Written Conversations about Reading:
Reader Response Journals
by Abi Frost
I am sure all teachers can agree that one of the best parts about teaching is seeing how students use what we teach when they are outside of class and actually express enthusiasm about it. Just last week, a student reported that he had seen one of our vocabulary words while he was reading about the Winter Olympics in the newspaper that morning on the train. Another student shared with me that, when she was reading a book about adoption, she was disappointed with the way the character’s birth mother acted when they finally met. Another student asked if I knew that British teenagers were held hostage by Somali pirates for 13 months. Each of these comments sparked informal conversations about what students were reading in which I asked them follow-up questions to push their thinking about these topics. Unfortunately, conversations like these are often cut short because of our busy schedules and limited unstructured time during the school day. However, I have recently found that Reader Response Journals are helping address this need and are allowing me to have written conversations about what students are reading.
Reader Response Journals
This year, I implemented Reader Response Journals as a classroom routine, and they have allowed me to more frequently and formally engage students in conversations about what they are reading outside of class. This idea came from a teacher I observed a few years ago, as well as the work on written conversations by literacy guru- Harvey “Smokey” Daniels.
At the beginning of the year, students bought and decorated a composition book that became their “Reader Response Journal.” The students set up their notebooks with these:
- Books I’ve Read So Far this Year: A place for students to keep track of the books they read.
- Genre Chart: A place for students to record the genre of the books they are reading, and hopefully encourage students to read a variety of genres.
- Fiction and Nonfiction Journal Prompts: A bank of prompts for students to use when responding to their reading (these are embedded below and were found on Twitter.)
The rest of the journal is considered a sacred place for students to store their thinking about reading. Every few weeks, I assign students to write a letter to me that:
- Answers the individualized questions I asked him or her;
- Summarizes what they have been reading outside of class; and
- Makes connections, inferences, or predictions about what they are reading.
I respond to each of their letters in the journal with my reactions and follow-up questions to push their thinking. For the first half of the year, I provide students with very specific directions on what to include in their journal entries. The prompts I write directly match what we are discussing in class. For example, when we learned about literary conflicts during our short story unit, I asked students to write about the literary conflicts in their independent reading book. Here is an example of one of their early Reader Response Journal Assignments:
Later in the school year, I gradually removed the detailed directions so students were more independently responding to literature, using the bank of journal prompts mentioned earlier. Here is a sample of an exchange between myself and a student in their journal (Note: Most of my writing in the notebook is in my written response to the student. In the sample below my response is in the lighter pen color and the student response is in pencil):
Here is a another exchange that can be viewed in a single image. In this image you can see the end of a student’s entry, my response, and their next entry:
How Reader Response Journals Have Helped My Struggling Readers
They provide students with opportunities to actively read books at their independent reading levels. While I am constantly working to align my curriculum to the seventh grade level Common Core State Standards, I also know how critical it is to give my students opportunities to read texts at their own independent reading levels. Struggling readers spend most of the day reading texts above their reading levels, which are hard for them to understand and do not help increase their reading levels. In order for students to eventually read on grade level, they must also read accessible texts often. The Common Core State Standards acknowledge student growth and development toward grade level text complexity, and Reader Response Journals is one way I attempt to foster this growth:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.10 By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6–8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.7.10 By the end of the year, read and comprehend literary nonfiction in the grades 6–8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.
They increase students’ motivation to read. Now that students know I keep up to date on what they are reading outside of school, they seem to be reading more–even though it is not required. I often have students in my office asking for book recommendations and updating me on what they have been reading. In addition, they have seen that the skills I teach them in class actually apply to books that match their interests. Hopefully, I am instilling in them a lifelong love of reading.
They force kids to look at texts from a variety of viewpoints. The questions I write in my letters to students are designed to push students’ thinking about what they are reading. For example, when a student connects with a certain character, he or she usually views the events in the story from that character’s perspective. When I ask questions about other character’s points of view, students have new reactions to the text.
They require students to write with a purpose. I have loved having a year-long written dialogue with students. Skimming through the 15 journal entries they have completed this year, it is quite impressive how much they have written and how their thought process has evolved.
They help me build positive relationships with students. I have learned a lot about my students this year from reading their journal entries and their connections to the text. As you can see in the sample above, I have shared personal stories with students as well. These positive relationships are the foundation for supporting struggling readers because they help students feel comfortable taking risks with their reading.