Keeping it Simple: Setting Up a Writer’s Notebook

Teresa wrote:  “I have a few questions about how your students setup their writing notebooks. What are the sections in the notebook, and how many pages do you have them section off for each? Also, does one composition book usually last all year, or do they have to get another one at semester?”

I met Teresa at a workshop training I conducted this summer. She’s getting ready for her school year to start, and I am glad she sparked my thinking about how I will have my students set up their notebooks this year. This is it:

First of all, and you probably already know this:  it’s hugely important to have students personalize their notebooks.  So during that first week of school, my kids will be using scrapbook paper, wrapping paper, and whatever to make their notebooks into something that represents their life or their personality in some way.

I’m thinking of having students email me three photos from their phones, and I’ll get those printed (since I doubt many would do that on their own), and they can use those photos to decorate inside and outside the covers of their notebooks. It’s also a way for me to build a contact list of all my students. Doubling up on purpose there.

Last year I skipped this important step of personalization, and it was a mistake. Students must take some time to make the writer’s notebook their own — it can make all the difference as to the care they take regarding ideas and writing they put into that notebook.

Now, to get to your question –the notebook set up:  For years I’ve made it complicated — so this year I am simplifying. Thanks to some discussion I’ve had with Shana about our writer’s notebooks, I finally have a plan for this year.

Since the focus of my instruction is to advance all readers and writers, I need to make sure my students know that their writers’ notebooks will be the tool we use to measure their movement. So on the very first page, I ask students to write big and bold at the top:  My Reading Goal for my Junior Year. Then I ask them to draw a square in the center about the size of a standard sticky note.

“Write your goal in the center,” I tell them, “How many books will you read this year?”

Most students write a goal of 4, 5, or 6. They don’t think in big book numbers yet — they are used to reading (sometimes) the assigned texts in their English classes. They don’t know about reading volume or choice or the engaging titles in my classroom library — yet.

I model and write my reading goal in the center of my square on the first page of my notebook:  37. My students gasp.

Then, I show them the list I’ve kept of the books I read this summer — and the stack of books I pull from under the table. “I read all of these just this summer,” I say and watch their eyes grow real wide.

“My goal for you is that you will read many more books than you think is possible this year. Let’s set those goals a little higher.”

Sometimes during the same class period, sometimes a day or two later, we read our choice books for ten minutes and then calculate our reading rate. (# of pages read in 10 minutes times six equals how many pages you can read in an hour for that book. Multiply that number by three (the amount of reading I expect my students to do each week) and that equals your individual reading goal for the week) We draw little charts of the Reading Rate formula at the bottom of our goal page right there in the front of our writer’s notebooks.

After we calculate reading rates, we often have to return to goal setting. Students realize that if they plan to meet the expectations I have for them, they will read many more than the four-book-goal they originally set for themselves. This discussion often leads into important discussions about reading volume and how it leads to fluency, vocabulary development, more background knowledge on a variety of topics, and improved writing skills. This is where I start the mantra that I repeat over and over throughout the year:

The only way to become a better reader is to read. 

Next, in our writer’s notebooks we move into our plan as to how we will reach our reading goal. First, we have to have a plan. Readers have a plan. They listen in on conversations about books. They become familiar with book titles. They come to know topics and genres they like to explore. A big part of helping students come to love reading is helping them identify themselves as readers. So many of my students do not know how to do that.

An easy way to start identifying as a reader is to walk the walk of one. We make a plan, and our plan looks like a “What am I going to read next? List.

We make this list on the back of our goals sheet. This is where we write down the titles and the authors of books we learn about through book talks, talking with peers, exploring the bookshelves, etc — all books we think we might like to read throughout the year.

This list serves as an accountability piece. If students’ lists grow, I have one way to measure their involvement in our reading community.

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 11.18.56 PM

I like the idea of having students include genre and start/finish or abandoned dates. I can learn more about a reader at a glance.

We also need a “What am I Currently Reading List.” We keep this list on the next page — right across from our TRN (to read next) list. This way students see how to transfer a “hope to read” into a “now I’m reading.”

Students record the title of the book, the author, the genre, the date they started the book, and the date they finished it or abandoned it. If they abandoned the book, which is absolutely fine — there are too many awesome books to suffer through too many we do not enjoy — I want short notes about why the book is being abandoned. I model statements that may work here. “It was boring” is not one of them.

“The narrator annoyed me because he seemed like a whiner,” or “I thought this book would be an engaging story, but it’s really a non-fiction book about information I don’t really care about” are both appropriate “I-am-abandoning-this-book notes.”

This list serves as an accountability piece. As students lists grow, I can see at a glance the titles and genres they are reading. I can see the start and finish dates to gage if their reading rate goals match with the dates recorded on this list. I can see where I might need to confer with a specific student about abandoning book after book after book — just from a scan of their CRL (currently reading list)

We need a space in our notebook for Response. We skip a page after our CRL and label this section of the notebook for what it is. This is where we will write our thinking. We will respond to a variety of texts: videos, news reports, poems, articles, stories, etc.

This is where we will deposit our initial reaction to and thinking about provocative things. This is a place for our quickwrites, our thinking on the page. We need a lot of space here, so in a composition notebook of 100 pages, we will reserve at least 20 for this section. (And we may need another notebook all together in the second semester.)

This serves as an accountability piece:  are students engaged in the writer’s community? Are they giving a ‘best effort’ at capturing their thinking on the page? Are they showing revision moves in their quickwrites? Are they playing with language like I’ve suggested as they develop their thinking and writing abilities?

Now, to really keep the set-up of the writer’s notebook simple, we just need three more sections:  reading, vocabulary, and writing.

Reading. In this section, we will record notes from reading mini-lessons, academic words

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 11.10.17 PM

Low-stakes student writing about her reading life. We can learn a lot about a student’s reading and writing this way.

that live in those lessons (and highlight them), tips on reading strategies, and our writing about our reading that we will complete on occasion.

This serves as an accountability piece:  Are students engaged in the reading community? Are they doing their part to advance their reading abilities? Are they competently writing about their reading?

Personal Dictionary. I used to give lists of vocab words for kids to student and then take a quiz over. Little authentic learning took place around those word lists. A much more authentic and useful way for students to learn vocabulary is for them to generate their own lists. Ask them what they do when they encounter words they do not know as they read. They’ll tell you: They skip them. No more.

We capture words we do not know in our choice reading books, and we record them in our own personal dictionaries. I ask students to record five words a week. They list the date of the week, then the title of their book (even if it’s the same book a few weeks in a row). Then they make a list of the five words they found in their reading that week, define them in context of how the author uses the word, and write down the sentence in which the word is used. We do this week after week, collecting words throughout the school year.

This serves an accountability piece:  If students are not reading, they will not have any words to record. If students are not reading a complex enough book for them, they will not have any words to record. I can help students determine if they are reading a book suitable for their comprehension abilities if I take frequent looks at their personal dictionaries.

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What started as a brainstorming activity to think about topics, lead to opportunities for discussion with this student I would not have had otherwise. Students reveal their lives to us in low-stakes writer’s notebook writing.

Writing. This is consistently the greatest chunk of our writer’s notebook. In the writing section, we craft a variety of writing territories. We take notes on writerly moves that we learn in mini-lessons and from mentor texts. We practice imitating the craft of our favorite writers. We take notes on grammar and mechanics. We practice sentence structures and the moves of writers we study as a class and in small groups. We build a tool set here of craft moves we can experiment with in our own writing. And we brainstorm and draft in this section of our notebooks.

This serves as an accountability piece:  Are students engaged in the writing process? Are they giving their ‘best effort’ attempts to create a toolbox of tools to use in their writing? Are they understanding the writing mini-lessons and practicing the application of those skills? In their drafts, is their thinking evident? Do they have strong ideas that will carry a piece before they every work on revision and craft?

And that’s it. Our writer’s notebooks are set up — with sections labeled and homemade sticky-note tabs to separate each section. These notebooks become gold. They are precious to the learning that takes place in my workshop classroom. Not only do students have one central place to keep notes and ideas. They have a personal place to practice their craft and write.

The writer’s notebook– and all these accountability pieces– mean relatively easy, though sometimes time-consuming, formative assessment for me:  I can choose to check the whole of student notebooks say every three weeks, or I can choose to check a section (I usually choose this option.) Either works to see if students are engaged in the workshop classroom and advancing readers and writers, which is my ultimate goal for all students all year long.

See more on writer’s notebooks by searching the TTT categories.

Please share your ideas for the set up for writer’s notebooks. I’d love to know if you think I’m missing something important that will further advance my students’ learning. And I wrote this post without having access of photos of each step. I hope the description will be enough.


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23 thoughts on “Keeping it Simple: Setting Up a Writer’s Notebook

  1. […] Reader’s and Writer’s Notebook, Three Teachers Talk Blog, excellent resource for developing a Writer’s Notebook […]


  2. […] One of the most important parts of establishing a writing community is the routine that comes with setting up a writer’s notebook each fall: personalizing notebooks to make them our own, modeling a notebook’s possibilities, […]


  3. […] One of the most important parts of establishing a workshop community is the routine that comes with setting up a writer’s notebook each fall: personalizing notebooks to make them our own, modeling a notebook’s possibilities, […]


  4. hopes77 August 5, 2018 at 7:08 am Reply

    Looks like you simplified this so much I have to do this with my freshman… two classes of 36 each started to scare me about getting into the weeds but now I think it’s very doable and even more, it’s necessary



  5. Nicole Matino August 31, 2017 at 8:19 pm Reply

    Hi. Love your posts!! I have a question: my district is 1:1 and I am a bit fearful that they are going to want me using our chromebooks!! 😦 Love the idea of the notebooks, but what are your thoughts regarding technology and notebooks?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy Rasmussen August 31, 2017 at 10:50 pm Reply

      My school is 1:1 iPads, and we still use paper composition notebooks. We use the tech for other things besides playing with language in the page. Google Classroom, Blogger, Twitter for micro blogging. There’s quite a bit of research regarding the power of writing by hand. Oh, and my students are less likely to write in texting language when they have a pen in their hand versus technology.


      • Nicole Matino September 1, 2017 at 6:36 am Reply

        Yes!! Thank you so much!! I TOTALLY AGREE! And I have lots of research just in case they try to put pressure on me! 😉 As always, thank you and I am in love with your website! Thank you and take care.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. […] thought about jumping right in and setting up our writer’s notebooks. I stocked […]


  7. […] time of year when my writer’s notebook is almost full, and I get to start a new one.  I love setting up my notebook, personalizing it, giving it value.  But I love, nearly as much, to look back at a full […]


  8. […] Quick Write response – I asked my AP students to spend a few minutes searching the site for an article that intrigued them. I gave them several minutes to read the piece, reflect on it in their notebooks, talk at their tables about what they found, and then share out some of the interesting topics. We ended up talking briefly about procrastination, Arthur Miller, stem cell controversies, and Freud. […]


  9. ML December 2, 2016 at 7:20 pm Reply

    Very helpful! Thank you!


  10. […] pagers), mini lesson variety (demonstration, explanation/example, guided practice, etc.), use of writer’s notebooks, conferring, providing formative feedback, and the list goes […]


  11. Try It Tuesday: Notebook Write-Arounds | September 13, 2016 at 7:08 am Reply

    […] around a picture – Like Amy, I like to see my students’ notebooks full of pictures.  I ask students to bring in or print […]


  12. […] to Start Sharing Who They Are: I also took Amy’s advice and made time for decorating our writer’s notebooks. I shared some of the pictures and song lyrics I used to decorate mine. We discussed the power of […]


  13. Marsha Pelletier August 24, 2016 at 11:15 am Reply

    Thanks for a great post. I first tried the RWW notebook last year and I have found that the “Quick Writes” and “Writings” sections overlap too much for me, so my notebook will have:
    1. Reading goal & how to set weekly reading goal (great idea to put this right at the front!)
    2. To Read Next list
    3. Currently Reading list
    4. Lesson Notes
    5. Writings (to include Quick Writes, writing practice, drafting & editing work)
    6. Vocabulary list (self-selected, 5 per week, etc.)

    Thanks for helping me to arrive at a better plan for this year’s RWW notebooks!

    -Marsha Pelletier
    Westborough High School
    Westborough, MA


  14. Colleen K August 21, 2016 at 3:13 pm Reply

    I’m wondering what you all think about not having ANY sections in the Readers/Writers Notebook?! I have students make a TRN and CRL list, but other than that, there are no sections. I ask students to date each entry so that they (and I) can see the progression of their work throughout the year, but that work — responding to mentor texts, reading reflections, sentence study, quick writes, etc — are all together. I find that when I make specific categories, one section ends up being ignored, or half way through the year I feel like the sections aren’t working and I wished I had not limited myself. So, I guess you could say my approach is REALLY keeping it SIMPLE (chaotic?) and I’m wondering if others have experience with or opinions about this approach? Thanks!


    • Amy August 21, 2016 at 9:40 pm Reply

      Hi, Colleen, I think if keeping it REALLY SIMPLE works for you — you go for it! I’ve tried a million different ways to have students organize their notebooks, and bottom line: the only thing that matters is that 1) they take ownership of it, 2) I can use it as an assessment tool to see if my students are applying the skills we learn in class. By having students divide their notebooks in the sections I outline in this post, I can quickly look for specific skills we might be focusing on at any given time. This works for me. Keep doing what works for you. Thanks for reading and commenting. Best wishes for an excellent year!


    • shanakarnes August 22, 2016 at 6:18 am Reply

      Hey Colleen! I tried that and wrote about it here:

      Basically, my students and I were a little stressed at first semester’s end when we kept running out of room. I removed all the structures for semester two. It worked well, but I think it worked well because I loop with my students. By the time we removed all structures, I’d already had my kids for two years, and they knew–in their sleep!!–how to quickwrite, how to keep a what to read list, how to make note of cool words that jumped out at them, etc.

      I think this year I’ll ask my students to organize their notebooks with a similar structure to Amy’s because I’ve got a fresh crop. Then we’ll see how it goes!


  15. Colleen K August 21, 2016 at 3:13 pm Reply

    I’m wondering what you all think about not having ANY sections in the Readers/Writers Notebook?! I have students make a TRN and CRL list, but other than that, there are no sections. I ask students to date each entry so that they (and I) can see the progression of their work throughout the year, but that work — responding to mentor texts, reading reflections, sentence study, quick writes, etc — are all together. I find that when I make specific categories, one section ends up being ignored, or half way through the year I feel like the sections aren’t working and I wished I had not limited myself. So, I guess you could say my approach is REALLY keeping it SIMPLE (chaotic?) and I’m wondering if others have experience with or opinions about this approach? Thanks!


  16. vendija723 August 21, 2016 at 12:43 pm Reply

    I saw your title and thought, “Gee, I wish they’d do a Reader’s Notebook post.” Then I actually read your post and realized it’s almost entirely appropriate for my reading course already! Thank you! I’m one of those who struggle with follow-through on notebooks (and most on-going organization pieces, honestly), but I think if I streamline this even more, I have a good chance at making it work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy August 21, 2016 at 9:44 pm Reply

      Glad you read the post! I’ve been one of those “who struggle with follow-through on notebooks,” too. That’s why I am hoping this simpler approach proves useful. Best wishes to you and your students! Thanks for the comment.


  17. stefaniecole August 21, 2016 at 12:38 pm Reply

    Thank you so much! I’ve used Writer’s Notebooks for a few years, but as I wrote for Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s Sharing Our Notebook’s site — a fabulous resource for everybody — my usage is spotty! I knew I wanted to change my WRN usage for this year & this post couldn’t come at better time. I have plans now & a goal!
    I was also wondering how to keep those goals visible for my students as they seem to disappear from their minds over the year & I think this will work.
    Thank you Amy, for your timely, clear, and informative post. It’s just what I needed!!

    Sharing Our Notebooks:

    Notebooks Are Important, Spotty or Not:

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy August 21, 2016 at 9:46 pm Reply

      Thanks for furthering my thinking by sharing these post links. I love that we are all in this together as we work to find ways to inspire our students to think and write. Thank you for reading and commenting here. All the best to you and your students this year!


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