We give our students quite a gift when we allow them to choose which books they will read. However, independent reading and readers’ workshop can be difficult for a teacher to manage. Many believe it’s easier to keep kids accountable when they do a full class novel because everyone is – quite literally – on the same page. However, there are several strategies you can use to keep kids accountable with independent reading:
1. Focus on love of reading first
One of the best ways to ensure that students will read their books is to help them find one they want to read.
My biggest focus at the beginning of a semester is on getting the right books into the hands of students so they can enjoy reading and hopefully become lifelong readers. We start by speed dating with books, so my students can explore the titles in my classroom and select ones they would like to try.
Once they start reading, I don’t require them to read a certain number of pages or books. Instead, the focus is on building reading stamina. We attack that right from the beginning by choosing good books and setting goals for each week.
2. Decide which skills you want to target
Instead of thinking about the chapters and specific elements of a particular novel, zero in on the skills you want your independent readers to acquire. Then, make a plan for when and how you will focus on these skills.
For example, early in the semester, I focus on different elements of fiction, like the methods that authors employ to develop characters, or the ways that they use point of view and perspective. We will delve into word choice and theme. All of the things I would cover with a full class novel are covered with reader’s workshop — but I need to start with a plan.
Because I am focused on skills, not chapters, students will apply what they learn in my lessons to their independent novels. So, if I do a lesson on how writers develop character through dialogue, then they have to look for examples of that in their own novels, and complete an assignment or activity like the ones that follow.
This way, I can keep them accountable for their reading even when they are reading different texts.
3. Teach students to be active readers
Whether students are reading the same book or different ones, teach them how to be active readers. Do this by modelling your own reading and by focusing on one skill at a time. Talk to them about how you choose a book, and show them your thinking as you read. And, if you want them to track character or theme, give them mini-lessons on how to do so.
Then build in activities that can help them learn how to do this, like the one I explain on this blog post. If you’d like some help with this, you can also check out my Activities for Independent Reading. It offers a variety of activities that you can use to help your students become active readers who can effectively analyze their texts. These activities will teach them the habits of active reading and allow you to keep kids accountable with independent reading.
Once you have given your students these tools, and you have provided them with opportunities to practice their active reading skills, you can begin to assess them.
4. Keep them accountable with reading notebooks
Reader’s notebooks, journals, logs, whatever you want to call them, are essential for managing independent reading.Students can use them to record their reading goals, the books they’ve read, their thinking as they read, and skill building exercises you might assign.
One of my favourite ways to engage kids who are reading different novels is with writing prompts that can be applied to any text – especially ones that the kids will find interesting. I have a whole series of prompts that ask students to reflect on — or connect to — some aspect of their reading, such as character, theme, point of view, conflict, or setting.
Some prompts ask them to make a creative connection. I use them as bell ringers or I print them off and use them as a basis for small group discussions about books.
I also use learning stations to get my students to focus on specific elements of their reading. At each station, students are asked to reflect on, and write about, character and thematic development, author’s craft, great quotes, etc.
All of this writing goes into their readers’ notebooks. I will read some of the entries, but not all of them. I do assign some grades, but I treat the notebook primarily as a place to build skills and to capture thinking about text, rather than something that needs to be assessed. The also keeps the students accountable for what they learn as they read.
The students will also use the information in their notebooks for conferences with me, as well as with their peers during small group discussions. If they don’t have the work in the notebook, they have nothing to work with. In a way, this makes them much more accountable than traditional chapter questions with a full class novel. They are reading their own books and are responsible for the notebook entries, something they can’t just copy off someone else.
5. Use group discussions to target skills and create interest
Group discussions are perfect for keeping kids accountable while reading — and they are where a lot of the magic happens.
There’s nothing better than hearing your students sink into a deep discussion about a theme and how it relates to their lives. The key to success in this is providing them with some focus and direction for their discussions.
Give your students a topic that can relate to any novel and ask them to discuss it in terms of their text: how does your book speak to the concept of loneliness? Or, if you want them to focus on skills: How does your author use dialogue to develop character? I usually have them do a quick-write in their notebooks first, and then move them into groups.
(If you’d like a little help with small group discussions, you can check out my Placemats for Talking About Text and my Reading Task Cards.)
The added bonus to these chats is that they can introduce students to other texts they might like to read. Quite often, after small group discussion, I will hear students asking each other if they can borrow the book when they are finished.
6. Keep students accountable with conferences
I give my students bookmarks that they can use to track the elements I want them to notice when they read, and I use prepared guides to keep myself and them focused when we conference. Sometimes these conferences are sit-down ones that take several minutes with each student, but often they are quickie-conferences, where I walk around the classroom with my clipboard, asking questions like: can you show me a place where your author is showing rather than telling? If the student can, I mark off that skill on my checklist.
If you’d like more information on how and why you should use this strategy, you can read about it on this post.
I hope that I’ve given you some strategies that you can use to keep kids accountable for independent reading in your classroom. And if you’d like strategies to get them to read full class texts, read this post.
If you have questions, never hesitate to reach out through email. You can also join my Facebook group, Strategies for Teaching Secondary English.
All of the products and activities I mentioned in the post can be found by checking out my Reader’s Workshop Bundle or my membership, so if you need more help, I’ve got lots of resources that can help!
Let me know if you have any questions!