Independent Reading and Accountability: a Paradox

The paradox persists, every year. Here are some basic principles of my sophomore RWW course last year with independent reading:

  • Students were allowed complete choice in their independent reading.
  • Part of their writer’s notebooks were connected to their independent reading: Writer’s Craft and vocabulary
  • Students kept their own track of page progress.
  • I conferenced as much as teacherly possible.

Like many teachers I know, I tend to dwell on what didn’t work. So, here it is:

  • A few students chose to not read or to fake read, all year.
  • As a result, these same students either did not complete or faked their notebooks.
  • It’s not hard to keep track of zero.
  • Conferences became predictable: repeated proclamations of non-readerhood followed by a polite acceptance of yet another suggestion for a book, which would yet again be not- or fake-read.

Struggling yet again with this issue as we plan for next year, my colleagues and I find ourselves in the waters between the unstable shore of no grades and the concrete ledge of grading, that deep roiling vortex between theory and practice. In this post, Shana cites Pernille Ripp and Janice Pilgreen and translates some of their basic principles into a RWW model. We all believe in these principles and are committed to exercising them every day in our classrooms. Regarding practice, at the end of our most recent meeting we had been focusing on this one: a lack of graded formative assessment and an emphasis on summative assessments for learning, not of learning.” We even got down to the tools we might use to do so: Padlet, Flipgrid, video book trailers, even good old-fashioned book reviews and “live” book talks. We even discussed scaffolding these summative assessments to support growth toward the formal speech that is a requirement for fourth quarter.

Yay. Right?

Still, won’t there still be students who remain entrenched in — even empowered by — their non-reader status?

Last year, I had students who were able to earn a B- in the course while never reading a single word. They participated in the writing process. They faked their way through the reading-based components of their writer’s notebook. They even wrote about their non-reading in their “quarterly reading reflection.” This consequence of the grading policies of the course is not enough for me to revert to grading independent reading, but I can’t help but be preoccupied by it.

bbbSo, readers, I’ll leave you with these question: Is it realistic to expect 100% participation in independent reading? Must we accept that there will inevitably be non- and fake-readers among us? And if so, is success for the majority — when it includes those students who may not have succeeded with assigned reading — enough?


10 thoughts on “Independent Reading and Accountability: a Paradox

  1. LT August 24, 2018 at 7:32 pm Reply

    So, I do a few things that ensure that the vast majority of my kids do the reading, but I’m middle school, so it *is* easier for me. But, the things that really work for me are:

    -20 minutes of independent reading IN CLASS daily. Even when I only taught for 45 minutes every/other day. I do it at the beginning of class so I can’t go over on my lesson and shortchange reading. It is the #1 most important part of class.
    -Conferences with every kid once per week. You really find out if they’re reading when they try to BS about the book. Again, sixth graders are MUCH worse at lying to my face, but you probably have a much more finely-tuned BS meter.
    -Making the page goal part of the grade. I know the IR community frowns on this, but some kids need that push or it won’t happen. I do pages as the goal to make it so long books are welcomed. I set it at 6,000 pages for the year for sixth grade. My reasoning: if I’m going to spend almost half my class time on it, it’s going to be graded.
    -Have LOTS of fun, low-level books available. I had one girl get the majority of her page goal last year through about 30 Magic Tree House books (beginning chapter books). You know what? She was building skills that she lacked, recognized patterns, and FINALLY grew past that level. For HS, I’d recommend graphic novels (and more graphic novels).
    -On that note, have lots of nonfiction picture books. Kids with trouble reading need more background knowledge.
    -Have LOTS of audiobooks available (probably through overdrive)- if you can, let active kids walk/move as they listen.
    -Consider allowing podcasts as reading (I have them count pages, so it’s 1 page/minute).
    -NO associated writing assignments for finishing each book- that’s a punishment for reading. The conferences are enough to assess comprehension. If you do assignments that say, “Select one independent reading book and write an essay,” that’s fine, but not every book.
    -Allow abandoning books.

    Sorry the list is so long- I hope there are some ideas here that help somebody!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amy Rasmussen August 13, 2018 at 10:56 pm Reply

    Like others say in their comments, I say it, too: We never give up. If the end goal is to help students discover the joy and everything else that comes with wide reading, we just keep trying. One thing I know works with most is constant conferences. The more I sit and chat with each student the better the chance I get each student to read. I know that is hard, too. Better conferring is my goal year after year after year.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gary Anderson August 7, 2018 at 6:57 pm Reply

    When something doesn’t work, we keep trying new things. 100% participation in independent reading is the goal, and too much is at stake to give up.

    Having said that, a student who will sit and stare at a book for an entire year without actually reading it probably has some psychological problems and may need attention from the appropriate staff members.


  4. Lori August 6, 2018 at 11:16 pm Reply

    I’ve mulled over this topic all summer of independent reading accountability. After reading Berit Gordon’s “No More Fake Reading” and attending a PD, I plan on employing a few of her tactics along with a couple I’ve come up with myself. Ultimately, if we’re givibg our all and students choose to not read, they are the ones who lose out.


  5. Paola Ruocco August 6, 2018 at 7:04 pm Reply

    Still so torn up by this. Great post, as always!


  6. Mary Lochtefeld August 6, 2018 at 2:05 pm Reply

    Independent reading…hmm…I’ve struggled, too, in my classroom. But I know one thing is true: some students will lie and fake their way through independent reading, but they will do the same thing for teacher-selected reading. So, how about we let them choose and thereby increase the chances of them selecting something wonderful for them?

    I give students credit for writing about their reading, but I’m easy about it. As long as they respond to different prompts and focus on a variety of aspects throughout their book choices, they know that they’ll get the points needed. Does this mean some squeak by? Yes. Does it mean that most find a rewarding experience with books as well? Yes. I just keep the second “yes” in mind when starting my independent reading unit. One book of fiction, one book of poetry, and one book of non-fiction a nine weeks. I love it. I give students time needed to read, and they always beg for more time.


  7. Pam August 6, 2018 at 12:42 pm Reply

    Rereading the pd books Beyond Literary Analysis and 180 Days – which are both wonderful by the way- caused a co-worker and me to discuss this exact topic. And by combining some examples from these books, we are going to try the following at least once or twice a semester (knowing that overusing any strategy seems to defeat the purpose).

    One of the recommendations/ideas we are going to utilize is to have students find key passages of the books they read (this will be an in-class activity), copy the passage into their notebook, and then do “noticings” of the passage with short bullet point SO WHAT/analysis of that passage. This way at least we can see if the student CAN read and understand texts even if they have not been reading the entire book. Plus it is skilled based- not so much content based. It also puts the work on them (they find the key passages) plus it allows the real readers choice of passages which can be motivational. Maybe 1 will be formative and 1 summative after we have scaffolded it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Angela Salgy August 6, 2018 at 11:24 am Reply

    This is one of the biggest problems my team and I struggle with. I firmly believe that if we want reading to become a habit and a joy, then we can’t attach a grade to it. However, I have had students who were able to “game” the system and wind up with a high B/low A without finishing a single book–and I had voracious readers who finished out the year with a C.

    At the end of the day (or at the beginning of a new year), I feel much like Melinda does above. I can’t force them to read, all I can do is to continue offering and encouraging those who just can’t/won’t finish a book. I wish I had an answer.


  9. Melinda Raiford Buchanan August 6, 2018 at 10:08 am Reply

    What is the alternative? “Grade” them into compliance? I’ve decided that for this year, the writing portion of RWW will have to provide the “grades.” By high school, some have been taught, and taught well, to be non-readers.
    I’ll still cajole, prompt, worry, hope, and pray. But I know I’ll never, EVER get them to see the joy in reading by attaching a grade to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • LT August 25, 2018 at 6:25 am Reply

      I’m not saying that it’s a total net positive, but in short: yes. I support grading independent reading for students 5th grade and up.

      Students see a grade as an assignment of value. If we don’t grade it, they see it as something we don’t really care about. They have an incredible amount on their plate, and reading won’t be on if it isn’t graded.

      I write this as someone who has always considered myself a reader, but I didn’t really independent read in high school during the school year, even when it was assigned. All of you are doing things better than my own high school teachers (making YA books available, for example), but it wouldn’t have carved out more time for me to read. What would have done it? The grade.

      If a kid isn’t reading, they’re not doing what is expected of them in the class. If you’re making time every day to read, then that’s a major part of the class, and major parts of the class should be reflected in the grade.

      A grade isn’t a punishment; it’s a communication- to parents, to students, and yes, to colleges. If a kid is proudly shunning reading, even when it’s assigned, then they aren’t doing the work. That should be communicated.

      Now, you’ll see in my comment above that I have a LOT of flexibility within that grade; I’m happy with kids reading in all formats (including audio), and my definition of “acceptable book” is extremely wide, including picture books, podcasts, magazines read cover-to-cover etc. It is an accessible goal. I also have barely any other homework for ELA; essays are mostly written and typed in-class, and writing also happens in-class.

      I assess it by setting a page goal (for me, in middle school, 6,000 pages for the year), and whatever percentage they read is their grade; 5,000 pages is an 83%, not a fail. I don’t assign reflections, but I have them write completed books (with page numbers) on a list; I make sure their lists are correct when I conference with them.

      I give kids end-of-year surveys, and the anonymity really opens them up to complain about things that bothered them in my class. I don’t have kids complaining that it’s graded, even though that’s something I ask about. I usually get several comments that reflect that 6,000 *seemed* scary but was actually do-able. I also get a ton of comments that my “chill” around format is appreciated.

      If anyone is thinking of grading but may be hesitant: you can try it for one term, in one class, and then ask them what they think. Or, heck, ask them *before* you set the goal; what difference would grading make to you? Would it make you more likely to do it?


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