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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Where Reading Logs Fail’

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 09, 2019 16 min read
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

Should “reading logs” be assigned to students and, if not, what are alternatives?

In Part One, Mary Beth Nicklaus, Beth Jarzabek, Jennifer Casa-Todd, Jennifer Orr, and Leah Wilson contribute their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Mary Beth and Beth on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Laura Robb, Melissa Miles, Ryan Huels, and Rinard Pugh shared their thoughts.

Today, Tan Huynh, Rich Czyz, Christine Tennyson, Mara Lee Grayson, and Diane Mora write their commentaries on the topic.

Response From Tan Huynh

Tan Huynh (@TanELLclassroom) is a career teacher specializing in language acquisition. Tan has taught students from 5th to 12th grade in public schools, private boarding schools, and charter schools. Internationally, Tan has taught in schools in China, Laos, and Vietnam. He shares teaching strategies on his blog, Empowering ELLs, and has provided professional development in places such as China, Thailand, Singapore, Italy, and Canada. Tan’s goal is to support all teachers who are committed to empowering English-learners whether it be in a tweet, a blog post, a book, a training, a course, or over coffee:

The question is not about whether we should or should not assign reading logs. The real question is: Why do we want students to read? Do we want them to develop a love of reading or just get a piece of paper signed showing that they’ve read? Do reading logs spur students to read, or are they just an accountability tool?

Where Reading Logs Fail

How did JK Rowling get millions of people to read the Harry Potter series? She certainly didn’t do so by having students complete reading logs. Rather, she wrote a story that invited engagement, opinion, imagination, and wonder. But something funny happens when you ask a child to log and summarize these engaging stories at home: Reading becomes a task to check off, rather than an experience to relish.

When I assigned reading logs that required students to write about what they read at home, I noticed students using creative ways to write summaries without actually reading the book. So I moved to having parents sign the reading logs, but I quickly learned that parents often sign them just to move on to other errands.

In short, the reading log was a failed system. In our attempt to introduce students to a life-enriching skill, we enforce systems that kill the joy of reading to keep them accountable.

How In-Class Reading Time Can Work

I’ve since moved on to providing 15 minutes of in-class reading time. Students pick a book, grab a cushion, and curl in a corner to read. I float around the room having mini conversations about their books to gauge their understanding, interest, and how well the book fits with their reading level. For English-learners, I ask them to read aloud and I help them develop their decoding skills.

Where Informal Book Reviews Come In

I have students do nothing besides reading during this sacred 15 minutes. No summaries, no tracking, no book talk—just reading. When students have finished a book, I just want them to do what many readers do: Write a review. Amazon, Goodreads, and dozens of other websites thrive off of the reviews provided by their engaged, adult readers. Having students write a book review naturally matches what adult readers do outside of school. After all, as adults, who actually creates a book report when they’ve finished reading a book?

Because technology makes learning even more engaging, I have students record their book reviews on Flipgrid. They simply have to describe the main event and explain how they liked the book. If reading is a lifelong skill, then having students provide a book review is a lifelong activity worth instilling.

We can never guarantee that a student has read at home, so getting a sheet of paper signed by parents is a rickety accountability system. If we value students developing a love of reading, then I suggest carving out the time to allow students to read for enjoyment in class itself without extraneous tasks, such as poster making, book reports, and reading logs, that have little translation to the adult world.

Response From Rich Czyz

Rich Czyz is the author of The Four O’Clock Faculty: A ROGUE Guide to Revolutionizing Professional Development and co-founder of the Four O’Clock Faculty Blog. He is currently an elementary principal in New Jersey and a former 5th grade and basic-skills math teacher as well as a curriculum supervisor and director of curriculum & instruction. Rich is passionate about engaging all stakeholders in meaningful and relevant learning opportunities:

I can remember a time when my two children sat down to do homework, and both had to complete their “reading logs.” Two completely different children. Two completely different readers. One of them had a book in her hands since birth, excited by books, and constantly reading the longest of fiction books. One of them took a little longer to read but was also excited by books, nonfiction books about space, graphic novels, and how-to books.

The one common thread among their reading experiences was their dislike for reading logs. While one of them wanted to read constantly, she did not want to take the time to write down what she read, because it took away time from actually reading! I would like to believe that reading logs were invented by someone with the best of intentions for a child just like my other daughter. We need to make sure that she is reading, but documenting it on a reading log became a struggle for both of us. There are days that she doesn’t want to read, and that’s OK, as long as we still encourage her to read the books and other sources that she wants to read (newspapers or cereal boxes, anyone).

So if not reading logs, then what? Let’s try some of these alternatives:

  1. Allow choice. Let students decide how they will demonstrate that they have read. They may want to journal, create a book website, or just talk to a friend about the book they are reading. If you must, let the student know that they will need to demonstrate that they are reading and let them figure out the way that it will be demonstrated.

  2. Take a Shelfie or create a #BookSnap! Students can take a picture of their latest reads and post online via social media or on a classroom bulletin board. Let the students share via pictures and connect with others around the powerful shared experience of reading.

  3. Create book trailers or book podcasts. Students can create trailers for their favorite books to preview them for classmates or other readers. Let their excitement about a particular book, magazine, or series come across in other forms of creation, like a podcast all about Harry Potter or the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.

  4. Let students blog about reading. Guess what? The adults who are the most excited about reading books go online and share in the joy of books. They write about them. They seek out recommendations about similar books. They enjoy talking about what they are reading. Give students the same experience. Have students share responses and comment on peer blogs, make recommendations. You can even share with authors and invite them to read and comment.

  5. Go simple. Try a book blurb. Let students write a quick recommendation on a thought bubble and post on a shelf along with the book. Start your day by asking students to talk for two minutes with a classmate about what they are reading.

  6. This one may be the best, but most controversial suggestion. Simply let students enjoy reading. As an adult, when was the last time you documented how many pages of a book you read? You never have. You simply read because you enjoy what you are reading. Let’s let students experience that joy as well.

Response From Christine Tennyson

Christine Tennyson is a veteran teacher of ELs and regularly participates in #ellchat-bkclub. You can follow her @cbtennyson:

To Log or Not to Log

At the beginning of every year, I made all my copies I used to use all year long. One of my favorites was my green reading log. I required my students to read a total of 100 minutes a year at 20 minutes a day. They were to read and have their parents sign off on these little green sheets when they saw them reading. I justified this action by a graphic circling the internet from a study by Nagy and Herman (1987) in which they found that children learn to read and internalize vocabulary the more minutes they read each day. I, like many teachers, thought this translated to requiring students to read and keep track of their learning. While I knew students could be lying or forging signatures, I plowed on requiring students to read and keep up with their minutes. Eventually, I quit requiring parent signatures due to a change of heart, realizing that many parents worked evenings and would not see their children. Still, I kept the weekly green reading-log requirement alive and well in my class. My English-learners need the requirement, or they would not read on their own, I theorized. I also really liked copying my little green logs.

The research on the exact usage of reading logs was scarce until Pak (2012) published her research finding that the mandatory requirement for reading logs decreased the interest many readers had in reading. It took a while for this information to filter to classroom teachers, but now there is a cry against reading logs and their inclusion in a reading curriculum. Now, many of us reading-log believers are questioning our lifelong practice. More importantly, we are now searching for better ways to “get” students to read. BUT, will students, especially English-learners, read if we don’t require them to? In addition, how do we challenge them or any student to fall in love with reading?

For this, there is a simple solution; give students books they want to read. Nashville high school teacher Jarred Amato found this solution through a classroom project. After reading an article on Book Deserts, Amato and his class explored ways to improve book access (Amato, 2018). As a result, they created a national, grassroots movement, Project LIT Community. The idea behind this reading community is for students to read relevant, quality material. The best part is that it was student-created and encourages student leadership when choosing books. The controversial part, and this educator’s favorite, is that it challenges the sacred cannon of what students should read in secondary school. Perhaps this is the key to the community’s growth and students’ engagement in reading. When students can see themselves reflected in the characters and have a voice in what they are reading, making reading a requirement is not necessary. In other words, reading engagement comes from finding things we love to read and sends the little green logs to the retired curriculum ideas in the sky.

For teachers of English-learners, this lesson is extremely important, and my own experience lends to this conclusion. Throughout my career, I sought books where my characters could find themselves, not necessarily culturally but with a journey to a new land theme. Three of the most popular books my students have enjoyed are The Circuit by Francisco Jimenez, Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate Di Camillo. In each story, the main character leaves home, voluntarily or not, to find a new home. All characters have struggled with communication and finding a place in their new situation. Since my discovery of Project LIT Community, I have learned how important it is to expand my own selection of books for students.

Amato, J. (2018). Learn more about Project LIT Community in Human Restoration Project podcast. Retrieved from https://jarredamato.wordpress.com/2018/05/.

Nagy, W., Anderson, R., & Herman, P. (1987). Learning Word Meanings from Context during Normal Reading. American Educational Research Journal, 24(2), 237-270. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1162893

Pak, S. (2012). The effect of mandatory reading logs on children’s motivation to read. Journal of Research in Education, 22, 251-265.

Response From Mara Lee Grayson

Dr. Mara Lee Grayson is an assistant professor of English at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Her scholarship and creative work can be found in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, English Education, English Journal, Columbia Journal, and Fiction, among other publications. Her book, Teaching Racial Literacy: Reflective Practices for Critical Writing, provides practical suggestions for instructors seeking to implement anti-racist curricula in the composition classroom:

The Usefulness of a Reading Log Depends Upon Why We’re Using It

What is the purpose of a reading log? What does it tell us about our students? Whether or not we assign reading logs to our students should depend upon how we answer these two questions. Here are three perspectives on reading logs and three potential ways to approach the assignment:

  1. “I assign reading logs because I want my students to read at home.”

This is, arguably, why most of us have assigned reading logs at some point. Unfortunately, while the reading log may initially put some pressure on students to keep up an at-home reading practice, there is little evidence reading logs encourage students to keep up that practice long term. In fact, because students (and adults!) often resist mandated work, emotionally if not practically, even if students do read at home, it is unlikely they will enjoy it. If this is your only rationale for assigning reading logs, frankly, just don’t bother.

  1. “I assign readings logs to see what my students are reading at home.”

Reading logs may tell us what our students are reading, but they don’t tell us why—and isn’t the reason far more interesting? An example: After collecting this week’s reading logs from your 8th graders, you learn that both Tanya and Jessie are reading books from the Twilight series. First, you think they’ve got common interests, so it might make sense to put them together for a pair and share Monday. What you haven’t learned is that while Tanya is drawn to the star-crossed romance of the stories, Jessie is fascinated with vampires because, she insists, they defy science and medicine. Knowing this might encourage you to suggest that Tanya read Romeo and Juliet and point Jessie toward some literary science writing or the stories of poet-physician William Carlos Williams.

To learn why students read what they read, here’s a better approach: Ask them. When a student completes a book, assign a one-page reflection paper or diary entry addressing the following: Why did you choose this book? Did you enjoy reading it? Did anything surprise you? Did anything disappoint you? If you have the in-class time, have a reading check-in day, on which you go around the room and invite students to discuss their answers to these questions with you and each other.

  1. “I assign reading logs because my students love lists.”

They are rare, but these students exist. I know because I was one of them. To this day, I keep a digital list of every full-length book I finish (be it a novel, poetry collection, or scholarly text). I get a rush of accomplishment each time I add a new title to the list. As an adult, reading logs help me keep track of what I’ve been doing with my reading time: If I notice I’ve been reading nothing but scholarship, I’ll read a chapbook of poems; if I’ve been on a mystery-novel jaunt for months, I’ll grab a monograph on learning theory off my bookshelf. Reading logs also help me see what ideas I’ve been interested in at different points in my life and how I’ve evolved as a reader and scholar. This isn’t, however, an organic practice; while the reading log was never assigned to me in school, my father, a stage director and professor who kept a yellowed moleskin journal filled with book titles on his antique writer’s desk, taught it to me. Maybe more kids would enjoy keeping reading logs if they knew why teachers assigned them.

Like most assignments, the reading log is only as good as the rationale behind it—and our students’ eventual understanding of its intentions and outcomes. While our youngest students may not grasp fully the assignment’s theoretical undergirding or its pedagogical implications, they should be told enough that they—and their parents—don’t interpret the assignment as busy work. Only once we know our students and communicate with them and their parents can we ensure an effective, student-responsive approach to assigning reading logs.

Response From Diane Mora

Diane Mora, M.A. Ed., has been teaching writing in ESL programs internationally and in the U.S. for 12 years. Currently, she is passionate about teaching writing and literacy skills to SLIFE students who are also ELs at East High School in Kansas City, Mo.:

I don’t utilize reading logs, but that’s not to say they might not work for someone else in their classroom. What I prefer (and require) is that students self-select one book each quarter on which to create a “book talk.” I have specific parameters of what must be included in the book talk. It can be a live presentation, or students can record it as a movie; either way, they are required to support their discussion with images that communicate the setting, characters, main ideas, and theme of the book. Students must also give a recommendation about the book, which can be a dissatisfactory one if that’s the case.

I find that book talks are a lot more engaging, and they give students an opportunity to share favorite titles with each other in a way that reading logs don’t offer. I realize that I might not be capturing every single title a student reads in a quarter, but what book talks lack in quantity they more than make up for in depth.

I model book talks once a week from books in our classroom library that I think students will enjoy or from author book talks I find on YouTube. Sometimes I will record a student’s live book talk or obtain the link to a student’s book-talk movie and ask our school librarian to post it in her monthly library newsletter to encourage schoolwide reading.

Thanks to Tan, Rich, Christine, Mara Lee, and Diane for their contributions.

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