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Tools of the Trade: Reading Response Journal—Doing Away with the Study Guide in an Attempt to Avoid Readicide

By Kelly Virgin

Recently, while reading Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide for the Strategies for Teaching Literature course, one of the participants posed the following question: “How can we tell if we are over-planning and overteaching a text; how can we better self-monitor?” Another participant very wisely answered, “If we know every question we want to ask and every discussion we want to have before we even pick up the book with our students, then chances are we are over-planning and in danger of overteaching.” Kelly Gallagher argues that the overteaching of books leads to readicide because “…the overanalysis of books:

  • prevents our students from experiencing the place where all serious readers want to be—the reading flow.
  • creates instruction that values the trivial at the expense of the meaningful.
  • spills over and damages our students’ chances of developing recreational reading habits.” (60)

When I think back to my first years of teaching, I know I was guilty of committing readicide time and time again. As a new teacher I felt panicky if I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go with every page of every novel.

For example, my first year teaching I read S.E. Hinton’s That Was Then, This Is Now with my ninth grade students.  In the weeks leading up to this unit, I spent hours scouring the book to create page after page of “thought-provoking” study guide questions.  One ten-page packet complete with 101 questions later, I felt ready to teach the novel.  Each day followed a similar routine that was driven by the study guide: Students started class by responding to a predetermined “personal response” writing prompt in their packet, we reviewed the completed study guide questions, we read together or in small groups, students answered more study guide questions, and class ended with a reading assignment attached to yet more study guide questions.   While reading this novel, students answered on average one question per every 1.57 pages of text, rarely responded beyond the lowest levels of thinking (knowledge and comprehension), and never had a chance to direct the discussions themselves.  At the end of the unit, students turned in study guides for credit, took a unit test, and completed a teacher-prompted writing assignment. Not one student sought out another S.E. Hinton book.  Not one asked for a book about the 60s, or about drugs, or about friendship and betrayal. By the time we were done this book, the students were sick of it and so was I. Readicide at its worst!

Now, while I still plan ahead for the books I read with my students, I try to avoid the dangers of stifling their reading with over-planning by getting rid of the study guide all together. Instead we use reading response journals. Rather than begin a novel with page after page of comprehension questions to look forward to, students begin a novel with page after page of blank lines. This allows us to work together to find what Kelly Gallagher calls the sweet spot of instruction.  Gallagher admits, “When I bring a difficult book into the classroom for students to read, I always struggle with my level of involvement. How much help is too much help? How much help is too little help? What is the right balance?” (92). I have found that the right balance changes year to year, class to class, and even student to student.

The reading response journal enables me to shift my instruction daily to go with the ebb and flow of my students’ reading abilities and interests. Early on in our reading, I model heavily, showing students my thinking and note-taking in response to the text and giving them opportunities to repeat after me. But as we progress and familiarity increases student ability, I slowly pull back and allow students to guide their own responses. Because I am not bound by a set list of questions, I can do this when the students are ready and jump back in when necessary.

Romiette JournalFurthermore, the reading journal allows me to change up the ways we respond to the text as we move through our reading together.  Depending on student need and interest, we can switch from comprehension question and response to double entry notes, picture summaries, text reformulation, student prompted questions and response, research-based inquiries, etc. For instance, at the start of our most recent class text, Romiette and Julio (a book my students read in conjunction with their core course’s reading of Romeo and Juliet), we read the main character’s opening journal entry first to get a sense of her as a main character and take notes on our inferences. Then, we reread as a model for our own creative journal writing. Furthermore, the reading response journals enable me to allow my students to determine what type of note-taking will work best for them. For instance, about halfway through a recent reading of Walter Dean Myers’ Monster, one of my classes decided it made the most sense to visually depict the key facts they learned in four quickly changing scenes, while another class decided to bullet list their noticings. Since I hadn’t already predetermined the kind of responses I wanted in a study guide, students had the freedom to do what worked best for them at the time.

Most importantly, the blank pages of a reading response journal puts more ownership on students to decide which passages are worth noting, which themes are worth following up on, and which questions are worth asking. As Kylene Beers and Robert Probst insist in Notice and Note, “We want them inside the text, noticing everything, questioning everything, weighing everything they are reading against their lives, the lives of others, and the world around them” (2). Page after page of study guide questions severely limits what students can notice and note and only allows the teacher to decide what’s worth weighing against the outside world. Now, with the use of the reading response journal, I can teach my students the sign posts and allow them to discover and note them on their own. I can model various reading strategies, and give my students opportunities to apply them when and where and how they need. And, most of all, I can put my students in charge of asking the questions or identifying the passages they want to discuss.

Finally, since my students guide their own responding throughout a significant portion of the reading and since the ways they respond to the text vary regularly, it provides them with the opportunity to take time after their reading to reflect on which types of responses aided their reading most and in what ways. In fact, I have replaced the teacher generated unit test with an assessment that gives students time to do just this type of metacognitive thinking. For this assessment, I ask students to mark a certain number of journal pages they want graded because they think they are examples of good note-taking and show thoughtful responses to their reading. On each marked page they reflect on what the particular reading response demonstrates about their understanding of, interaction with, or response to the text. This type of an assessment is much more valuable than testing whether they remember a particular character’s name or what happened in chapter three of the book. It is my hope that by giving students time to notice and consider their note-taking, they may continue to respond to other texts in similar ways on their own.

While I still run the risk of overteaching from time to time, replacing the study guide with the reading response journal has greatly decreased the number of times I commit readicide throughout the school year. Furthermore, I have noticed an increased interest from students in the books we read. They come into class excitedly asking if we are reading today and they walk out at the end of class with the book still open in their hands. Best of all, the interest continues after we turn the last page. This year alone, I had eight students pick up different Walter Dean Myers books to read independently after we were done with our whole-class reading of Monster. At the beginning of the year, I had over a dozen students ask to sign-out the non-fiction text we read from so that they could read the chapters we skipped on their own. At the end of a novel, my students and I don’t feel sick of the book or its topics, but are encouraged to find more books to read together and independently.

Kelly VirginKelly Virgin is in her eleventh year teaching English for the Kennett Consolidated School District and has been a PAWLP fellow since 2010.  She is a proud bookworm and loves sharing her passion for reading and writing with her students. This spring she will facilitate the Strategies for Teaching Literature course on Tuesday evenings.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Charlie Keeler #

    This is how I would have wanted to read when I was in high school. I imagine the time you save working by not working on the guides can be spent on getting to know your students and responding to what they write. What a win! I love how you start the notebooks together, guiding them and slowly pulling away so that they can find their own way; what a great way to ensure that nobody falls victim to the ‘Tyranny of Choice’. I wonder though, do you keep examples of more creative approaches from former students to show each year’s new crop what is possible?


    May 3, 2016
  2. Jake #

    As a current English education student studying at West Chester University, I must say that I found this article quite encouraging. Readicide is an issue that I find worrisome as I come close to student teaching. It seems that utilizing the reading response journal has had an incredibly beneficial impact on your classroom. Students are engaged with the text, and are allowed to express their individual interpretations freely within their reading journal. If a teacher makes reading exciting and interesting for their students, they are teaching it in the best possible way. I think having students be more accountable for their graded assignments is a great skill that translates into the professional world. Constructing a classroom ecosystem that allows students the option to choose which notes they hand in to get graded, puts more responsibility on the student. They will learn the importance in submitting quality work, and will receive gratification from the teacher for doing so. I think the implementation of the reading response journals benefited your classroom greatly. I eventually hope to engage my students in reading to the extent that you have been able to with the use of the reading response journal.
    — Jake


    April 20, 2016
  3. ritasorrentino #

    Kelly, this says it all – interest continues after we turn the last page. What could be better than that in developing life-long reading habits?


    April 18, 2016
  4. mbuckelew #

    I’ll echo Rita — your post is just what I need before heading into the last few weeks of the semester and before I plan next year’s syllabi. You illuminate the drawbacks of those onerous reading guides/packets and just as important you share the the reasoning behind them, which I understand and have succumbed to–
    Your post is insightful and a great read for any of us who are afraid our students will miss out if we don’t create copious notes and handouts . . .I plan to make time to read this with my methods students.

    Many thanks!


    April 14, 2016
  5. Thanks Kelly for your great insights. This was just what I needed before heading into my next novel. I will be redoing my plans beginning now!!!


    April 13, 2016

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