Assessing Readers: My (Hopefully Not Too Much) Failed Experiment

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The “Bookstore”

I’m so excited to share with you about the new reading program our local bookstore has implemented!  After shopping there over the holidays and experiencing the program firsthand, I’ve become such a believer in how it will help create a community of readers in my town.

The owner has meticulously arranged the books on color-coded shelves according to their level.  I didn’t have to worry about knowing which section was best for me: she made it simple by adding kiosks where patrons take a quick test, and it prints out a colored bracelet corresponding to a designated section!

Another perk is the free gift with each purchase.  Every book comes with its own multiple-choice test that measures the reader’s comprehension of the book!  I purchased Pax by Sara Pennypacker and was pleased to see my test included low-level, detail oriented questions like, “What foods did Vola pack for Peter when he left?” and “How many siblings did Bristle have?” The final essay question was thought-provoking but didn’t count towards my score of 9/10 (I forgot which foot Peter broke.).

I was so thrilled that I returned to the bookstore ready for more!  Thankfully, my score on Pax allowed me to purchase more books from my designated section.  I ended up buying 4 books because she had a special going—for every 5 books with a score of 80% or better, you get a free bookmark!  

I can definitely see why this bookstore is the busiest place in town!

Said no one ever.

Yet this bookstore seems strangely familiar.  Can you put your finger on it?  My students can. This scenario is how they perceive reading.  This is the portrait of reading that school has painted.

The Readers

I’ve delved deeper into this unfortunate truth since teaching a new course for seventh graders identified as struggling readers.  In place of a chosen class like art or STEM, they were enrolled in Reading Remediation.  Understandably, this didn’t help their case of reading resentment, which would be a more appropriate name for the class.

On the outside, my students look lazy.  They are masters of fake reading.  They wander aimlessly around questions about a text.  They either abandon a book by page two or trudge through it for months at a time.  For my students, book choices revolve around the most pictures or the flashiest cover.  They’ve felt singled out, out of place, out of time, and left behind.  They’ve made progress throughout the years, but slowly and usually unnoticeably.  They’ve been nagged by teachers, teased by peers, moved around by specialists, and passed on to me.

In an effort to begin the thawing process of their cold reading hearts, we adopted a flexible take on the whole reading mess.  Emphasizing access, choice, and time, I’ve leveraged everything I can to get books in their hands and a love of reading in their souls.  We focused all semester on comprehension strategies: tools any reader at any level can use to understand a text.  It seemed to be working, so I put them to the test.

The Test

Rather than fall into the tragic bookstore trap of tests and prizes, I designed the perfect semester exam project. I asked my students to become teachers of comprehension strategies.  After all, you only really know something if you can teach it well.  We put on our teacher hats and designed lesson plans, chose anchor texts, and prepared presentations.  In fact, this very post was supposed to be about how my readers did such fantastic work that we took our show on the road and shared our lessons with the advanced English class down the hall.  I planned to highlight how my brilliant students knocked down the wall between remedial and honors and showed the world that a reader is a reader no matter the label.

Did you hear that?  

The loud bang coming from my classroom?  

That was the sound of my perfect idea bombing.

The Problem

In a failed attempt to avoid the strictly-leveled, over-tested, carrot-and-stick experience of the bookstore, I inadvertently asked my students to do exactly what the well-meaning bookstore owner did.  I set out a single path for showing what they know.  I asked 86 readers to demonstrate mastery one way.

That’s not real life.  That’s not what they needed.  That’s what they get in every other class all day.  Read this, do that. That’s school.  So far for my 86, school hasn’t worked for creating confident readers.  

What then?  Book report alternatives abound on the web, but that’s not my fix.  Book trailers and book talks are fabulous, but that won’t do it.  Reading journals and daily conversations about books work wonders, but those are just a start.

The Solution

While searching for the solution, I looked around the teacher’s lounge at my fellow real life readers.  What does Mrs. H do after finishing a book?  She hits the blogs to read everyone’s hypothesis about what the author meant by those final three words.  Ms. P flips through all her favorite underlined parts while Mrs. M slams it down and storms out quite dissatisfied with the cliffhanger.  Mr. W takes to Twitter to thank the author for a great read and write a quick review.

Right now I look across the dining room table where my husband is currently reading a thick nonfiction book about business while he waits for his video game to load.  Beside him is a pen and pad with a list of pages he wants me to read.  No one taught us how to do any of this; it’s just what we do.

Our natural responses to reading are exactly that—natural and completely our own.

We can’t teach it, but we can foster it.

We can’t test it, but we can model it.  

We can stop asking, “Did you understand this book? Prove it,” and start asking, “How did you understand this book? Show me.”

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