A Reader’s Notebook is a fantastic tool for teachers to help students meaningfully engage with their reading, according to literacy experts Sharon and Phil Callen.
On episode 15 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy, Sharon and Phil explained that the Reader’s Notebook enables students to ‘hold on to their thinking’ and record their development as a reader.
“To define a Reader’s Notebook, we would say it’s a book in which students are going to be drawing, writing, detailing, describing, exploring, organising, pondering, problem-solving, recording and sharing their thinking in response to texts,” Sharon said.
“We would do it for texts heard, the ones that they do for themselves, and for texts viewed … So you would start with a Read Aloud, but I wouldn’t take long before I would let them say, ‘well, you can be doing this with your own texts’. So I’m not going to do that for weeks on end where it’s just with the Read Aloud.
“The Reader’s Notebook is really a storehouse … think of the Reader’s Notebook as housing a whole lot of things.”
Sharon and Phil also emphasised the importance of the Reader’s Notebook in strengthening the student-teacher relationship.
“I’ve just loved reading them because it is so personal and so deep, they’re showing their thinking in other learning areas as well. And it’s so enjoyable to read what they’ve written and you get to know them in a way that is so valuable for you and your relationship with the kids,” Sharon said.
The literacy duo delved into a number of elements which should be included in the Reader’s Notebook, starting off with a reader survey.
“I find reading interest inventories or reading surveys are a really wonderful way for students to give me a picture of themselves as a reader at the beginning of the year,” Sharon said.
“There’s lots around it and finding out what are their favourite books. What do they know? How much do they read at home? There’s a whole lot of things that we can ask that help us understand more about the habits and behaviours of the students that we’re starting the year with.”
Sharon and Phil recommended students start a daily reading log at the back of their notebook, which then allows teachers to track their students and understand their learning needs.
“Every day, what would we record? We record the book, title, the author. We can record the page numbers that we’ve read. We can record how much time we’ve read that day. We can record whether it was a just right book for us or not,” Sharon said.
“And then when that’s open on a child’s table every day, as they’re reading, I can do a roving conference just by looking at that page and having a quick look at, is this child having trouble finding a just right book? Is this child really only reading a page a day and what’s happening for the rest of the time? Is this child starting books and never finishing them?”
A key element which ensures the Reader’s Notebook becomes a ‘one stop shop for transformative teaching’ is to use it to store their reading conference notes.
“So rather than me having a folder with all the students conference notes in it, and that’s just sitting with me, I keep the conference notes in the notebooks and the students have got those,” Sharon said.
“[They’re] a fabulous tool for students to bring to a reading conference. If they’re having a one-on-one writing conference with you, they’ve got this whole collection of things. I can read to you and you can observe their reading for the conference, but just by bringing a notebook, they have got so much to share.”
Sharon also revealed the effectiveness of having these notes physically written on paper, as opposed to using technology.
“We have found it just so convenient with the hands-on book … as recently as two months ago, students in a class that has access to Chromebooks loved the idea of having a physical notebook that they could work in with all of those things there in one place.
“I found it to be effective in how accessible that is to me as a teacher in a roving conference that I can easily see things. No one has to pull anything up on a screen. No one has to scroll through from here to here. Nobody has to recharge a battery before I can see something. And there is a real immediacy too, putting that information onto paper.”
Finally, when prompting students to think and write about their reading, Sharon emphasised the use of open ended questions.
“Children who are very used to having closed types of questions will come to these open types of questions in the same kind of way … they’ll be thinking, ‘I just have to come up with one answer and I’m done’ … so, I would always put a number on it. So I might say ‘what three or more things puzzled you today?'” she said.
“Good starting questions are, no fail, ‘what do I like about this story? What didn’t I like? What questions do I have? What patterns did I notice?’ But then add that number.”
Phil added: “Then you start to build up a culture of answering open questions that wouldn’t have been there at the start, cause they’re not used to it.”
Sharon also explained the key to harnessing this deeper thinking is to ask questions on the go, rather than at the end as a reflection piece.
“Rather than going ‘okay, here’s the question that we’re asking at the end’, and then we go, ‘oh I don’t know’, and now I’ve got to go back in and see where I can find that, we’re actually asking questions to help them think as they’re listening and as they’re reading. So they’re not recall questions. They are questions or the prompts that are getting us thinking and holding on to that thinking.”