As a literacy coach and consultant, I get a lot of questions sent to me! I'm fortunate to work in a range of very diverse schools, across districts, and across states. I support teachers and administrators from the rural Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, to the suburbs of Boston. I've worked with schools in California, Washington, North Carolina, Ohio, New York, Florida, Kentucky... the list goes on. One of the hottest topics, regardless of location, is always reading notebooks. In this post I will attempt to answer some of those questions.
Q: I would love any ideas or thoughts on reading notebooks specific to readers who are reading early chapterbooks. What do the teachers at your school expect in reading notebooks?
So, I work in LOTS of schools this year, across four very different school districts. But the one thing I can say, about every school I work in currently is that reading notebooks are generally introduced once students are reading around level J/K, though this isn't a strict rule, with the idea being that once kids are reading longer books, a notebook can help them to track their thinking, and can be a great tool for sparking deeper conversations about books. Until then, I really wouldn't expect kids to do a lot of stopping and jotting - except maybe a quick post-it here and there to keep track of important pages, questions, or big ideas they want to talk about.
In the notebooks, we would expect to see kids stopping and jotting, just little notes. These notes are meant to help them keep track of ideas, understand the story better, and especially prepare for having conversations. Students might sketch a picture, keep a running timeline, or create a chart that helps their understanding--but nothing that takes much time away from reading. Occasionally, teachers might prompt students to pick one idea to write longer about. Some teachers do this as a routine, say once a week. Others do this in response to the work they are doing in a unit, or with a small group.
Q: What's the best way to set up a reading notebook?
I have seen reading notebooks set up in a hundred different ways, but the way I like best is a simple marble composition notebook. I use post-its or tabs to separate the notebook into 3-4 sections:
- independent reading
Self-reflection, self-assessment, and goal setting are skills that I've been working on a lot lately, so sometimes I like a separate section for that work. Sometimes I just include it in the existing sections. I also love to invite kids to decorate/personalize their notebook to reflect their reading life--just like the writing the notebook.
Q: How do students use their reading notebooks?
During read-aloud, I might prompt students to stop and jot in the read-aloud section. As kids get older they sometimes jot on their own during read-aloud--though I'm careful to observe closely and assess whether jotting is actually helping or interfering with understanding the story. I usually start here before teaching kids how to use notebooks during reading workshop.
When kids are ready to learn how to use notebooks during reading workshop, I teach kids strategies they can choose from (choice being the operative word). Occasionally I might prompt everybody to try something, but mostly I like to say, "I want you to keep your notebook open and ready, in case you have a great idea to jot down, or a question for your book club" or I'll say, "It doesn't matter to me HOW you stop and jot, but you do need to keep track of your thinking somehow! You get to decide! If you're stuck, look at our anchor chart!" I always offer post-its as an option as well - it truly doesn't matter to me what they choose to do - but I do get concerned when a student is not jotting, or even sticking a post-it on a single thing. If anything, I want them to be in the habit of coming to their book club (or partnership) prepared with something to say, or a few pages to refer to. Post-its and notes are signals to me that the reader is engaged; jotting, sketching, and talking are the work of reading workshop.
Q: What can you suggest or point me towards in regards to making the notebooks more effective and fun for the kids?
I often find that it is very tempting to give kids little assignments to do in their notebooks - whether it's in class or at home -- but beware! Turning the notebook into a collection of teachers-selected assignments can kill it for kids. But they also need to know that they're expected to be engaged readers, and to be prepared for their book club conversations. As a literacy coach, I will often demonstrate minilessons where I literally say to kids "You can use your notebook however you want! You can draw! You can sketch! Use colors! Make a chart! Write a quote! Whatever you want... but you have to do something." I've never had a group of kids that wasn't at least a little bit excited by the idea of doing whatever they want.
However, sometimes it's not that kids don't want to stop and jot--instead, they just aren't sure how.
I sometimes show kids (or just the teachers) this quick sketchnoting video to get them excited about using their notebooks and then I put colored pencils at every table for kids to use.
(There are 100s more like this one on youtube!) Sketchnoting isn't for everyone--but I have observed that it slows kids down, in a good way. The lettering, the sketches, borders, and other visual aspects can help make the content more memorable for many kids.
Other times, I put my own reading notebook under the doc cam and show them the "coolest" pages (kids like the pages with a lot of drawing/charts/color the best) and invite them to use their notebook in any way they want.
I also like to share other students' reading notebooks as inspiration. Here's a quick tour of one fourth grader's notebook, as an example:
Occasionally I have to do some coaching, circulating around the room, to give reminders to the kiddos who are writing/sketching/drawing too much - but generally, it's a good problem to have. I would rather have overly enthusiastic sketchers and drawers, than having kids who begrudge the notebook - or worse - learn to hate reading because of it!
For more thoughts and ideas for reading notebooks, and effective ways to teach writing about reading in authentic ways, I recommend:
The Units of Study for Teaching Reading (Grades K-8), by Lucy Calkins and Colleagues
What Readers Really Do by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton
DIY Literacy by Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts
The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo
* Thanks to my friend and colleague, Kathleen Sokolowski, for the best questions.
* Thanks to my teacher friends Katie LeFrancois & Portia Senning for sharing their students with me and trying out the innovative notebook work you see in this post.
*Post updated 4/12/18 to share Reading Notebook Wall of Fame : )