Better Reading Assessments

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I think assessment matters but grades matter much less.  The following excerpt from Hacking Literacy outlines a problem with literacy assessment (it can kill the love of reading) and a solution (design assessments that build community).

Reading assessment becomes a strictly extrinsic motivator in many classrooms. Teachers reward kids with grades to push them to read or they threaten failure for not reading enough. Conflating assessment with rewards causes student motivation to suffer. It’s human nature to take the shortest route to get the reward. When grades are the goal, assessment backfires, resulting in students reading SparkNotes, watching the movie version, asking friends to summarize a book, or simply lying about reading (see: fake reading). The last thing educators intend is to endorse lying and cheating, but an assessment system centered only on earning grades and extrinsic rewards encourages these behaviors.

An assessment system centered only on earning grades and extrinsic rewards encourages dishonest behaviors.

Some teachers might argue that they need traditional assessment practices to keep records and measure student growth. Even if they agree that grades and rewards should not be used to force reading upon kids, they are willing to accept poor assessment practices that are not in the students’ best interests for the sake of data. Yes, quizzes, reading logs, and multiple-choice tests provide quantifiable data and are convenient for updating a gradebook, but their efficiency does not mean that they are the best ways to assess learning.

Some assessment strategies are intended to offer information to the teacher and nothing more. While these assessments may be well intended, they often work against teachers’ efforts to help readers improve, simply because students approach the assessments as games, not as opportunities to deepen their reading experience. While assessment strategies designed for teacher convenience and efficiency might work for some students and teachers in some situations, they are unlikely to foster a love of reading. Few, if any, adult readers judge their performances based on multiple-choice quizzes or record their start and end times to determine fluency or commitment.

If we want to build a culture that inspires students to become lifelong readers, students should mimic the behaviors of real, engaged readers. Teachers can design assessments that yield information about a student’s knowledge and ability to read a text without killing the reading experience. Not only should teachers avoid assessments that encourage students to game the system, but they can effect assessments that deepen the culture of reading.

Effective reading assessments are predicated on determining student response to a text. Teachers need students to share their thinking about and knowledge of a text to measure their understanding. When students show what they know and can do, teachers gain information they can use for further instruction. Responses may take the form of speaking, writing, or another form of representation such as a piece of artwork, a design, or a song to demonstrate understanding of a text.

Students genuinely want to create quality responses when they communicate their experiences of a text to a real audience.

The first step in implementing assessments that build community is to create assessment opportunities that are intrinsically valuable to students. Students feel that an activity has inherent value when they communicate with their classmates about topics or texts that interest them and when they exercise their creativity to make interesting things. Students genuinely want to create quality responses when they communicate their experiences of a text to a real audience.

How? Design the assessment process to build community

To develop meaningful assessments, seek real-world models. You might begin by listing the behaviors a typical reader might exhibit outside the classroom. This list will become the basis for a system of authentic assessments. An engaged reader might:

  • Listen to a friend’s recommendations to evaluate the book’s suitability.
  • Read reviews on Goodreads or another social media platform.
  • Participate in discussions with other readers, addressing a book’s ambiguities, interesting moments, character motivations, or the author’s style.
  • Rate the book and write a review. This might be published on Goodreads, Amazon, a blog, or recorded in a private list of books.
  • Write to reflect on the reading experience, document observations about the content, and recommend it to certain types of readers. This might be published on a shared or personal blog.
  • Tell friends about the book to persuade them of its quality or to inform them of its content.

Teachers will find the items on this list valuable as they facilitate a culture of reading in their classrooms. Rather than simply being a measure of compliance, these activities deepen the reading experience for students, encouraging them to fashion strong identities as readers. They also provide valuable information about a student’s ability and knowledge, both during and after the reading process.

Good assessments deepen the reading experience for students, encouraging them to fashion strong identities as readers.

The benefit of this sort of activity to assess reading lies not only in the students’ authentic motivation to excel, but in building the community of readers. The student audience benefits from the work of their peers as they model personal and critical responses to texts. They see real-life exemplars sharing thoughts about texts in both formal and informal contexts.

The interactions between readers offer opportunities for evaluation, both with regard to the quality of student work and whether the text under consideration appeals to personal reading preferences. Integrating the process of assessment into the everyday work of the classroom in this way forges connections between students and establishes the classroom as a community of readers. Assessment no longer takes place in isolation; rather, the social nature of genuinely sharing thoughts about books creates an aspect of social accountability and normalcy to reading and finishing books. Reading becomes an expectation, an essential aspect of participating in class culture.

Adapting the habits of readers into assessment tools accomplishes two things: Students enjoy a more positive reading experience, and teachers gain insight into meaningful aspects of each student’s ability. Unlike multiple-choice quizzes, low-level questioning, and required essays, authentic assessments will inspire students to read more instead of relying on tricks and deception to earn grades without reading.

This article introduces some introductory ideas for shifting literacy assessment. As with many things in teaching, it’s not all or nothing. These ideas comprise some of the first steps towards moving assessment from an event that happens for teacher convenience or administrative mandate to an event that deepens the culture of reading in a classroom.

What are the most effective literacy assessments you’ve tried? What assessments get kids excited about reading?


Cancel your participation plan. Create speaking events instead.

Here’s an embarrassing story that taught me a lesson:

Setting: my old classroom in northern NJ, sometime in the 2010s, 9:43 AM

As I rounded the back left corner of desks, a student elbowed another.  Feeling the nudge, she covered her notebook. On the page I caught a glimpse of the words “Mr. Dawson” and some tally marks. They traded nervous smiles.

Then it hit me. They were counting something about me. And if they were keeping a log in a notebook, it must be something I did A LOT.

“So, I’m pretty sure I know what that is.  If it’s something I say or I do over and over, I’d really like to know. I’d really like to try to work on it.”

They hesitated, but one girl let it out: “It’s every time you say ‘you know what I mean?'”

Just to emphasize, there were A LOT of tally marks.

My face felt flush, and I was self-conscious for the rest of class. But in retrospect, that was a great day. From then on, I knew the impact that my speaking ability has on my students. Because if they are counting my verbal tics in their notebook, they aren’t learning.

Since then, teaching students to speak with confidence has become important to me. In fact, I’ve probably spent a disproportionate amount of time on it. This spring, I received this email from a student, which showed me that it may be time well spent:


An email from a student who noticed an improvement in her speaking skills.


I’d like to highlight one phrase. Can you spot it?

This student did not thank me for “a magic trick for better speaking.” No, she thanked me for doing “so many class discussions.”  Like many parts of life, getting better at speaking requires putting in the practice.

This article is about a big shift to the way we have students practice speaking. Don’t panic, though. There are two simple steps at the bottom of the article. If you like the big ideas that follow, you can get started using those first steps. 

How does speaking in class usually happen? I think back to my time as a student and it varies.

Class participation vs. speaking events

Three types of speaking I experienced in college:

  • A class where students had to speak 2-3 times daily for an “A.” The teacher asked a question then called on every student with a hand up. Students did not have to interact with each other. They just had to speak.
  • A sociology class where a student accused another of doing charity work only to feel good about himself. The accused student responded to everyone’s surprise, “Yea, you might be right.”  This was after a long exchange between the students as the rest of the class listened.
  • The presentation of my final teaching portfolio to Mr. Mahoney and another gentleman. I gave a presentation on my student teaching experience, then fielded questions.

What can I learn from these three memories?

In the first example, speaking was a chore, a rule. It was a box to check.

In the second, the teacher created conditions where students could interact like that. They gave each other honest criticism. AND were willing to accept it. I don’t know remember those classmates’ names, but I remember the learning from that class.

In the third example, I had to battle my nerves to speak well. I had to plan, prepare, and practice. There were real audience members. I wanted to impress my teachers.

The first example is class participation taken to the extreme. The second two examples are speaking events.

To get clear on terms, consider the connotations of requirement vs. event:

A requirement is something we have to do. It’s bureaucratic. It’s boring. It’s a motion. It’s done. Next.

An event is something that we look forward to. We plan for it. We prepare for it. If we are in the audience, it excites us. If we are on stage, it excites and scares us. Afterwards, we’re satisfied. We talk about it. We review it. And we look forward to the next time it happens.

Some examples of speaking requirements turned into speaking events:

Forget typical debates or discussions. Use pop-up debates instead.

What is it: It’s a discussion protocol I learned about from Dave Stuart. It asks students to discuss a debatable question or topic. The catch? Students must “pop up” from their seats and stand before speaking to their classmates.

Why it works: The typical class discussion becomes a public speaking opportunity. When students pop-up, they take an active role in showing others that they have a point to make. They need to take the initiative to speak.  I recommend Dave’s Pop-Up Debate Starter Kit (I did not get paid to say that). I used the slides he includes in the Kit dozens of times last year.

How to start: Ask students to stand up before speaking instead of raising their hands. Some students will find this awkward. That’s ok. The shift that this makes on the mood of the discussion will surprise you.

Forget boring PowerPoints. Use Ignite talks instead.

What is it: This is a five-minute presentation with 20 auto-advance slides.  Slides feature images or phrases, not bullet points with a sea of text. Generally, speakers do not use notes or any other aids.

Why it works: The Ignite talk dramatically raises the stakes of presentations. This cannot be under-emphasized. There is no winging it. These presentations compel students to learn their material. They need to rehearse over and over again if they want to succeed.

I gave one of these talks to my sophomores before they delivered theirs. It was one of the most challenging presentations I’ve given.

Disclaimer: the auto-advancing slides have ruined some student presentations. Students who underestimate the task stare at me for the last 45 seconds of the presentation. Emphasizing rehearsal is essential for this speaking event.

How to start: Ask students to give one-minute talks on a topic of their choice without using any notes or guides. Ask students to use images or phrases on their slideshows instead of bullet points.

Like with cold calling, students feel nervous before these speaking events. Raising the stakes puts positive pressure on students to deliver their best in class.  We must provide clear guidance and instruction when assigning and planning these events. Then, we can trust that we’re helping students build speaking skills for life.

Have you used pop-up debates? Ignite talks? How do you turn speaking into an event? Share with fellow teachers in the comments.

Get my best free tips on grading better


Subscribe now to get instant access.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit
Want more? Check out


Seeds for Reading Lives: the Digital Scavenger Hunt

Most of what a literacy teacher does comes down to figuring out how to show instead of tell. If I want students to understand fluent reading, I show them better read alouds.  If I want students to understand revision, I show them real peer feedback. So when it comes to developing real reading lives, I have to show students the specific steps that real readers take.

All students will like the right book, but not all know how to find it. In the beginning of the year, I do the following activity to specifically show students how to systematically find books that they will enjoy. This process is adapted from chapter one of Hacking Literacy.

The purpose of the digital scavenger hunt is to show students where they can find and read books online. This will help them grow their To Read lists, and it shows them how to look for books at any time with a mobile device. This activity works well as a scavenger hunt because it includes specific tasks for students to complete in a determined sequence. The students bring back artifacts from the scavenger hunt in the form of screenshots, indicating that they’ve completed the tasks.

Typically, our scavenger hunt includes the following tasks:

A. Access

  1. Create a Goodreads account.
  2. Join the class Goodreads group. (This is not imperative, but it allows students to communicate easily about their reading choices.)
  3. Add books to your bookshelf, placing them on “read,” “to-read,” and “currently-reading” lists.
  4. Write a short review of a book you’ve enjoyed in the past.
  5. Find the teacher’s account and the school librarian’s account and friend them. (Goodreads is fairly devoid of personal information, so many teachers feel comfortable letting their students connect with them on this platform in a way they might not on other platforms, like Facebook, for example.)

B. Search for a book recommendation list that appeals to you, like Time’s The 100 Best YA Books of All Time:

  1. Skim through the list.
  2. Find two to three choices that look interesting.
  3. Add these to your To Read list.

C. Open

  1. Search for one book you want to read and use the “Look inside” feature to preview it.
  2. Look at the “Customers who viewed this item also bought” section to get additional book recommendations.

D. Sign in to the school library’s digital catalog:

  1. Look up a book that you want to read.
  2. Determine if the book is checked out or available.

E. Go to*:

  1. Create an account.
  2. Click on topics that you are interested in. (The site gives students many options, such as gaming, sports, and fashion.)
  3. Find the individual sites or blogs about those topics.
  4. Add as many of those sites to your feed as you’d like.
  5. Click into an article, preview it, and visit the website where it was originally published.

*Feedly is an online RSS (really simple syndication) reader. When news websites or blogs are updated, an RSS reader automatically takes those updates and posts them in a user’s RSS feed. When students set up their Feedly accounts and select topics and sites that interest them, they are creating a personalized nonfiction reading list. Each time they log into Feedly, their feed will be populated by the most recently published articles related to all of the topics they have selected.

To provide evidence that they’ve accomplished each task, students show the teacher screenshots of their work. For example, when a student makes a Goodreads profile and fills the bookshelf, he or she takes a screenshot of the online bookshelf and adds it to a Google Doc. The assignment is finished when the student has completed all of the tasks on the scavenger hunt, has taken a screenshot of each task, and has added new books to his or her “To Read” list based on recommendations they have discovered.

Like everything in the practice of teaching, one and done doesn’t cause change. The real work comes throughout the year, as students use this foundation to continuously find books that they enjoy, talk with each other about them, and work with the teacher to improve.

How do you cultivate students’ reading lives? Share in the comments.

PS: Thanks to Katie Cubano, Amy Gazaleh, Casey Fox, and Carrie Ross for sharing activities with me that inspired this idea.

For the new economy, curiosity before literacy

We exist in a world of uncertainty.

The following are true now and getting truer:

The traditional career path of high school > college  > lifelong career > stable retirement with pension is fading or gone in many industries.

My generation is crippled by student loan debt. This affects the decision to buy houses, pursue certain careers, and start families. This may affect students’ decisions to pursue traditional education paths in the future.  

My generation might not do better than my parents’ generation did.  According to a 2014 article from the Pew Research Center:

[A]fter adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power as it did in 1979, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. In fact, in real terms the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 has the same purchasing power as $22.41 would today.

So, many people cannot rely on checking the boxes of a standard education and hope to live a comfortable middle-class existence. Further, consider our education system, which trends towards standardization and compliance. This creates workers that meet the needs of large corporations, the same corporations that are not paying workers any better than they were a few decades ago.

How do we teach when we’ve realized this?

An antidote to uncertainty is curiosity.

Before this post gets too bleak, let’s pause for a moment. With the decline of the traditional career path, there is also a never-before-seen opportunity for learning. Students can learn anything right now if they want to. See YouTube, Khan Academy, Udemy, etc. Most of the classic books are available for free online, too.  You can learn to code without leaving your basement.

So if content is ubiquitous and free, then what has value? It’s the desire to learn all this stuff.

Curiosity is the valuable asset for students today. Its the difference between wasting hours on smart phone apps, or teaching oneself to build their own.

Does literacy get in the way?

Ironically, our pursuit of literacy skills may stifle this super-valuable curiosity.

If a student is curious about becoming a physical therapist, she will read dense anatomy texts.  A student who is curious about video games will read an eleven-part series about dragons.  A student who is curious about the military will read maps, charts, primary source documents, and other stuff that would be classified as rigorous. Those are just the first three examples I can think of from this past school year.

But the opposite is not likely. Forcing students into better reading skills doesn’t lead to curiosity. Sometimes, I do too much literary analysis.  I inadvertently encourage fake reading. I assign bad reading homework.  I may do these things in the name of increasing student literacy skills, but they are not likely to lead to authentic curiosity. Students need both.

Sometimes, I have to step back from getting students to read grade-level texts independently. I need to focus on getting kids interested in learning and trust that it will lead to them learning through engaged reading.

Let’s lead with curiosity.

Consider this story, excerpted from chapter 1 of Hacking Literacy:

So, while I had to alter my approach and expectations, I’d argue that Kyle was moving in the right direction. He was moving towards intellectual curiosity and, hopefully, towards engaged reading. This is the type of behavior that students need–now, more than ever.

What other skills are more valuable today than ever? Share in the comments.


Less analysis, more craft

Getting kids engaged in reading has a few clear ingredients:

  • Access to lots of great books
  • Time to read those books in a comfortable place
  • Opportunities to think about those books alone and with others
  • Encouragement and guidance from a better reader

And getting kids engaged in reading takes them a long way. But I also want to push students forward in their reading. Some students will read twenty easy fantasy books in a school year if it was up to them. Michael will read ten books about Derek Jeter and call it a year. Katie will read every Jenny Han book she can get her hands on. This is all great.

There’s a problem I notice when we make the change from encouraging engagement to improving skills. When it comes to engagement, we can see the kids reading. We can see them finish books. They come ask for a new one. The problem is that when we move to lessons about teacher-selected texts, just asking kids to read it is often not enough. We want to see their thinking. Do they get it?

Too often, the way that we ask kids to show their thinking kills the reading experience. It promotes fake reading. English teachers place too much emphasis on literary analysis.

Focusing on the author’s craft creates better results for me.

Here are two ways we can do this:

Have students identify and discuss the author’s craft: Give students two excerpts by the same author. Have them pick out the diction, syntax, and specific writing moves that this writer does across the two texts. When students notice that, just like their favorite athletes, musicians, or YouTubers, there are specific elements of this writer’s work that are identifiable over and over again, it creates an “a-ha” moment for the readers. The doing here, is some annotations on the page, with possibly a list of the writing moves spotted across the two texts.

Have students emulate an author’s craft: After we get students noticing the specifics of a text, we can get students engaged by having them copy the author’s style in their own writing. I think this works well because it give students a tangible look at what good writers do and it gives students quick feedback on their work. Too often, good writing is a nebulous thing that students feel that they can’t actually understand, but just have to be born able to do. Additionally, too often quick feedback doesn’t happen with reading and writing. When students emulate an author’s style, they can immediately put their work next to the writer’s work, and see how they relate and differ. Does it look and sound similar? Yes — ok, I’m doing well. OR No — ok, where can I improve?

Literary analysis is a sacred cow of English instruction. That’s because most of us are English majors. Most of our students are not.* I want to keep that in mind.

What works your reading classroom that isn’t literary analysis? Share in the comments.

*Thanks to my mentor Bill Sowder for first leading me to this conclusion.

No excuses for a culture of readers

Teaching students to read is a daunting task. Teaching them to become engaged, habitual readers? That’s overwhelming. It’s much more manageable to break the task into steps. I outline five of the most common problems and solutions in Hacking Literacy.

And a major inspiration for that book is the work of Nancie Atwell. Her book The Reading Zone discusses the place where nothing exists except the story.

One of my favorite parts of the book comes early on when she lists student responses to a survey. The survey asked students about what helps them get into the reading zone.

The best part of this list is no item feels daunting or out of my control. Not one requires magical skills. That’s a feeling I get when hearing teachers discuss inspiring students to read. Certain people have it and certain people don’t. I reject that.

But, teachers can often place blame on others. This student can’t read well? Bad home life. She is absent all the time? Admin must be letting her off the hook. He’s spending all his time reading war books? Too many violent video games.

Teaching (and life) is much easier, though, when we focus on the elements that we can control. So for each elements that Atwell’s students have listed, I’ve anticipated the objections. Then, I’ve responded to those objections.

Like most things I write, this is a reminder to myself more than anything else. I’d love to know which of these you struggle with most OR what parts of Atwell’s work you love.


I don’t have a copy of the popular books students want yet.
To be honest, this one doesn’t even require books. I’ve given book talks without having the book there by pulling it up on Amazon. If certain students are going to read on their Kindle anyway, this is OK.

I’ve run out of YA books that I’ve read and can book talk.
Two ideas here. Consider the books written for adults that adolescent readers can manage. I can think of students who would love to read a book by Jhumpa Lahiri, Mitch Albom, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Or, ask your school librarian, another teacher, or students to do the book talks.

Classroom library

I don’t have the funds to fill my classroom library.
There are many places to get low-cost books. I’m going to address the objection through no-cost options, though.

Create a Donor’s Choose account and start a small project. I followed advice from my colleague Casey Fox and Dave Stuart Jr. and started a Donor’s Choose Projects. Friends, family, and kind strangers funded three of my projects this year, all within days. The secret is to start small.

Additionally, put out a post on social media explaining your need for books. I did this several years ago, and people reach out to me today through Facebook Messenger about it. Try making a corny joke like I did. It might help.


In-class time to read

I don’t have time to let students “just read.”
Shh…if you say that again, I’ll be forced to alert the NerdCamp squad.

Free choice of books

I have a curriculum to follow.
Cut down on clutter in your curriculum using an 80/20 analysis. Then, give students 10 minutes to read at the beginning of every class. If you feel that you can’t break away from the curriculum. Try the Text Sets approach.

Recommendations from friends and the teacher

What if students become interested in reading a book that is too difficult or too easy for them?

Did you notice the first part of that sentence, “students become interested in reading a book”? Let’s stop there.

Comfort during reading time

I only have traditional desks and chairs.

This is a good point. There is lots of classroom eye candy on the Internet these days. It can create envy towards other classrooms. Some students like sitting on the floor, though. Some might want to stand and lean against a long row of shelves. Then, when someone is discarding a table or a comfy chair, make a small area with comfortable seating.

Writing to others about reading

I’m not sure how this works.
See Atwell’s In the Middle and Jim Mahoney’s Power and Portfolios for how to get students corresponding about books. I also referred to this article from Doug Fischer and Nancy Frey. Students communicate with each other through text today more than ever before. We can leverage that comfort with communicating to get kids talking about books.

Conversations with the teacher

I’m not great at conferring with students.
Here are three statements to get kids talking about their reading. How’s it going? Tell me more. And What makes you think that? Conferring is hard, especially with the many needs of the readers in our classrooms. But those three questions get kids to lead me to where I can best help them.

To read next lists

This is so easy to set up, I can’t think of an objection.
Have students carve out a page of their notebook and title it “To read next.” Every time the student encounters an interesting book, the student adds the book to the list. I like ot keep a physical to read next list at home so the next book is right there.

Reading every night for HW

My students won’t do it.
They might not. Some won’t. But it makes sense that this item is number 10 on the list. Because if numbers 1-9 are happening, then it’s much more likely that number 10 will happen, too.

Of course, ensuring that all ten of the items above are happening every day is daunting. But I’m not suggesting that we have to do that. Start with one, be consistent. Then, these elements of reading will have a kind of synergistic effect.

Which of the ten things above do you struggle with most? What parts of Atwell’s work do you love? Tell us in the comments.

Writing and the Energy to Teach

This was post was inspired by a session at NerdCampNJ on teacher bloggers.  At the end of the session, the session attendees agreed to write about a shared topic: the teacher as writer.  Several of us have contributed blogs to a Google Doc in order to get the ball rolling. Go check out two of the other teacher blogs, written by Ms. Monica Crudele and Mr. Jeff Krapels. Also, go to the comments to post a link to your blog or tell us about your obstacles as a teacher-writer.

Sometimes people ask me how I have the energy to write a weekly post while teaching full time. Without trying it, people assume that it takes more time and energy to write and teach than it does to teach.

Those people are right about the time–I can’t make more of that. But, they are wrong about the energy.

Writing about teaching is one of the biggest sources of energy that I get from my profession. It’s right up there, second only to the energy from kids engaged in learning. So, writing gives me the energy to teach and teaching gives me the energy to write.

It goes some like this:

  1. Something in my teaching seems worthy of sharing or reflecting on. I’m focusing in on one strategy or system, for example, or I’ve read a new book and am implementing its ideas.
  2. I begin to write about it.
  3. As I write about it, I figure it out. For example:  With balancing whole class and independent reading, for example, I realized that I believed in short whole-class texts. For full-length works, the Whole Novels approach is my go-to (here’s why we should read novels). Additionally, I should work on creating a culture of readers while doing both. I believed both of these, but writing about them solidified my thoughts.
  4. Now, with that writing done, those ideas come back into the classroom, more refined.
  5. Going forward, at points I notice that there’s nothing to write about. This also helps me to manage my energy. It means that:
    1. I’m not focused on learning something new
    2. I’m not teaching in a way that energizes me (either because of the content or the pedagogy)
    3. There’s a problem that I’m not addressing (a certain class or student not doing so well, for example)
  6. This is another source of writing material, another place to figure things out on the page. These issues led me to teach for a year without grading. It also led to me reflecting on why my students ignored the reading homework.
  7. The cycle continues: write about teaching, notice the struggles, and figure out those struggles through writing. Repeat.

So, for me, it’s not a matter of finding the time and energy to both teach and write. The two are actually one.

Do you write about your teaching, either for yourself or the public? Post your blog link below. Or, post about what’s holding you back.

Tool for shame or path to growth? How teachers can do “cold calling” right

First: Students with medical accommodations must be respected.  If these accommodations include specifics about speaking, then ideas in this post may not apply. 

Second: Those situations aside, it’s healthy for students to feel on-the-spot. Healthy discomfort leads to growth. This post explores how to push students to participate even if they’re shy in September.

Third: let’s define the term. Cold calling is when a teacher asks students to participate, hand up or not. This is powerful, but it has a bad image. Fear, anxiety, embarrassment. This connotation comes from practices, discussed below, that teachers use. These practices work against us.

Used with care, cold calling can:

  1. Build confidence: as I said, it can help to get shy kids talking
  2. Maintain accountability: through the year, students learn that everyone speaks
  3. Assess learning: the responses are a random set of student thoughts (not just outgoing kids)
  4. Improve conversations: the class hears all voices 

If your students are anything like mine, some are shy but full of ideas. Others work slowly. Others get distracted. This is a lot to consider.

There are two situations when teachers often cold call. Both of these situations make class discussions worse.

First, calling on students when they’re not paying attention. This is a way to assert dominance through embarrassment. The goal is to have students learn from this bad feeling and remain focused in the future.

That doesn’t happen. Cold calling as punishment breeds resentment. Plus, other students laugh. Now, the student further disrupts class for revenge. This erodes the classroom community.

Second, the initiate-respond-evaluate (I-R-E) discussion. You know the technique: Teacher asks the question, one kid answers, teacher says “wrong” or “right”…next question. This is brutal for everyone.  If the question has one right answer, students can read it or hear it from the teacher.

To recap, cold calling does more harm than good when it is a gotcha technique. And, it is a waste of time if there is only one answer. But, with care, cold calling (1) builds confidence, (2) keeps students accountable, (3) assesses learning, and (4) improves conversations.

At this point, you may be concerned about how shy students will react to cold calling. If they don’t have an answer to your question, they’ll feel embarrassed. If they feel that their answer is not good enough, likewise. You may worry about letting kids “off the hook” if they don’t want to speak. You don’t want to force kids. These are reasonable concerns.

To address those, make one change: Don’t use cold calling as a one-and-done event. Instead, use it as the last step in a process.  The process of asking good questions, giving time to think, and eventually hearing all student voices.

The foundation is asking good questions

The description of a good question is probably up for debate. It might be better to describe the bad questions. Everyone has been asked one of those. If you’ve sat through a class, a meeting, or a sermon, you’ve heard a bad question from a  speaker. Some examples:

  1. A fact-based recall question with one right answer
  2. A yes or no question with one right answer
  3. A question about the reading, when the teacher knows that students ignored the reading homework
  4. When you ramble on, adding lots of extra, ya know, descriptive phrases and modifiers, and what you actually mean, might be a good question, but you have to circle back around and make sure you clarify your point, and then at the end you say, so what I’m getting at here is, when your question is too long

My recipe for a good question contains three ingredients: short, open-ended, interesting. You might say, what about Bloom’s Taxonomy? What about that PD session I sat through?

You’re probably right that I’m oversimplifying this. But those three terms are my parameters for good questions.  I also use the questions from the three-part lesson that works with any text.  My overall point here is that no number of great discussion techniques will help if the question asked is a bad one.

Now that the foundation is built with good questions, we can get students thinking, and cold call to hear what they have to say.

Move + cold call

This one is so simple. I love it, though. It goes like this:

Ask all students to move to show that they’ve made a choice. After everyone picks, students talk about their choice. This can be in pairs or small groups. The last step is the cold call. The teacher selects students at random. These students share their choice. Additionally, students share the ideas behind a classmate’s choice.

Here’s an example you might here in my class:

From a scale of 1-5, 1 is low and 5 is high, how strong is Leonard Pitts Jr.’s argument in this piece? Put up 1-5 fingers. Remember, index finger for number 1. (This covers outstanding grudges.) Find at least one quote to prove your choice.

Please turn and talk with the people at your table. Tell them why you picked that number. Give an example from the editorial to support your choice. In three minute’s I’m going to ask three people at random to report on your conversation.

Students have two steps for preparing here. They make a choice and show me when they are ready by holding up a number of fingers. Then, they do an intellectual rehearsal in small groups before I cold call.

You can also have students move to sides or corners of the room. One side is agree and one side is disagree, for example.

An alternate version of this is the Take a Stand strategy.

Confer + cold call.

Listen in or speak with students during a turn and talk session. When their idea is valuable for the whole class to hear, ask them if they’ll share it:

That’s a great point, Kaitlynn. Do you mind sharing that with everyone in a moment?

If she says yes, then I’m meeting one of those objectives of cold calling discussed at the top of the post.

If Kaitlynn says she would not like to share, then I might say:

Ok, understandable. Do you mind if I explain the idea to your classmates?

So, Kaitlynn’s idea is still validated in front of the class. Hopefully that nudges her more towards saying “yes” to sharing during a future discussion and then participating on her own volition.

Quick write + cold call

After giving students time to process their thoughts with a 1-2 minute quick write, I’m comfortable with asking a few students to share a single line of their writing.

I’d most likely tell students the whole process when giving them the quick write instructions:

In a moment we’ll do a 90 second quick write. Remember that this is a first draft for everyone. After we finish writing, I’ll ask three people to read or paraphrase their writing.

There’s no “gotcha” here because students can read ideas they already have on their paper.

For a shy student who resists, I may suggest that a classmate reads their writing or I read it.  Then, I’ll still ask them to add any details we missed or clarify something. This, again, encourages the student to eventually participate without this prompting.

Notice that some writing lends itself to this type of sharing more than other kinds. I use my best judgement here when asking students to share personal writing as opposed to argumentative, for example.

Turn and talk + cold call with options

These are beginning to sound like clips from a football playbook. This is my most used and favorite cold call technique because it leads to organic discussion. (Organic discussion: when students continue the discussion with little/no facilitation.) Here’s how this would sound:

I want you to talk to the people at your table for two minutes about the way the character in your independent reading book relates to or differs from Holden Caulfield. Afterwards, I’ll ask three people to report back.


Ok,…Alex, Sarah, and Shreya. Share what you said or what you heard a classmate say.

This is my favorite because students can share the things they found most interesting in their conversation. Shreya says:

Well, I heard Andrew explain that Holden seems kind of stuck because he doesn’t do anything about his pain but the character in Andrew’s book is starting to act out in school because of it.

Then I follow up and ask Andrew to fill us in on the details.

Then, the process continues with Alex and Sarah commenting, too.

Because students can choose to share the ideas of their classmates, those classmates are more likely to enter the conversation. If the student needs to clarify or expand upon what the original speaker said, all the better.

So, in summary:

  1. “Gotcha” cold call
  2. I-R-E cold call
  3. Move then cold call
  4. Confer + cold call
  5. Quick write + cold call
  6. Turn and talk + cold call with options

These techniques gives students an intellectual rehearsal before they speak in front of the class.  Instead of shaming or boring students, we can lead students towards speaking with confidence.

Do you cold call on students? Why or why not?

Here are some comments from Twitter (all made from public profiles to my public profile) to get us started:


Better Read Alouds [Video]

Read alouds happen in my class nearly everyday. I teach sophomores, some of whom have twelfth grade or college reading levels. Still, read alouds, almost every day.

Why? Well, language is meant to be heard. Fluent reading comes from hearing fluent readers. Clear writing comes from hearing clear writers. 

In that way, the read aloud is a high value literacy experience. Plus, it engages kids, while requiring very few supplies or special circumstances. As literacy teachers, the read aloud is there for us, every day, a tool we can use in our class. But, it takes work.

Two steps towards improving read alouds: Practice the skill of reading aloud well to students. Create the circumstances that cause the read aloud to help us meet instructional goals. Here are some reminders to myself, followed by a video of me reading aloud to my students.

How to make the most of read alouds


We have to know the section of the text that we want to read. Don’t open the book to the chapter that your class is reading and read “for a little while.” I’ve done that, and I drag it on too long. Even if it’s a great book, I select clear start and end point.

As you’ll see in my example below, identifying a “scene” is one option. The opening or closing of a chapter is another option. Or, a conversation between two characters. Students won’t know that more follows if you use your voice to make it feel final.

The read aloud should be the perfect length. Yes, that’s all I’ll say about that. A read aloud that is too short doesn’t have time to build momentum and get students sucked into the narrative. A read aloud that is too long has students wondering when the teacher will end, and unless the story and the reader are truly compelling, it is hard to hold students’ interest. That may just be my experience. I know that some books when read aloud can keep students attention for a long time.


Are you reading aloud because you want students to read the book independently? Because you want students to learn specific information? Because you want to model a specific type of reading (reading a play, perhaps). Or because the excerpt will lead the class into a learning activity–more reading, writing, or scaffolded reading questions. That’s what I show in the example below.


This is a vague word that, in this case, means we should try our best when reading aloud. Change voices for different parts, characters, narrators, emotions, etc. It doesn’t have to be drastic. But it’s interesting if it is. My teacher Dr. Meixner was great at doing read alouds, and she was teaching 21 and 22-year-old students. I remember hearing her read aloud from Tangerine by Edward Bloor in our reading methods class. Similarly, my teacher Mr. Mahoney had a class that included many exhausted student teachers, yet he still captivated the class with his read alouds. So the passion that we put into read alouds matters a lot. It sticks in the memories of our students.

Plus, this makes it fun. Even when I’m a tired teacher, it’s energizing to do a read aloud and surprise myself with my animation, Students respond to this.


The post-read aloud task should send students back into the text to find something that they noticed. After hearing the words read aloud, students will have an appreciation for the language that they might not get from silent reading. A simple question like “What sentence stands out to you?” works well.

Perhaps the last piece to improving our read alouds, as with any skill, is feedback. In this case, feedback comes in the form of self-reflection (and any comments on this blog post). And let’s be clear, I’m not immune to that unique feeling that comes from watching and listening to myself (Fear? Nausea?). But, I know that it’s essential for getting better. Again, at any area of life.

[Video: Part 1]

[Video: Part 2]

Reflection and notes:

[Side note: the lesson students are working on here is inspired by the 10 Beautiful Sentences project by Matt Morone. Click here to read about it.]

0:15 – 0:20 I tell the class that we will read a passage from The Catcher in the Rye where we gain insight into the meaning of the title. Andrew raises his hand.


“I don’t know…I just raised my hand,” he says. Kids are great.

0:30 – 2:00 First, I ramble a bit about the title. Then, I introduce the purpose of our reading, reminding students of their current project. This is finding and identifying powerful sentences in their reading.  I tell students that there is a powerful sentence that I’ve identified in the following excerpt. Next, I provide some context about the scene. 

2:20 – 2:24 “Just look for any sentences that stands out to you as powerful.” This was the task that I set for students. It was too vague. Better would have been to tell students to leave their finger on one sentence that they notice, or even make a light pencil mark next to one sentence. “Look” is too vague of a verb.

2:30 – 3:05 I’m doing my best to differentiate between the two voices, Phoebe and Holden. I do a decent Phoebe, making my voice higher and showing her frustration. Holden sounds too similar, though. Needs more apathy.

*This video was record with my cell phone and a Swivl. At the 3 minute mark, I got a call from an unrecognized number and had to block the call and press record again. Did I mention this was happening in a real classroom on a typical school day?*

Part 2:

0:00 – 0:55 The passage continues, a bit fast. Overall, I’m trying to convey the reflection that Holden is experiencing in this scene.  

0:56 – 1:30 I give a the follow-up task to students:

“Point to a sentence that sticks out to you and explain to the person next to you why you chose that sentence. Literally point to one sentence, read it to the person next to you, and tell them why you picked the sentence. Person closest to the back of the room can share first.”

Here is some redemption for those vague directions in part 1. This is a simple, manageable task that gets kids talking about the language of the passage. That was the purpose of this read aloud.

We finished by hearing three examples from students around the room. They identified the sentence that I had in mind as well as a few others.

So, with intention and practice, the read aloud is another tool we can use to build student literacy skills. Done well, it also helps to build a culture of readers.

What is your favorite text to read aloud? Tell us in the comments.

To be good writers, students need good taste

It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?” – Ira Glass

The writing teacher should make him or herself more and more obsolete as time goes on. We are not shady chiropractors. We don’t want repeat clients. We want the students to learn the content and skills they need to succeed without us.

When it comes to teaching writing, we can encourage independence by teaching students to develop good taste for writing. Then they will know when, where, how, and why to revise.

When I write my blog posts, I rarely have someone read them over. And, you might say, it shows, because I often publish the post, re-read it and notice a few errors. Then I correct them. But I also go through a revision process on my own between drafting and publishing.

We can teach students to revise and edit their work without us. We can’t force them. We can teach them.

How do we do this?

We teach students to have taste for good writing. Then, students notice the difference between good writing and their first draft. We tell them to fix the first draft so it looks more like the good writing.

How do we teach students to develop taste in good writing?

We show them what good writing looks like.  We can do this through a variety of writing lessons.

Lesson 1: Analyze a writer’s style by comparing two texts

I stumbled on this lesson by accident about four years ago.

In the morning class, students read one piece by Leonard Pitts. They annotated with the purpose of identifying his voice. There were crickets when it came time to discuss.

In the afternoon class, students read two pieces by Leonard Pitts. This time, they looked for the elements of his voice that they saw in both pieces. Eureka! The students saw fragments, parallel structure, anecdotes, counterclaims, and lots more.

This lesson encourages good taste because students observe the moves good writers use over and over. Even if students can’t write like the pros yet, they can notice when their writing does some of these things.

Lesson 2: Socrative Writing Pedagogy

This one is by Jen Roberts. Again, it is simple and powerful. It helps students develop their taste in writing. Here’s how it works:

Teacher preparation: set a goal. It should relate to one aspect of students’ writing that you’d like to see improved.

  1. Students have a finished a draft, or at least a finished part of a writing piece.
  2. Students re-read their writing with the goal in mind (e.g. emulate the voice of Holden Caufield).
  3. Students select a part of their writing that best meets the goal. They copy and paste their writing into a short answer question on Socrative.
  4. After all students have submitted, press “start vote.” *This feature lets students anonymously view all of their classmates’ responses* Students  vote on the three best pieces by their peers.  Sometimes students vote on the ones that are funny instead of actually good. Watch out for that.
  5. Take a moment to copy and paste the three best student pieces onto some blank slides. This takes a few minutes. You may want to ask students to turn and discuss their votes with a partner.
  6. Display the three slides, each containing one of the best examples of student writing. Lead the class through discussing the postiive qualities of each of these examples.
  7. Send students back into their writing to revise with the best examples in mind.

Lesson 3: Circle the “betterness”

At NCTE Boston, Kelly Gallagher spoke with Penny Kittle and Cris Tovani. The topic was encouraging student revision.  Kelly began his part by leading the audience through this lesson:

[Side note: I’ll never forget the writing piece that Mr. Gallagher shared. It was a personal narrative he wrote about the death of his father. That was a meta-lesson in teacher vulnerability for me. Read his narrative here.]

  1. Select one of your best student papers and one of your average student papers. Use papers from last year. Or, use papers from another class. Or write two examples of your own.
  2. Ask students to read both papers.
  3. Have students circle the “betterness” in the best paper.
  4. Turn and talk, then discuss the traits as a whole class.
  5. Ask students to revise their writing, borrowing from that “betterness.”

You might say that this is copying. Everyone copies other people when they are learning. You have to have good taste before you can develop your own style. And part of the process of developing good taste is to copy the style of others. I’m doing it right now.

Developing good taste–that’s not an ending. It’s a beginning. It’s like you are wondering around lost and  finally recognize the neighborhood. You’re not at the destination yet, so there’s still work to do. But you know the direction that you need to travel.

This post was inspired by this video featuring Ira Glass.