3 Ways to Make Time for Independent Reading

So you'd love to let your students choose their own novels, but you've got a set curriculum to teach and full class novels to get through. Readers' Workshop is just not possible at this time, yet you'd still like to give your kids the freedom to read what they want.  How do you do it? How do you squeeze it in? Read on for three ways you can make time for independent reading.

1. Read for fun with whatever time you can devote to it
The best way to incorporate choice reading into your class is to do it just for fun, with no grades involved.  Start each class with silent reading - even if you can only devote five minutes of your class time to it each day. This isn't a lot of time, but if you don't require that students read a certain number of pages or books, the amount of time that you can spend on independent reading won't matter because they are just reading for enjoyment.

But how do you do that if you aren't holding your kids accountable for their reading? How do you convince them (as well as parents and admin) that it's ok to devote time to something you aren't assessing? 

2. Use choice novels as mentor texts to teach skills:
Ways to make time for independent or choice reading in middle and high school English classes.
You may have novels that you are required to cover, but you also need to teach your kids the skills that they will use to analyze those texts. For example, you might be teaching your students to determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings and to analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone. You can teach them this, using their choice novels as mentor texts.

Present your lesson as you normally would, and then have the kids look for examples of their author's deliberate word choice in the books that they are reading. Once they have located an example, they share it with a partner who will give them feedback on whether it's an effective example or not. You can also circulate while the kids are reading or working on an activity and ask each one to show you a place where their writer has made a deliberate word choice. Note the students who have had trouble identifying author craft so you can work with them later.

With this method, it doesn't matter what page students are on, or how many chapters have been read, because they just need to look for examples in the novels they are reading, and they can find those at any point in the book. You can even choose to have silent reading after your lesson, so students can watch for word choice as they read. This strategy gives students practice in recognizing the moves that writers make with books they enjoy, and then they can apply that skill when it's time to do so with their class novels. You can read about this process in more detail on this blog post.

3. Use choice novels as a basis for assessment of other outcomes: 
I suggested above that you don't assess students based on what or how much they read. However, you can still keep them accountable if you use their reading as a way to assess other outcomes. 

Let's look more closely at how you can assess a specific standard or outcome using choice texts:

text pairs 2.jpg

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.9 Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Instead of asking your students to compare two full class texts, create assignments that allow them to use their independent novels. For example, you could start with this writing promptin what ways are the characters and events in your novel similar to those of our full class text? Brainstorm ideas; then, choose one to explore more fully. 

There are so many universal themes in literature that students can almost always make a connection, even if it's just that characters need to make decisions, or there is a problem that must be solved. Ask them to reflect on these links in a prompt, then put them in small groups to discuss them with others. Next, they can extend this skill by making connections to their classmates' texts. All of a sudden, students have used their choice novels to build skills for thinking, writing and speaking. And, because they are doing so with a novel that they have chosen to read, it's much more likely that they will enjoy the process.

Ways to make time for independent or choice reading in middle and high school English classes-make text-to-text connections
You could also use choice novels as a basis for a longer writing assignment. For example, if you want to explore why Macbeth gives into temptation, give students this prompt: Is there a time when your character has to make a choice between doing the right thing and giving into temptation or peer pressure? Then, they can write a longer piece that compares their character's situation to Macbeth's. 

What I love most about this activity is that text-to-text connections help students build critical thinking skills. The reality is that with most texts we do in class, the internet is FULL of answers for students. With one or two clicks, the thinking is done. However, when students write something that makes connections to their choice novel, they can't easily find something similar on the internet. Therefore, by requiring text-text connections, you will put students in a position where they need to do more critical thinking -- and you can still work on the skills that your curriculum requires. For example, if you ask them to compare a character from your class novel to one in their book, they will still need to understand and analyze character, use evidence from the texts and write an organized piece with fully developed ideas.

I hope this post has given you some strategies that you can use to make time for independent reading in your classroom. Click here to get more information about making connections, as well as a free editable assignment page for your students. 

My friends here at the Coffee Shop have some products that might help you as well:

Secondary Sara: Book of the Month Club
The Classroom Sparrow: Reading Escape Room
Presto Plans: Independent Novel Discussion Questions
Addie Education: Chapter Response Pages For ANY Novel!
The Daring English Teacher: Character Analysis Growth Mindset Activities
Nouvelle ELA: Creative Reading Task Cards

5 Reasons Why You Should Try Portfolios This Year

If you're looking to switch things up this year, consider using student portfolios as a final assessment for your English class. This reflection is by far, one of the most effective assessment tools for both students and teachers. The best part about using portfolios is that you don't have to do any 'real work' until the end of the year. All you need is an area in your classroom to store student work and a file folder for each student in your class to start the process. So, while this is an end-of-the-year assessment, you need to start NOW!

How does it work? 
The collection of student work begins as soon as possible. While I have students put the majority of the work completed in class in their portfolio, not all of it will actually be used during the final assessment. Why? Because (a) I usually select major pieces of work to be included (b) Not all students will actually hand in every piece that's due so this will give everyone a chance to reflect on their growth, even if some of their work is missing.

At the end of the semester/year, students will be given back their portfolios with their work. In addition, they will be given a checklist-style handout of the assessments that will be used, a list reflection prompts for each piece of work and a writing frame, where they will write down their responses. While samples of my handouts have been provided in the post, this assessment can be adapted for any grade and can also be completed digitally, should you choose that method. I'm an old-fashioned pen and paper type of girl, so I am currently using that method! :)

What is a student portfolio?
A portfolio is a collection of a students' work completed over the entire course. While this can definitely be used as a mid-term assessment, I usually complete portfolios at the end of a course. Students reflect on their work and see how their writing has changed making specific reference to the work completed in class.

Portfolios are a great way to measure student growth over a semester or year, as all of a students' work is compiled into their folder and reviewed at the end of the term. Believe it or not, students do enjoy looking back at their work! It's fun for them to see and reflect on what they completed earlier in the year, as well as to show how their writing has progressed, even after a few short months. It usually takes them about 15-20 minutes (at the end of the term) to sort and organize their work before the process can begin. Below, is a snapshot of what my final portfolio assessment looks like. Your outline will, of course, look different, depending on what you studied, but this gives you an idea of what your outline could potentially look like.  For example, the circled areas are the only items that could be used in the final assessment for each outline below. The outline on the left was used for a course that was completed over half of a year, the other in a full-year course (note the increased number of activities completed). As you can see, the majority of the pieces included are from major activities completed, but I have included a few that were from more creative-type activities, as well.

Providing students with an opportunity to self-reflect is a great way to end a semester or year. Portfolios are a great self-reflection tool because this assessment forces them to look back on their work and review what they have/have not improved on, no matter how small. Students will have to thoroughly explain their progress using different criteria, which is the basis for their final grade in a course. I usually aim to include 6-8 writing categories.

Here are some examples of categories I have used as the basis for their reflection:
  • Comprehension: select one piece of work that shows a response to a piece of literature studied in class. (Examples of work that students might include are: a literature circle assessment, a quiz or test on a novel, a literary analysis essay, etc.)
  • Creativity: select one piece of work that you feel best demonstrates your creativity and skill in representing ideas. (Examples of work that students might include are: about-me type activities, visual character analysis posters, student-created videos, etc.)
  • Collaboration: select one piece of work that shows you worked as a pair or within a group, demonstrating your collaboration skills. (Examples of work that students might include are: peer review activities, group projects, etc.)
Using different categories, such as the above examples, will also help to ensure that students have different opportunities over the term to practice and experience various ELA skills, not always focused on reading or writing. Note: Students should use a different piece of assessment for every category so they will have to make their selections wisely.

Another positive aspect of final portfolios is that the portfolio process is also a great opportunity for teachers to reflect on what has been taught over a term. You can evaluate what worked well over a term and what could be improved. I don't know about you, but I always change things up. I do not suggest you re-do an entire unit, but after reading the reflections, you'll have a good idea of what students felt were the most valuable activities; which ones they learned the most from, which ones they enjoyed or did not enjoy, as well as the kinds of activities they wished they could have completed more of. The best part? You will actually have TIME to do this! While students are writing and reflecting, you have the opportunity to sit with students individually for a few minutes each day and get some instant feedback, in addition to reading their written reflections once they have been handed in. Grab this FREE checklist to take your notes!

Note: If you're strapped for time (or overwhelmed with piles of marking), you can definitely have students present their reflections to you in an interview-style method or as a whole-class activity. Students will still go through the written process of reflecting, but instead of you reading through every reflection, you can jot notes while the presentations are being completed.

It is the students' responsibility to put their graded work into their individual portfolios. Without this work, students will not be able to reflect on their growth. Therefore, portfolios help to hold students accountable and teach them the skill (and importance) of being organized. I bought some dish tubs at a local dollar store and that's all I use to store the portfolios. I keep store them on top of a tall shelf so that they are not easily accessed. Saying that, students definitely ask to refer to past work examples (especially essays), and they are welcome and encouraged to do so, they just have to make sure the portfolio is put back after they are done! So, while you're prepping for your back to school classes, stock up on filing folders and some sort of container (if you don't have space in your filing cabinet). That's all you'll need to get started!
Tip: After grading the portfolios and with permission, make copies of student work as exemplars for future classes! This is one of the most effective ways to show students what exactly is expected. You can use work that has been done very well, as well as work that needed improvement. This way, expectations are clear and there will no excuses.

Portfolios are a great way to keep your courses on track so that you can meet the targets and expectations that were set out during the first few days of a new course. I provide my students with a course anticipation guide, in addition to the course outline, within the first few days of a new class. Grab a FREE version, (generic for English class) HERE! Once we have reviewed the course outline, this anticipation guide not only provides instant feedback about a students' abilities, interests, and educational background, this form will also be used again at the end of the semester so that students can evaluate if their knowledge has changed and to what capacity.

Check out these other resources that coincide with portfolios:

7 Ways to Get to Know Your English Classes

August brings a daunting task: learning the names, personalities, needs, dreams, and abilities of 120+ students as quickly as possible.

In addition, many of our schools expect us (teachers) to get benchmark assessments and quantify growth with data, writing samples, or other diagnostics, which makes learning more visible at the end of the year. But it's equally important to get student information that can't be easily quantified.

I'm using many of the following tools to get to know my students this fall. Some of them will take place in the first days/weeks of school, and others are meant to be used at any time in the year.

Grab this Freebie!

Thanks for reading! Enjoy this FREE Vocabulary Pre-Test, which has 14 common test-taking terms AND room for you to add your own words/questions.

#1: Diagnostic Tests

Easy-to-grade assessments can give you an early heads-up about students' starting points and where you may need to spend extra teaching time. One example is my grammar diagnostic test, which scatters song lyrics throughout the example sentences to keep students engaged in an otherwise-dry assessment.

Bonus: Google Forms is a great way to make your diagnostic a self-grading one! You can use Google Classroom's self-grading options, or just make a Google Form and grade it with the Flubaroo add-on.

(PS: You might like this blog post, "5 Diagnostics to Get to Know Your English Classes")

#2: Writing Samples
We need to know where our students stand as writers, BUT on a practical level, you never know when an administrator or intervention specialist might need you to provide a sample of a specific student's writing.

It can take a class period (or maybe less) to give a timed writing diagnostic, especially if you reassure students that this will not be graded and is just a get-to-know-you moment. (Make it fun with a prompt that will get students riled up!)

#3: Surveys & Check-Ups

Asking the right questions in your back-to-school survey is critical, but it's also helpful to follow up by checking on students throughout the year. Use this (free) check-up form to see how students are doing today.

#4: Informal Discussions
An alternative (or add-on) to surveys is using fun AND serious questions to have brief discussions. If you have a homeroom or want a conversation-starting bell-ringer for your first 30 days, try this paper chain of discussion prompts.

#5: Goal-Setting

Knowing what goals your students have - both academic and personal - can give you an early heads-up about where their motivations lie and how certain lessons or topics might go. But goal-setting is also one of the first, best forms of differentiation you can do in your year.

Try it on a small scale with (free) Goal-Setting Bingo, or make your own Bucket Lists and conduct credible research about what it would take to complete them.

#6: Fun Demonstrations
Sometimes it's best to resist the urge to pre-teach and just let students SHOW you what they are able to do as of this moment. That may be particularly true for public speaking.

My all-time favorite public speaking game is called 15 Minutes of Fame, in which students draw real-world scenarios and take on a character to imitate that kind of speech. It's an informal genre study as well.

#7: Book Talks

It's a win-win if students recommend books for each other AND you get a diagnostic public speaking assessment! Get more ideas here.

Next: Using the Data
Capitalize on the information you've gathered NOW by doing meaningful reflection on student growth at the END of the year. Get ideas in this blog post: How to Show Off Student Work at the End of the School Year

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10 Lessons to Teach at the Beginning of the Year

The bloggers of the Secondary English Coffee Shop are sharing our favorite lessons to teach at the beginning of the school year.  Read below to get ideas for your first day, week, or even month of school!

One of the very first lessons I teach my high school English students is about email etiquette. While this soft skill might not be one of the hard-hitting, content-driven, frequently-tested concepts in our content area, knowing proper email etiquette is a crucial skill for our students. Especially as our older students begin applying for jobs, college, and internships, this is a life skill that they take with them beyond the classroom.  - The Daring English Teacher

Are you bored of the same, "Write about your summer" activities the first week back? I was! So I came up with a more creative way to have students reflect on their summer adventures by answering the question: What if your summer was a movie? You can have them do everything from just writing a title and a plot synopsis, to designing the storyboard, writing a scene script, or even making the movie poster! I do find this works best (and generates the least inappropriate titles ;-)) with middle school students, and it is a fun, engaging, creative way to start the year. - Stacey Lloyd

At the start of the year, I always try to incorporate a fun writing assignment that teaches students the writing process, but also allows them to show their creative side.  One fun lesson/assignment that works well for this is having students invent their own school!  Each student creates a school from scratch.  They decide where the school is, what they will learn, how they are evaluated, who the ideal student is, who the teachers would be and the list goes on.  They write a narrative "day in the life" piece from the perspective of a student on the first day and develop an advertisement to recruit potential students.  The project also allows you to get a glimpse into the students' interests and what they think a perfect school would look like.  The best part about this lesson is that it comes with a hand-drawn video to introduce the project (created by John Spencer) that hooks students in and gets them excited to design their school. - Presto Plans

I like to teach my 9th graders to embed supporting quotes properly, and it feels like a year-long process! 😉 The first time I expose them to this concept is when we read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” I give students a quote, and they build the frame and the claim. Then, they work on building a strong connection between their claim and the chosen quote by brainstorming and writing in pairs. This approach is super scaffolded, but it provides a strong foundation for more source-supported analysis down the road. - Nouvelle ELA

At the start of the year I like to get to know my students and get an idea of where they are with their writing skills. One of the first activities we do is Personal Narrative Writing. Students get to share a little bit about themselves and I get to see how they work through the writing process, how well they can peer edit, and how they problem solve through editing and revising. Because I work with the students through the writing process step-by-step it's a non-threatening way to start off the year. - Addie Williams

I find the year to go much more smoothly if I start with the proper way to cite in writing. Teachers in other content areas expect the students to know this skill, so going through exercises and giving them a flip chart to use for the rest of the year has been beneficial for not only my class but for others. - Tracee Orman

Students arrive in our classrooms with mixed abilities as writers, so it's important to get on the same PAGE (ha) with an Editing Checklist that makes your expectations clear. This flipbook can be used for ANY genre (informative, argumentative, AND narrative), and it includes pointers for document formatting, citations, and grammar! I can't wait to use this to help my students become better independent editors and see better final drafts come in. - Secondary Sara

Like many teachers, I enjoy starting the year with short stories. If you are looking for a creative way to teach the elements of plot, as well as the basics of writing a short story, then I recommend this short story writing flip book. This short story flip book is not only fun to make, but it’s also a convenient size that can be stored in a desk, binder or interactive notebook for quick reference when writing! - The Classroom Sparrow


Whether you are using reading workshop or teaching a full class novel, students need to do some literary analysis, something they struggle to do well. After years of reading poorly done responses and essays, I realized my students were just blindly following a formula without really understanding what they were doing. So, I created a series of lessons and activities designed to help students understand the process. I use them at the beginning of the term, so students have both the language and understanding for everything else that follows. You can read all about it on this blog post. Room 213

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