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

Leadership: Summer Letter To Staff

In this post, I am sharing the letter I sent to staff last summer.  A summer communication to staff is a great way to recapture the year and set the stage for the year ahead.  My focus for the year ahead was greatness, team, and belief.  All are personal choices we make every day.  I share this letter in hopes that it can help you to frame this important communication for your staff whether new to the job or a veteran, communication will always be a critical component of leadership.


Dear Staff,

I  hope that each of you has had a restful and enjoyable summer break.  Summer is a great time to reflect and make adjustments for the year ahead. As I look back on the previous school year, I am proud of what our school accomplished, our professionalism as a staff, and most important, our collective commitment to doing our best for every student, every day. The staff of (School Name) has always been a great team!

The speed of change is fast and every year it gets faster. How we meet the challenges that inevitably come our way is our test of greatness personally, professionally, and collectively as a team.  We understand the need to be fast and progressive to meet the changes and challenges we and our students face.  Together our initiatives, commitment, and team focus have given us outstanding student achievement and a progressive and rewarding teaching environment.

For the past several years we focused on 21st century skills: creative thinking, creative problem solving, communication, collaboration, active engagement, higher level questioning, non-traditional class structures, and using unit-based planning to create lessons using backward design to create engaging units framed by pre-tests, formative assessments, and summatives to confirm what has been learned. The list may seem large, it is by no means exhaustive, nor is our work done. Initiatives we have worked on together and elements of great instruction are seen in our classrooms daily. In concert with great instruction, we see the enthusiasm students exhibit as we teach them for their future, not our past.  This year we will continue to find our instructional greatness; view challenges as opportunities, and understand that being great is a choice, not an inherent trait.

In addition, at the end of last year, we launched a large initiative, research-based grading practices.  Each department has established grading criteria based on best practice to create equity and to motivate students to succeed!   

The end goal in education is always present; it can be summed up with the word “all.” A simple three letter word that forces us to look at everything we do, evaluate, adjust, and re-focus to achieve a great education for everyone.  Being focused on greatness has never, nor should it ever be a faux definer of our school.  We have always found greatness when we focus and make adjustments to ensure success for all students and our school.

As you think about the new school year take the time to find the greatness that resides in you and use your personal greatness to create magic for our students. Please link the video below. After viewing, please return to the letter.

Nike: Find Your Greatness

As you near the end of summer I ask that you consider this:

People are inspired and drawn to you when they have a clear understanding of why you do what you do.  Your personal why is where you will find the greatness that is in you.

We have learned the value of surrounding ourselves with exceptional people who are 100% committed to doing their best for children: people who have a desire or even desperation to be great, people who believe in the magic that can occur in a classroom and school.

In the future, our students will serve as corporate leaders, lawyers, teachers, anchor the evening news, and maybe even serve as President of the United States.  Believe that in front of you every day are students who can achieve these goals or whatever goals they need to make them feel successful and find their personal greatness.

When we work together, there is no challenge that we cannot meet!  Our students deserve the absolute best and we have the team to make this happen!

Enjoy the last days of summer and begin gearing up for another outstanding school year.  



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 

Leadership: The Mirror

This is my second blog on summer reflection and your leadership.

Effective leaders look in the mirror and sometimes they do not like what they see. But great leaders can be honest with themselves and work to make a change.

How congruent are you with what you say and what you do?  In this blog, I will present several obstacles that have come my way over the years. I am sure these obstacles or similar version come to you, too.   

When you look in the mirror at night or in the morning you should feel good about the work you do and the decisions you make. Do you model what you speak about?  Or, is there a contradiction between what you say and your actions?  Do you put students first in all of your decisions? I can guarantee it is easier to look in the mirror when you do.

Here are five challenges that came my way during my career:

Retention:  There is no evidence in our field that retention works.  But often we encounter educated adults who cling to the one time they think it worked for a student.  Do you agree with them? Or do you tacitly agree by saying nothing when others speak about it? Have you challenged staff to find research to support retention?

Compromising: A general statement about what you are willing to agree to in order to not shake a relationship.  Relationships founded on falsehoods or compromises of what you believe are not true relationships.  Many times I have seen administrators try to build alliances by agreeing with others who were not in alignment with what they really believed. What changes might you make to not compromise your beliefs?

The Countdown:  Ah, the staff member who says on day one we have 179 days left. Do you agree or say nothing? What does your response say about you?  This has come my way many times over the years.  When it does I like to say, “ I don’t want to hear about the countdown, but I am interested in talking about how each day can be amazing for our students.”  This statement either helps a person change or it lets them know that you have no interest in hearing it.  Both can be positive.

The Bribe: I will stay in your school if you do this for me. This can range from a course assignment to certain pieces of technology.  How do you handle this?  My suggestion is to see this as an opportunity to have a discussion of your leadership with a staff member. Relationships need to be more than if you do this I still support you.  If they are not, you never had a strong relationship.

Ridiculous Assignments: What do you do when staff gives silly assignments such as writing sentences, word finds or crossword puzzles?  Do you tell them to stop? Do you agree with them? Or, say nothing.  As a leader, we need to advocate for students.  Some assignments that staff may cling too or we experienced are simply no good or harmful.  My challenge to you is not to beat yourself up for what was in the past but make a commitment to handling such situations differently. Tell staff to stop.  If they insist on continuing, I suggest that I’m willing to engage staff in a discussion if they can bring any research to the meeting that supports such practice. I have offered many invites over the years, never had a taker.

The summer is a great time to reflect on decisions you have made, how you have handled situations and the congruency of what you say and what you do.  Leadership is hard work.  Compromising is part of leadership but compromising what you believe ultimately undermines your leadership.  Take time this summer to reflect, refine what you believe and how you will develop alignment between your words and actions.

Check out my interview with Dr. Alise Cotez on her show Working on Purpose!  Evan Robb Interview

Also my book, The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook