“It will be different this time,” we tell ourselves each time we begin a new novel. No matter how many times we’ve been there before, we go in with a sense of optimism. We believe that our choice will finally hook the students; they’ll want to read this one. We read the first three chapters in class, get to that point where they have to know what happens next, and then turn them loose to devour the next two chapters for homework.
And then they don’t do it.
I know I’m not alone when I say that this is one of the most frustrating aspects of teaching English. Not only have the students cheated themselves out of the opportunity to read a good book, but they’ve thrown our discussion, activity, or lesson completely off track. How can we talk about this or do that if they haven’t done the reading?
Sadly, I have not discovered a solution. I do have some band-aids—temporary fixes that might heal the problem for the day, and unlike the standard five-question quiz, these techniques have potential to inspire interest in the reading so that students will get on board for the rest of the book.
Here are 10 mostly low-prep options to credit those who did the reading and give the others some insight into what they missed. Give one a try the next time you see students hurriedly flipping through the pages or hear the hushed questions, “Did you read?” “What happened?”
- SparkNotes Summary: Want to see who is reading the book as opposed to the SparkNotes? I learned this amazing idea from Carol Jago at a district inservice: Project the chapter summary from SparkNotes on your screen and ask the students to read the summary and identify three things that happened in the chapter which are not included in the summary. Not only will this identify those who did read, it will provide those who didn’t even read the SparkNotes some background so they won’t be completely lost in the discussion.
- Feeling Response: After a particularly emotional chapter, list four or five “feeling” adjectives on the board (angry, annoyed, outraged, exasperated) and ask the students to choose one (or come up with a better one on their own) that expresses their feelings toward the chapter/character/author. Ask them to explain—in detail—why they feel this way. After collecting the papers, you can ask students to share their responses, sparking a more thoughtful conversation about the events in the chapter than a standard summary.
- Essential Question: You chose the book to connect to the Essential Question. Why write new questions? Direct students back to your essential question and ask them to make connections (or predictions) based on last night’s homework. See if they’re heading in the right direction and redirect as needed.
- Quotable Quote: Choose a quote that relates to character motivation, conflict, or theme from the chapter and ask students to explain the quote in the context of the chapter. If you are teaching more than one class, try to come up with different quotes for each period! Usually, you’ll find powerful quotes near the end of a chapter or section. For example, you could use, “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired” for Chapter Four of The Great Gatsby—Nick thinks of this quote after Jordan reveals the backstory between Daisy and Gatsby. Asking students to explain this quote in the context of the chapter would allow them to address all five characters.
- Student Questions: Rather than quizzing students with questions of our own device, let their entrance slips serve as the discussion starters for the day. I use Thick & Thin questions with students all the time; with practice, they can write some very solid questions. You can put together your own question starters (just Google Thick & Thin questions) or use my reference cards that include question stems and guide students to look at specific text features for literary or informational text.
- Twenty in Ten: I saw this idea on a blog post about creating meaningful worksheets. The teacher gives the students 20 thought-provoking questions about an aspect of the book (a character, key idea, or the plot) and asks them to answer the questions in ten minutes. Combine questions from teaching guides with your own questions and student-developed questions from the Thick & Thin activities to come up with twenty different (but maybe somewhat overlapping) questions about an element of the book. Check out his sample questions on Caliban in The Tempest to get a feel for the approach.
- Oral Discussion: Use the same questions you would use for the Twenty in Ten activity to turn a written task into a class discussion. You can use the tried-and-true popsicle stick technique to select random students to answer your questions. Record tally marks on a roster to track their responses (points?) throughout the reading of the book. Another option is to record each student’s name on an index card, shuffle the cards, and choose one at random. You can record a plus, check, or minus and the date on the card to track their reading responses.
- Chalk Talk (Silent Collaboration): I’ve seen many variations of this idea, but my favorite for a reading check is the whole-class approach. To track individual contributions, you can make notes on your roster/index cards, or just sit back and let it happen and then use the written responses to award credit. Students take turns visiting the board and adding to a word web about the idea/character/event started by the teacher. Once the board is full, students can use the ideas on the board to write a response to the reading. You might ask them to use five words from the board, for example, in their response. The written responses will show you who has read; those who haven’t read may be inspired by the ideas on the board to begin reading.
- Connections: This strategy might take a little work, but it’s worth it. Start collecting connections—photographs, songs, poems, video clips, or news articles—that relate to particular sections of the book and then use these as a “thinking prompt” to get students started at the beginning of class. Ask them to make the connection between a photograph and the characters, events, or ideas from last night’s reading. You can build your collection by asking students to bring in connections, too.
- Moments: Ask students to specify the most important “moment” in the assigned reading and then explain why they think it is important. They should relate their chosen moment to other events within the selection to illustrate its significance. Even though they get to choose their own moment, their explanation should make it clear whether they have or have not read the rest of the text. To start discussion for the day, share a few of the moments from the class and let others debate their significance.
One final suggestion—mix it up! Use different strategies with each period each day to keep your “quiz questions” from being shared between classes. It should be pretty easy to do, too, because these are all rather easy-to-implement reading checks. Do you have any quick checks you can add to the list? Please share them in the comments!