Author: laurarobb

Assessing Independent Reading


A common question comes up when launching independent reading programs, how do we hold students accountable?  I asked Laura to share some thought about independent reading and how or if we should hold students accountable.  Her insights are excellent!

Studies have shown that students who receive rewards such as points and pizza parties in elementary and middle school, turn away from independent reading in high school when rewards stop. However, as much as possible, the reward for independent reading should not be extrinsic—it should be intrinsic—meaning the learning and enjoyment should be enough.  Teachers and parents can encourage independent reading by celebrating a book completed as well as asking the child to talk about the book and why it was a terrific read.

For independent reading to flourish in schools, administrators, teachers, and parents need to recognize its importance and understand that extrinsic rewards can ultimately result in negative returns.  However, there are authentic assessments teachers can use that advertise beloved books within and beyond the walls of a classroom.

Four Authentic Ways of Assessing Independent Reading

The suggestions that follow are top notch ways for your students to advertise books they enjoyed reading.  Always allow students to choose their independent reading materials.

Book Logs. Tape these in the back of readers’ notebooks. Keep the format simple and have students write the title, author, and the date completed or abandoned. Every six weeks or so, set aside twenty to thirty minutes and invite students to select a favorite book from their log to share with their group. Now, students have opportunities to talk about a book but also give group members ideas for books they want to read.

Book Talks. Reserve two consecutive days during the last week of a month for students to present a book talk. I recommend that the teacher selects the book for the first round of talks, then turn choice over to students. If you do a book talk a month for the ten months of school and you have twenty-five students in your class, students will hear about 250 books! And, it’s their peers who are doing the recommending!

Written Book Reviews. The book report is a school-invented assignment. Book reviews are authentic: The first paragraph is a short summary and the second paragraph is the reader’s opinion. Have students study sample book reviews as mentor texts—reviews from journals such as The Horn Book and School Library Journal. Post students’ reviews on a class and school website so others can learn about books they might enjoy reading.

Literary Conversations. Literature circles, book clubs, and partner discussions all encourage students to talk about books. You can organize these discussions by genre. It doesn’t matter that students have different books because their discussions can focus on genres structures, literary elements, and themes.

Lingering Thoughts

It’s impossible to assess every book a student reads. Nor should you consider this for even a fleeting moment. It’s a matter of trusting that students are reading. Moreover, continual assessment discourages students who read voraciously, for they have to do much more work than students who read less. Most important, let students choose books, share some with classmates, and eventually, they will develop literary tastes and build a personal reading life that lasts a lifetime!

For further understanding, I suggest Laura’s book Differentiated Instruction

Fostering a Personal Reading Life

Laura reminds us all of a simple concept if you want to get good at anything practice is essential!

Some days I feel discouraged about the state of reading in schools today. These feelings come from, the number of worksheets or novel packets students have to complete while reading a book. These feelings intensify when I see children reading far below grade level completing phonics and syllabication worksheets. Boring! Useless! No room for books in that data collection diet!

All children deserve a rich, personal reading life. And many teachers are working toward that goal. However, that’s not good enough. I want every teacher and every school to make that goal a priority.

Developing a Personal Reading Life

Children who have a personal reading life choose to read during choice time at school. Equally important, they read voraciously at home. Books call to them. Stories grip their hearts and minds. These children can’t wait to have time to read. I recall my grandson complaining that lights out on school nights were 8:00 pm. “I don’t want to stop reading,” he’d tell me. So, I purchased a small flashlight and encouraged him to become a “flashlight reader.” However, I told him that if he was caught, he had to tell his parents the truth: His grandmother gave him the flashlight so he could read under his quilt!

Practice Reading Like an Athlete

It’s weird that everyone accepts that athletes need practice to improve muscle memory and automaticity with moves and plays. No coach would let a team compete without practice. Like athletes, readers need daily practice at school. That’s how children become ‘flashlight’ readers who develop personal reading lives.


Choice in reading is key. Choice motivates and engages readers. Choice enables them to explore genres, authors, and topics they love. Choice enables them to develop literary tastes because they are discovering what they enjoy and what they don’t want to presently read. What follows are ways teachers can showcase independent reading to help students develop a personal reading life.

Access to books is key. Make enlarging your classroom library an important goal. Aim for 500 to 1500 books.

Classroom libraries. Organize books by genre. Feature books by placing them on a shelf with the cover facing outward. Change these displays every two weeks. Spotlight authors and genres by placing books on windowsills or lean them against the wall under the chalkboard. Leave a trail of books for students to notice and browse though.

Teacher Book Talks. Take a few minutes to book talk new arrivals. Read the back cover matter or the first two pages to raise students’ interest and awareness of new books.

Independent reading. If you value independent reading, then set aside fifteen to twenty-five minutes for students to read choice books at school at least two to three times a week.  

Comfortable places. Think about where you sit and read. Most likely, it’s not at a desk, but in a comfortable chair. Let students sit on a rug or on pillows and help them move into a different zone while reading.

Homework. The most important homework is 30 minutes of independent reading each night. Avoid having parents sign a paper that guarantees their child read—trust your students and look at the glass half-full. Avoid having students write a nightly summary of the reading. Do you summarize books you read? If the answer is “No,” then don’t ask students to do it. Keep reading a real world, authentic experience.

Closing Thoughts

When you set aside time for independent reading at school, you let students know reading is important!  Choosing books for independent reading is students’ pathway to developing a rich personal reading life. It’s also the best way to enlarge students’ vocabulary and ramp up their reading achievement!

Look for my next blog; I’ll be discussing assessing independent reading!

 For more in independent reading, check  Teaching Reading in Middle School 

Teachers Coaching Students


Laura recently explained to me how we all are somewhat familiar with athletic coaches. Their job is to train athletes so they experience success in their sport. In the classroom, when teachers wear the mantle of coach, they are also involved in helping students experience success in an area of learning that students find challenging.  An important aim of teacher-coaches is to move students to self-directed learning. To accomplish this, the teacher taps into the concept of efficacy: the belief that all students can learn and be productive members of their education community.


Teacher As Coach

You can improve students’ performance, achievement, self-confidence, and self-efficacy when you start thinking like a coach. Through his research, John Hattie discovered that feedback on student work had the most effect on learning. Therefore, thinking like a coach means that you offer students feedback on written work, collaborative and individual projects, literary conversations, and teamwork. Here’s the rub! For feedback to be meaningful to students, coaching should occur soon after students’ work has been completed or in the midst of a long-term project. I prefer a tight timeframe—preferably within two days or the next time the class meets.

Seven Tips That Support Coaching Students

Mull over these seven tips that can enable you to successfully coach students in any discipline. It’s not about choosing two or three. All seven work in concert to develop your coaching strength. It won’t be perfect the first few times you don the mantle of coach. However, take the time to reflect, self-evaluate and learn from mistakes.

Toss red pens & listen. Let students do most of the talking. Sit on your hands if you’re tempted to mark up a student’s paper. Invite the student to jot feedback on a sticky note. You can do the writing for young children as long as they tell you what to write. The more responsibility students have, the more self-directed they become.

Sit side-by-side. This enables you to listen, to observe what students write on sticky notes, and it also advances the trusting relationship between teacher-coach and student.

Negotiate needs & priorities. Find out what the student thinks he or she needs. Then negotiate, share the process of focusing needs and prioritizing them so you both know what to discuss first.

Think aloud and model. Develop a student’s mental model of a task such as brainstorming or what strong verbs look like. Thinking aloud and modeling are two coaching tools you’ll repeatedly use.

Provide feedback. Always start with what’s working, what the student does well. Remember, learning foundations are built on positive feedback. Then ask a question—How does paragraphing help the reading of dialogue?– that gets the student thinking about a need.

Negotiate goals. First see if the student can set a reasonable, achievable goal. If the child seems reluctant, share a few possibilities and let the student choose. Make sure you ask the student to discuss and then jot what has to be done to reach the goal and how much time will be needed.

Gradually release responsibility. The goal of coaching is for the student to experience and understand the process so he or she can become self-directed learners in the area being coached.

Take the Plunge

Set a goal for the upcoming school year and try coaching students. You might have to adjust your thinking and stop seeing work in terms of a grade. Instead, view student’s work as an opportunity for you to offer feedback that can help each one move forward. Keep in mind that it’s the student’s learning and progress that trumps giving a grade!

I suggest Laura’s new book Read Talk Write

The Writing Teacher – Test Prep or Real Writing


We all want our students to love writing and write well. We all want our students to pass our state’s writing test. These two goals create a great tension, and too often, test prep wins out. And so, students write from prompts most of the year. I can’t say this enough: Writing to prompts does not develop writers!

Yes, I want students to become test-wise by experiencing writing to a prompt. If we simulate state test conditions over two days every six weeks, students will gain enough practice. However, to make these simulations benefit students, make a list of areas that need mini-lessons and additional student practice. It could be learning to write a compelling lead or introduction, paragraphing, varying sentence openings, using strong verbs, or specific nouns, etc.

When students apply craft and writing conventions to topics and genres they select, they can grow as writers. Choice leads to students selecting a topic they care about and love. The result is that students are more willing to work hard at improving their writing by investing the time it takes. So, here’s a key point to remember:

Teach students to write well, revise, and edit, and they will pass the test.

Each year that we buy into the pressures of test-prep-writing, we lose multiple opportunities to teach students the craft and art of writing. The caveat is that for teachers to teach writing, they need to do four things:

  1. Write, Write, Write. This can be objective observations about students,  letters to friends and family, a blog, a diary, or journaling about a trip. The point is that by writing, we raise our awareness of the process, and that understanding enables us to support student writers.
  2. Read professional books and articles on the writing process. Learn what published writers have to say about teaching writing. The more you learn, the better you’ll be able to support your students.
  3. Read children’s literature so you can develop a bank of mentor texts. Find mentor texts that students can study to deepen their knowledge of genres, leads, endings, uses of dialogue, or how writers handle shifts in time, etc.
  4. Organize instruction into a workshop and set aside 45-minutes of writing time at least four, preferably five times a week.

Present mini-lessons on writing craft, conventions, and genres. Keep them short and interactive. Keep the workshop authentic by offering students choices.  Unlike test-prep writing, students will be at different points in the process. To bring closure to any stage—talking about ideas, brainstorming ideas, planning, drafting—negotiate a deadline date with students.

Professional articles and books will guide your planning of mini-lessons and offer suggestions on modeling and thinking aloud to show students what writers do. Pair-up with a colleague and support each other, observe each other, and you will find that your students will crave more writing time. Most important, allow yourself to make mistakes knowing you can learn from these and give yourself the gift of time as you traverse new paths!

You can learn more about the writing process and teaching writing from Laura Robb’s Heinemann books: Teaching Middle School Writers and Smart Writing: Practical units for Teaching Middle School Writers.