On Annotations and Assessment in Readers Workshop

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I advocate for self-selected reading in all English classes. My students read stacks of books each year that they choose for themselves, and they read four titles for in-class book clubs that they select from my short stack of complex (mostly) contemporary titles.

The question I get the most from teachers who do not practice this choice pedagogy is “How do you know your students are reading?”

My initial response is usually:  “I ask them.”

But if you practice readers and writers workshop in your classroom, you know that it takes a bit more than that to know that students are developing as critical readers.

We do still have to teach.

Shana wrote a post recently about the value of talk in her workshop classroom, and I was intrigued by one of the comments:

I think we should consider what would be the best balance between between teacher and student talk. As the literacy expert in the classroom, I think the reading/language arts teacher’s voice needs to be heard often. While we all can be our own teachers, we will probably learn more with the wise guidance of a teacher.” 

But, of course.

Balance is key. So is authenticity.

These two ideals drive the choices I make in my workshop classroom.

My new friend, Lisa, sent me a question that got me thinking about both as I composed a response. I share her question here and how I replied to this dedicated teacher who is moving herself as she moves her readers.

Question:  Do you assess any annotations the students do with their reading? I’ve included a rubric we have been using to give students some feedback on their annotation of fiction. Their annotations in the text, and thereby their discussions about the texts, has greatly improved!! However, providing feedback on their annotations takes FOREVER. Just curious how you handle any sort of assessment related to students reading their chosen texts.” 

Response: Initially, when I read your question about annotations, I thought of these two questions:

1) Why do you need to leave feedback on the annotations in their books?

2) You said your discussions on the texts have improved. Are those discussions not enough of an assessment on their annotations?

Then I read your rubric, and it got me thinking.

I love the simplicity of the rubric, and I can see how students would notice more and be able to contribute to discussions more thoroughly and completely if they mark their books accordingly; however, I always use caution when it comes to interrupting a student’s reading flow — you know, reading for the sake of enjoyment.

In my own reading life, I rarely mark up a piece of fiction, unless it is for my own book club and I want to remember a significant passage that I loved, or didn’t understand, or a moment in the text that shocked or saddened me so much that I want to bring up in the discussion.

When I have my students engage in book clubs or self-selected reading, I want them to have authentic experiences and discussions about their books. (I quote Louise Rosenblatt on experiential reading at the end of this post.) That hope for authenticity is what drives what I have students do while they read.

And it is hard, and I have to trust that students notice the nuances and the complexities in the language and all the important literary aspects of their books. Sometimes they just don’t.  Sometimes they need to focus just on comprehension. I have to be okay with that.

Here’s how I try to facilitate learning:

1. Model my reading. I show students the books I’ve read for my book clubs and the kinds of passages I’ve marked so I can remember them for discussion. I encourage my students to mark their books in similar ways. Some will, and others never will. Some show me that they can think about their books without ever marking them. I have to let them learn the habits of readers that work for each of them individually, and I have to trust that they will.

This goes for writing, too. Every major writing task I ask my students to do, I do it first. I show them my process and later my product. For my ESL students, this is the single most effective strategy I do. I’ve asked them, and they’ve told me. I know that if this modeling helps my students who struggle with language, I know it helps all of my students.

2. Teach mini-lessons. Say I want students to focus on literary devices. I show them a variety of “beautiful sentences” from various texts; 51 Of The Most Beautiful Sentences In Literature was a perfect resource for this. I pulled several of these pretty slides and put them on a presentation in Drive. I projected them in the front of the room, and students and I talked through what we noticed in these sentences.

We discussed the craft in the sentence and why the author might have made the moves he or she did. This focus on the writing in a text often leads to greater critical reading of a text just as critical reading should lead to better writing.

Next, I asked students to go into their books and look for beautiful sentences. I gave them each a note card, and they had to find two sentences — one for each side of the card — where they could tell where the author did something interesting with language. I instructed them to write the sentence and the page number at the top, and then they were to identify the device/s, interpret the meaning of the sentence, and analyze the meaning, based on what they’d read in the book and what they believed the author was doing there as it related to the meaning as a whole.

What does this assess? A lot.

  • I know immediately if students know how to identify literary and rhetorical devices.
  • I know if students understand what they are reading, especially if the activity is during book clubs, and I’ve read all the titles in which students choose.
  • I know if students can analyze the author’s use of the device versus just summarizing the meaning of the sentence.
  • I know if students are reading their books. They are not going to choose a sentence on page 195, if they haven not read that far. They will not know how to tie their analysis into overall meaning

(The sentences I used for this mini-lesson lead to book talks, too, and I had one girl come in the next day with a copy of Anna Karenina that she’d bought for herself. Hooyah!)

Mini-lessons like this can be done over and over again — perhaps with a different skills focus each time, and the more students see that we are going to ask them to go into their books to focus on a skills, the more likely they are to start marking significant sentences and passages as they read. It becomes a natural move on the reader’s part instead of a mandate by the teacher.

3. Teach Notice & Note signposts. If you are not familiar with Notice & Note, Kyleen Beers and Bob Probst researched the patterns in story arcs and crafted six signposts around the moments in the text that appear the most often in a vast number of fictional pieces — short stories and novels. Students at all levels can apply the signposts as they learn to ask themselves questions as they read. In my experience, their understanding of theme improves dramatically.  If you Google Notice & Note signposts, or join the Facebook group, you’ll find many teachers who share their resources.

My students and I learn the signposts with short stories, and then throughout the year, we practice applying them to our full-length novels. Best thing I’ve done to help students analyze theme, which is SO HARD for some of them. I don’t quite understand why, but it is singularly the thing my students year after year struggle with the most.

For assessment, again, I do a lot with note cards. Quick, short writing snapshots where students can talk to me about what they know. I can grade these easily and leave feedback in the form of questions to direct students to look deeper, or closer, or whatever. I usually score these with check plus, check, or check minus and leave feedback in the form of one thing the student did well and one thing that might need improvement.

4. Write reader’s response. I have 35 composition notebooks that I labeled with thematic topics. I learned this strategy from Penny Kittle (Here’s a handout from 2013 that has a list of topics for notebooks in it.) I morphed her idea with Notice & Note, and it works well for reader’s response, another piece in holding students accountable for their reading and assessing their acquisition of skills.

At the beginning of the year, when composition notebooks are .50, I buy 35, and I label them with a variety of topics like Penny has on her list, plus some. I glue a handout of the signposts inside each one. Then, every once in a while, I’ll pull the notebooks out and set a handful on each table.

Students know to find a notebook that they can tie the thematic elements of their independent reading book to. We write for about 10- 20 minutes, depending on how in-depth I want students to go with their thinking, and then they share out what they wrote with their table mates. (This works as book talks, too, because students hear about what their friends are reading.) I wander the room and listen in. This is formative assessment. If a student has written about theme, shown that he is reading and understands how the book relates to that thematic topic, I know he is learning. Of course, the reverse is also true. I use check marks for grades of this kind of assessment, too.

Now, having told you all of this, I am not saying to ditch your rubric. I am just always trying to figure out how to put more of the responsibly for the learning (and the work) on the students, and probably most important to my sanity — the need to cut my grading time.

Regarding your rubric, I wonder:

A. How can you ask students to practice annotations with short stories?Then when you go to leave feedback on what they have marked, zero in on one or two slices of the rubric — never the whole thing. And be sure your feedback is something that will resonate. All too often students do not care about what we write, they only want to see their grade. I saw this great reminder in a tweet today:  “Put comments on my paper that begin conversations, not end them.”

B. Instead of trying to leave feedback on every students’ annotations for their whole books, how can you ask students to apply what they have learned from annotating?

For example, choose a slice of the rubric. Give students a half sheet of paper (or a notecard) and have them synthesize their annotations into a paragraph or two that answers a question. Something like :  Think about the things you’ve annotated about the characters in your book, how have the behaviors of the protagonist advanced the plot in the story?  Explain how any single or series of choices by the protagonist has surprised, unsettled, or shocked you.

C. How can you use the rubric to guide your conferences?Instead of checking their annotations, ask students to use their annotations as they talk with you about their books.

For example, choose a slice of the rubric. In a one-on-one conference, or in a small group conference if students are reading the same book, ask:  In regard to your annotations about literary elements, what have you noticed about how the author uses them? How do these elements help the author craft the story? Talk to me about some passages or sentences in the book that you’ve been particularly moved by.

You will know if students are paying attention as they read., and you’ll know so much more because your assessment shoots over the annotation itself and gets to the thinking behind why we want students to annotate in the first place.

Lisa and I would love to know your thoughts on annotations and assessment? Please leave a comment


©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015


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5 thoughts on “On Annotations and Assessment in Readers Workshop

  1. […] Assessment in my classroom drives my students crazy. I think they feel like I am that elusive balloon they cannot pin down and pop. Poor darlings. I refuse to give in to the grades routine. I want to see improvement. I want to see them take the skill I know I’ve taught and then apply it — better yet, go beyond and do something clever with it. So to answer the question, “What does assessment look like?” is kind of tricky. I think too often teachers spend time assessing student work in ways that is not meaningful. We can waste a lot of time. […]


  2. Jeannine Ugalde July 12, 2015 at 5:05 pm Reply

    Thank you, Amy Rasmussen and Three Teachers Talk. You supported me last year in my first ever Readers Workshop with my freshmen and sophomore English classes. I continue to look to you for guidance.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Erika B. April 2, 2015 at 8:40 am Reply


    You capture the essence of annotation and the importance of deep reading in a way that seems so flawless. Thank you! I love using the skill of annotation…and introducing it to my students as they seem to find themselves more deeply seated in the literature they are reading. There is a sense of ownership and pride that emerges. It really is so beautiful.

    Thank you for the breakdown of how all is assessed and how naturally it can feel.


    Liked by 1 person

  4. Melissa Sethna April 1, 2015 at 7:19 am Reply

    As always, your posts show up at just the right moment. I was just discussing with a teacher about assessing annotations and your ideas are perfect to help her move beyond the annotations and focus more on their in depth thinking. Thank you! Can’t wait to share with our teachers.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. cmadeleine0816 April 1, 2015 at 7:12 am Reply

    Thanks for posting about my dept and sharing our rubric. 🙂 After seeing Penny Kittle last year, I implemented a form of reading workshop this year. I thought you know, why not just go for it, try something I can manage and tweak and do more next year? It’s working. I’m obviously not where I want to be or where I think I could be, but this year is so much more fun mainly because I see more kids reading books and we love talking with each other about what we are learning from these books. The best is when students bring me their books and say, “here you must read this now so we can talk about it!!!” 🙂 Pure joy. Right there. I’m excited and ready to do more for my students to make them the best readers and writers they can be. Thank you for this post to help me sort through rubrics and assessments.

    Liked by 1 person

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