assessment, being a teacher, Reading

How to Assess Student Reading Skills Without Knowing the Book They Are Reading

A question I am asked often is how do I know what my readers know when they are all reading their own self-chosen books?  How do I keep them accountable for their reading?  How do I know what they can do without knowing the book they are reading?

And I get it.  How do we adequately assess the readers we have for their growth in comprehension when we don’t have them DO stuff all of the time?  Because that’s the thing, one of the biggest reasons that kids report for hating reading is actually the stuff we have them do after they read, not the actual reading itself.  It seems as if we have forgotten a few simple lessons that academics such as Louise Rosenblatt have been trying to remind us of for years.  Kids need relevant reading experiences that not only teach them how to be better readers but also help them grow or protect their love of reading.  I think I just summarized the goal of my book Passionate Readers here.

Yet, when we constantly attach something to the very act of reading, we diminish the act itself.  So how do we assess without harming?

A few things first, our students get ten minutes of protected self-chosen reading every day.  It is the very first thing we do.  If I had more time to teach (darn you 45 minutes), it would be a longer period of time.  During those ten minutes, the only thing our students are working on is reading a great book.  There are no post-its, no jots, no turn-and-talk.  They are working on their reading relationship, nothing else, because that task is big enough in itself.  While they read I check in with them, not to have them do stuff or talk about their book, but to talk about themselves as readers.   To help them establish or continue a connection to the act of reading itself.

Then we move into our mini-lesson, whatever that may be.  If the day is focused on reading then after we read the students then apply the skills as they read their own books if they can, a central tenet to our teaching always being; be able to use the skill when needed but you don’t have to use it all of the time.

We use read aloud, picture books, or short stories to model and discuss what readers need.  If students are asked to do a long-term project with their own books such as focusing on character development, symbolism, or analysis in some capacity,  then I model what that may look like within a read aloud.  I can sort out from their own writing whether they grasped the depth of the skill or if they merely skimmed the surface.  I don’t need to know the plot of their book to do this.  If I have questions I ask or look at the book they used.

If I need to narrow my scope then I will model a skill using a short story or a picture book (aren’t they almost the same?!) and then have either another short story or a stack of picture books to hand to them as they try out the skill for themselves.  Because I know all of the picture books and short stories I can quickly assess whether they understood it or not and use their work to further my own instruction.  Simple and yet it works every time.  Students get to balance reading their own self-selected text with the work of the classroom and we have created a balance between teaching skills and establishing the love.

And there you have it, how I assess my students’ skills without needing to have them do a reading journal – one of the number one things my students attribute to causing a hatred of reading – and without needing to know every single book they are reading.  Sometimes it is the simple things that make the biggest difference.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.


7 thoughts on “How to Assess Student Reading Skills Without Knowing the Book They Are Reading”

  1. I have to say that Cris Tovani’s (I believe it’s her!) Inner Conversation is INCREDIBLE at assessing students’ understanding of text. Each period in my 6th grade classroom begins with 10 minutes protected time (thank you, Pernille!) but as students read, they record all of their questions, wonderings, amusement, confusion, etc.) digitally. They can do this AS they read or AFTER the 10 minutes are up. When we read whole-class novels, it’s the same deal.

  2. I so agree! My own boys were great readers (The Hobbit in grade four!). They got to seventh grade where they had “Star” questions and assignments that turned their reading into work. They hated it and still do not read for pleasure in their early twenties. In my class, we have about 15 minutes independent choice reading each day and occasionally have an assignment such as drawing the setting or character. Otherwise, it is reading time that is not connected to a concrete assessment.

  3. How do you handle students who never finish anything and try to bluff their way through all the work without actually finishing the book or maybe even not even reading it at all? I want these kids to fall in love with reading, not punish them. ?

    1. I use the weekly tracker sheet and can see their habits, they also reflect on their own habits. Our work tends to not be tied to one book, but instead short stories or picture books so they can’t bluff their way through it. If they are not finishing books then that is a bigger conversation waiting to happen.

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