Following our daily reading time, another part of the independent reading for the year is the writing that students do informally in their notebooks based on the novels they are reading. In general, finding ways to assess independent reading can be tricky since students are reading different books. It can be hard to find a way to assess this without taking away the joy of reading from out students. One way that works for me is through informal writing assignments throughout the year. Informal writing is great because it allows students to show you what they are thinking. The pressure that is associated with formal writing pieces does not happen and therefore students do not associate that high pressure with reading. Middle schoolers hate being told what to think and by asking them to show me what they think, they are more motivated to do so.
The writing responses listed in this lesson are going throughout the school year and are not isolated to one specific lesson or to one time. Throughout the entire year I assign a few informal writing responses to students. This helps me to see if students are reading but also if they are able to think critically about the text and incorporate evidence from the text into the writing. These are skills that are crucial to the Common Core standards. There are a few different prompts that I give the students. Sometimes they have freedom to choose the prompt, other times I assign a specific prompt. I am aware that all my students are not reading the same book so some students are noticing something different about the book they are reading compared to a book a peer is reading so I try and give my students some variety. It also helps to give them more ownership in what they are writing and that will hopefully not take the fun out of reading.
I usually work with the questions that deal with character, theme, passages, and a reader's thinking. The questions can be found in this document: Reader Responses.
These responses can be used many times throughout the entire year. Since they are limited in numbers, they can easily be recycled as students move on to a new book. Since they are constantly reading, their thinking will constantly change. It is also a great chance to differentiate instruction. If the goal is for students to show you that they read, I don't think it matters that all students answer the same question at the same time, however, doing so in the beginning of the year can be great to see the ability level of each student. Students can answer the questions that fit based on their ability and what they are noticing as they read, so sometimes assigning certain questions can benefit those students who need it.
As part of this process I also model my own thinking about the books that I read. This modeling is incredibly important as some students are not used to think about their reading in such a way. They can so how not only to structure an informal writing piece like this, but the content that may be needed. I show these models the first time I introduce a new question or topic that students will need to write about it. This modeling is usually shown earlier in the year. By the end of the year, students can work on these topics on their own.
Here are examples of my own writing:
Once the response has been assigned, I then give students time to work on these writing pieces in class in their notebooks. As the year moves on and students get familiar with this type of writing, they work on these outside of class. I am not going to spend class time when students already know what they need to do. I think the best use of class time is devoted to worthwhile instruction. If students are working on these responses by the end of the year and do not need any guidance then that work should be done at home.
Here are a few examples of students work with these response:
This video discusses the student work and how I would conference with this student: Writing About Reading Student Work Explanation
The tricky part with this come down to grading and the myriad of questions that come along with it. What if I haven't read the book? How can I actually tell if they read the book? What is a fair way to grade it? These are all valid questions but go with a way that works for you classroom. For me, I use it as part of their notebook grade which is really just a series of one, two, or three checks (three being the highest). As long as they show depth of critical thinking and use of evidence and sophisticated writing style, I think those are more important than trying to trick students to see if they are actually reading.