Today on Next Time Teaching, I want to share one of the strategies from my recent presentation. The focus of my presentation was low prep activities that increase critical thinking, close reading and engagement and can be done with any text. Many of the activities can be repeated multiple times throughout a year, saving prep time while allowing you to see your students’ growth over time. This reading journal certainly fits the bill!
How the Reading Journal Works
This reading journal works best around the middle of a novel. It consists of 3 simple sentence stems that your students complete and then add on to as they reflect on their reading. The stems are:
When I first started reading Title of Text, I
Now when I read Title of Text, I
As I finish reading Title of Text, I would like to
Here’s an already formatted download that you can edit to change the book title and you’re ready to go! download reading journal
It takes about 5-10 minutes for the students to complete, although I encourage them to add more detail by making a few suggestions. Maybe paging through their book to remember what they were thinking, or to try to picture where they usually do their reading. When they’re done writing, I do a whiparound or popcorn discussion where I’m sure everyone talks at least once. I generally find that if I just ask students to share something from their journals, they’ll naturally cover all 3 questions and a variety of ideas. But you could also ask more specific follow-ups if there’s something you feel is important. That discussion usually takes about 20 minutes, but can be shortened (a bit, depending on how big your class is) or expanded depending on your follow-up questions.
Why I Like the Reading Journal
In a word, metacognition. The journal encourages students to step back and think about the ways they have been thinking and reading in your classroom. Students might also mention how they read at home, which is a great entryway into talking about the often unexplored topic of how they actually do the homework we assign.
I like the first question because it normalizes confusion, especially if they’re filling out the journal in the middle of a text you know has been difficult for them. For example, when I do this with Homer’s Odyssey, almost everyone will complete the sentence stem “When I first started reading The Odyssey, I” with something like “was totally lost! I couldn’t keep track of any of the names and I didn’t understand who was talking, or what the gods were about, or why they were giving strangers baths.” I like to give them the opportunity to remember that lost feeling because it normalizes confusion.
Confusion is a perfectly normal and even important part of learning and growth. But it’s not exactly fun. And I think most people would agree that it’s getting harder for students to sit with confusion as we get more entrenched in a culture of immediate gratification. Which leaves us teachers with a doozy of a task. In fact, Kelly Gallagher says in Deeper Reading that our very first task as reading teachers is “to get [students] to understand that confusion is natural, even necessary, when we read something challenging” (63). Which makes sense, because if they give up at the first sign of confusion, you’re not going to accomplish much of anything else. Fortunately, hearing that a whole bunch of people in class had the same experience seems to help with that understanding.
The middle question is a great opportunity for formative assessment. If students can name specific strategies they are currently using, you have great evidence of learning and application. I love when they mention something I’ve taught them to do, but in their own words so I’m sure they’ve really taken ownership of it.
For most students, this is a nice time to notice that they aren’t as confused as they were. I usually ask them to try to remember that the next time they start a challenging text and feel overwhelmed. And if there are a few struggling students who are still feeling overwhelmed, hearing about strategies that are helping their classmates in their own words might get them over the hump and onto the bandwagon.
The final question can be risky, but can have great payoff as well. One reward is that students often set goals for themselves like “I’m going to read earlier in the day so I’m not falling asleep.” Not having to nag is always a win, plus the metacognition involved in coming to these conclusions is pretty powerful. I also often hear follow-up research topics, like “I want to learn more about this period in history/religion/language/culture.” Even if I know we won’t have time to cover that in class, I try to acknowledge how powerful that curiosity is and the value of having research questions and areas of interest. Some students will also spontaneously note that their reading is changing and that’s a great teachable moment to address the idea that good readers do adjust their reading over the course of a text.
The danger is the kid who says something like “I can’t wait for this book to be done because it sucks.” We’ve all been there, and how to handle that is one of the myriad decisions we make in any class period. I generally let it go with the thought that hearing from everyone is a more important–and realistic–goal than getting all students to actually like every book. I might follow up with something like “Not your cup of tea, huh?” to promote the idea that taste in literature is subjective and a poor fit doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the reader or the author (except that the reader could be a bit more polite about it).
So that’s the reading journal! Very low prep, easy to use with any longer text, and especially valuable with challenging ones that you know have frustrated students. I’d love to hear what other people think.
Stay tuned to Next Time Teaching for more low prep activities from my presentation that can be used with any text. In the meantime, you can download the other printable activities I presented on the Resources page.