.
1. Visualize and Draw: Have students draw the images they see after reading and/or listening to a poem.
2. Four Words: Ask students to write in their notebooks the first four words that come to mind after hearing the poem. Next, have students choose one of the words that resonated with them and write about how the word connects to the poem. Partners share and discuss their written responses.
3. Choice and Mood or Tone: Have each student reread the poem silently and then choose four to ten words and short phrases that contribute to the mood or tone of the poem. Partners share their lists and discuss the mood or tone the words imply or suggest.
A pair of eighth graders collected these words from “The Runaway” by Robert Frost: snorted, bolt, miniature thunder, running away, clatter of stone, alone, shudders. The pair decided that the mood reflected the colt’s fear of snow—something new to him. The poet’s choice of these words helped reinforce the idea of the colt’s fear of winter and snow and being out alone. It also showed, they pointed out, that the owner was not a good caretaker because the colt was alone.
4. Feelings: Invite students to jot two feelings they experienced while listening to the poem. Invite students to compare their feelings to the feelings they believe are part of the author’s purpose. Are they alike? Different? Explain.
T-Charts: Journal Responses
T-charts, also called double entry journal responses are an easy and organized way for students to write about reading. The thinking completed on T-charts can be turned into paragraphs that explain, analyze, or argue.
Benefits to Students
When students write frequently about their reading, especially those quick responses to their teachers’ reading aloud, they develop a thinking-about-text fluency. The more students practice writing about reading, the easier it is for them to develop and clarify hunches, react to a character, think about story structure, comment on information, and connect ideas between texts.
If two students are reading the same text, you might suggest that they blog back-and-forth about the text. Whether students are developing or advanced readers, I find that they enjoy blogging. In addition, blogging includes reading your partner’s writing and that’s a benefit to all readers as the motivation to continue working online is great.
Tips For Coping With Grading Students’ Responses
Grading is always an issue; some districts even require a specific number of grades per subject per marking period. I suggest that teachers avoid grading the brief responses that students complete when the teacher reads aloud. T-chart and other journal responses can be graded. Here’s what I recommend:
- Grade a journal response only after students have practiced it.
- Tell students in advance that you will grade their response.
- Develop a rubric for each graded response; give it to students before they write so they know your expectations.
- Have students complete the response on separate composition paper so you’re not slogging through sets of journals.
- Ask students to paste their response into their readers’ notebook, once you’ve graded students’ work and had them revise.
- Have students email you the response if their notebooks are online.
Resources to Investigate
You can find additional journal responses by investigating three books that I wrote:
Teaching Reading in Middle School, 2nd edition, Scholastic, 2010.
Unlocking Complex Texts, Scholastic, 2013.
Teaching Reading: A Differentiated Approach, the binder, Scholastic, 2008.
The Principal’s Corner
Since writing about reading is a topnotch, research-based strategy for improving the comprehension of all students, it’s important to encourage teachers across the curriculum to integrate responding to reading into their instructional and independent reading curriculum.
Start by downloading copies of Writing to Read and have teachers from all disciplines read and discuss a few pages at a time at team, department, or faculty meetings. Understanding the compelling research in this document can help teachers see the importance of integrating writing into reading tasks.
Next, send an email to teachers asking them to invite you into their classes to observe students writing brief, informal responses to reading. Explain to teachers that these are not formal evaluations but rather celebrations of their implementing research-based and classroom tested strategies.
Send an email or handwritten note to the teacher and his students. Recognizing and honoring their work will motivate both to continue to respond to their reading and improve comprehension and recall.
Evan Robb, Principal Johnson Williams Middle School and author of: The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007.