Knowing Your Students Through Reading Response Letters
It’s the most time-consuming thing I do, but it’s value is immeasurable. I spend large chunks of time writing responses to students’ letters about their own reading. It takes forever and sometimes looms over my Saturday morning, but I cannot overstate the importance of this communication.
This is Part 1 of a series focusing on connecting with readers. We know teacher’s relationship with his/her students is of supreme importance. However, a major piece of this relationship is knowing kids as readers. I’ll be offering easy ways to construct and grow connections with your readers.
Every other Friday morning, I have students write a letter to me about the reading they have done in class this week. I carve out a twenty-minute block for them to all do this at the same time. Some experts suggest staggering these throughout the week and having students complete them during the independent reading time. I never had success with this. I enjoy the opportunity to address the group and then send them to write.
So, what do they write about? Most of the time, I leave it open to them. Our first two sentences always are structured the same: one with the title and one telling what part they are on. But after that, the students are free to explore their own thinking about what they have read. As I tell the students, this isn’t a retelling of the story; it’s about what you have been thinking about while you have been reading. I do give them a page of Thinking Sentence Starters (here’s a copy) they can use if they are stuck.
Sometimes I will give them a topic or format to use in their letter. For example, during last week’s writing workshop, we were working with persuasive writing, so in their reading letter, students had to convince me to read or not read their book, supporting their idea with opinions and examples. It was the perfect opportunity to connect our reading and writing content.
As I mentioned, responding to all these letters is a tall order, but I learn so much about my students as readers through their letters. I learn who is and is not understanding what they are reading. I learn how they are feeling about reading. I learn who needs help moving beyond retelling, and I learn who is exploring complex themes. All of this informs the decisions I make about how to best help kids.
Want to try it? Here are some suggestions:
- Don’t do it every week. Responding to these takes awhile, so take it slow.
- Don’t feel like you have to respond with a full page. Pick one thing to reinforce or share in your respond.
- Do respond! And make it personal…not just “Great letter.”
- Model, model, model. Write a letter to the class about your reading as they watch. Think aloud about what you are doing.
- Teach kids how to develop their own ideas, not always being dependent on a prompt.
- Grade these with a basic rubric. Here’s mine! Count each grade as a separate entry in the grade book. If you’re spending a lot of time grading an assignment, it should be worth multiple grades. I create a weighted category in my grade book for these responses.
Don’t worry if it crashes and burns the first time. Just stick with it! You’ll be pleased with what you are able to learn about your students as readers.