Tips for Holding Students Accountable to Choice Reading: Reading Ladders

Reading Ladder Organization

Reading Ladder Organization

What is a Reading Ladder, and where does this idea originate? A Reading Ladder is simply a piece of explanatory writing where students rank the books they’ve read according to complexity, reflect on their reading habits, and make plans for future growth.  When teachers question how to hold students accountable to choice reading, this piece of writing is probably my favorite response.  For one, it is nearly impossible to fake, because it requires a ton of thinking that is unique to each student; furthermore, students practice such incredible critical thinking and literacy skills that it’s totally worth spending valuable class time grappling with it. 

Reading Ladder Student Example

Reading Ladder Student Example from Penny Kittle

I originally heard about this idea while attending a workshop with Penny Kittle at Hudsonville Public Schools back in February of 2012.  (Thanks, Steve and Karla!) She mentioned how she was inspired to push kids thinking forward by Teri Lesesne‘s Reading Ladders: Leading Students from Where They Are to Where We’d like Them to Be (2010).  At that time, I’ll admit hadn’t read Lesesne’s book, and we all know Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers (2013) wasn’t even published, so I had to do what teachers do and improvise.  Because Kittle really only mentioned it briefly in the workshop, I didn’t even really know what a Reader Ladder actually was, yet I knew it was good stuff if she mentioned it.  Thanks to this student example [see right] I found online, my students and I figured it out together.  (Now, for the life of me, I cannot figure out where this example came from! I really apologize that I can’t give credit to the awesome educator that shared it online.  Thank you whoever you are!) <<LATER REVISION: That awesome educator was, in fact, Kittle herself! Thanks again, Penny!>> With this mentor text, my students and I worked backwards, noticing what the writer did in each paragraph and then constructing a rubric that we imagined the student’s teacher probably required of her.  For a year, this worked just fine, and now, since Book Love has been released, Kittle has provided a really stellar description of how she uses Reading Ladders in her class (see pages 124-132).  Today, I basically do what she says, but the reason I’m regurgitating it here is to share my interpretations and variations with you and to show that it works with “real-life” students.

How does a Reading Ladder benefit student thinking?   When students construct Reading Ladders, they have to consider the questions “What makes reading difficult for you right now?” and “How will you work to improve?”  We all know the benefits of this kind of internal reflecting and planning conversations: they push students to evaluate their current habits and abilities while making goals for the future.

"The goal of reading ladders," writes Teri Lesesne, "is to slowly move students from where they are to where we would like them to be."

“The goal of reading ladders,” writes Teri Lesesne, “is to slowly move students from where they are to where we would like them to be.”

The students in my sophomore class have thankfully come from a highly supportive, book-lovin’ environment in ninth grade, but as they transition to tenth grade, we always talk about how important it is to “step up our game.”  From the first day of Humanities 10, they take on a new reading challenge.

Within in this challenge, we talk about how important is to consider all the evidence that proves they’ve grown as a reader.  They always say, “I just know I’ve gotten better.” Yeah, okay, that’s great!  I know that feels really good, especially for those developing reading.  Of course, I want to celebrate this good feeling, but this feeling isn’t always going to push them to the next level.  Sometimes, they don’t even know what the next level is.

Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, talks about how powerful it is for students to see intelligence as something more than a fixed trait.  Sadly, far too many kids think either you’re born a good reader or you’re not: “Reading was hard for me when I was little, so I’m never going to be a good reader.”  If they can embrace intelligence as a quality that can be developed and expanded (through grit and other character strengths), they are likely to show even more growth. Isn’t this just crazy-awesome?

One way my students begin to shift their thinking about intelligence is by analyzing their own reading data.  Of course, they take the ACT Reading prototype, and yeah, they also do the Scholastic Reading Inventory, and sure, they chart the books they’ve read, but individually these things don’t paint the whole picture of how they’ve grown as readers.  When they really look at all of these pieces of data combined with their own reflections, they are able to appreciate their progress, recognize effective strategies, and set new goals.

What process do my students take to construct their own Reading Ladders?  To start off, my students #1 compile a list of all of the books they completed and abandoned so far this school year.  Most of them keep track on their genre requirement chart or on Goodreads, but some of them forget to keep up with their record.  Often, they’re revisiting the shelves to look for titles they missed while I’m printing off their “Student Checkout Detail” under the reports section from Booksource’s Classroom Organizer, hoping that they actually remembered to sign out all the books that they read this year. <<Check out these posts where I discuss how I get kids to do more choice reading and how I organize my classroom library using this awesome resource.>>

Look here to find the page number on a Goodreads book profile.

As they list the titles, I ask that they #2 determine the number of pages that they read in each book.  They do this by either physically finding all of the books in our library that they read or by checking the page numbers on Goodreads website.

After they’ve done a bit of digging around,  I ask them to #3 calculate the average number of pages read per week.  Thanks to Kittle, all of my students can tell you that colleges expect students to read between 200-600 pages per week; therefore, we must develop our stamina as in order to compete with other students.  College is competitive, and if we want to succeed, we’ve got to practice daily.  So everyday, we work on reading for an extended time frame and with greater fluency.  I know that in Book Love, Kittle talks about recording students’ reading rates on a regular basis.  I never seem to have time for this, so instead, we talk about it regularly and try to track it at least once a trimester. Students calculate their reading rate by first adding up the total number of pages they read and dividing it by the number of weeks in that trimester.

Reading Rate Reflection

Reading Rate Reflection

Next, they #4 write their first reflection, comparing this reading rate with last trimester.  Before they get started, I model my own reading rate reflection.  Sharing my # of pages/week with them creates a common ground during reading conferences.  I discuss the obstacles that get in the way of my reading and how I try to get around them.

This reading rate calculation primarily helps students pay attention to the reading they’ve done outside of class, along with identifying areas of needed improvement, and celebrating gains.  I also ask students to discuss if/how they are challenging themselves, in preparation for the stamina and grit they’ll need in college.  Most are very honest if they are only reading in class,  a little here and there at home, or devoted to “stealing minutes to read” wherever they go. Whatever their habits are, sharing this reflection highlights that the choices they make have a significant difference in their later success.

These are the characteristics that one of my recent classes came up with to determine the complexity of a book.

As a class, we next #5 discuss what makes a book difficult. Over the years, I’ve done this a few different ways, but now I’m taking Kittle’s most recent suggestion by dropping a pile of books in front of a group. The title are mixed based on genre, level, structure, fiction/nonfiction, etc.  Students work together to re-stack the pile in order of text complexity.  As they’re debating over the characteristics that makes one book more difficult than the next, I walk around and write down some of their spoken statements.  We share our new book stacks with the other groups, arguing why they’re in the order that they are.  Because we have created an atmosphere that supports debate, other groups, naturally, counter-argue, providing alternative evidence. Together, we then discuss their spoken statements and all the qualities that come in to play when determining the complexity of a book. 

From there, students return to their earlier record of books and spend time #6 organizing the titles on the list from the least challenging to the most difficult and write a corresponding argument.  If this is the second or third trimester, students blend new reads in with their older reads, often annotating the new books with asterisks for the sake of clarity.  As with a lot of arguments, there may not be a “correct answer,” but as long as they clearly explain and support their thinking with quality evidence, I’m satisfied that they adequately reflected.

Following the “Why this Order?” paragraph, students #7 write mini-reviews of their favorite books. We spend time analyzing mentor texts to see what other book reviewers do. This year, my students really enjoyed analyzing the amazing YA Lit book bloggin’ work of Brian Wyzlic, of Wyz Reads; Sarah Anderson, of YALoveBlog; Jenn Fountain, of Fountain Reflections; Jillian Heise, of Heise Reads; Aaron Bergh, of Real Men Read YA, and Beth Shaum, of Foodie Bibliophile and Use Your Outside Voice.

As mentioned, the need for students to make plans for improvement is critical to their learning; therefore, each goal should be unique and individual to the student. Often these are derived from our conversations during reading conferences or students’ own awareness of their particular challenges. When #8 writing about their goals, they should be specific: “I will read 15 books by June. I will read at least one non-fiction book. I will read one Jane Austen novel. I will develop an at-home reading habit. I will….” This specificity will make it easier for them to measure if they’ve accomplished what they intended to do when we reflect next time. I also ask them to include a list of To-Read books, which contains at least a few titles that they want to read of increasing difficulty.  This is another great opportunity to do a teacher model. Throughout the year, my students start to learn about my reading challenges and goals, and this helps them see that we all have room to grow as readers. 

The last step that my students take is a new one for me, as of this winter. Kittle shares in Book Love that she asks students to #9 reflect on their reading in a short essay. Check out the assignment description and list of prompts she uses with her students.

I liked all of these prompts and will probably use them next trimester, but this time I wanted to use this moment as an opportunity to do some of that “Hey! Check it out! All these skills we’re learning actually cross over into other facets of writing.” So, we blended the reflection in our work with close reading and argumentative writing.  I gave them an Article of the Week from The New York Times Room for Debate series (I love this by the way. If you haven’t checked it out, it’s killer for studying multiple arguments of the same topic) where the authors argued why young adult fiction become such a phenomenon — even with older adults.  Students close read it, like any other week, following the AoW direction of Kelly Gallagher. Then, like all of our argumentative writing this year, students practiced using Graff & Birkenstein’s “They Say, I Say” model.  They argued their opinions, including both text-based evidence from the authors (“They Say”) as well as evidence from their own engagement with reading this year (“I Say”).  And because this Article of the Week was unique to blend it with the Reading Ladder, I did ask that include more “I Say” evidence than they normally would do in a typical AoW, mostly because I wanted them to do lots of reflecting on their own lives in order to really spur that growth.

In the end, I am always impressed with the thinking my students do as a part of their Reading Ladders.

What does a finished Reading Ladder look like?  The example below comes from one my actual students.  According to power data, this kid is about six grades below tenth grade proficiency.  I’m including it here because, although he struggles, his Reading Ladder shows really deep thinking and awesome grit.

Another Student Reading Ladder Example

Anonymous Student

  • No Right Turn – 256pgs
  • Forever – 178pgs
  • Othello – 154pgs
  • My Orange Duffel Bag – 202pgs
  • Jumping off Swings – 230pgs
  • The Great Gatsby – 189pgs

Reading Rate Trimester Two: 1209 pags / 12 weeks = average of 100.75 pages per week

Reading Rate Reflection: Reading is difficult for me right now mostly because of comprehension problems and lack of interest. My reading rate is relatively low comparing to classmates however 1209 pages in 12 weeks is fantastic to me that is probably more than ive read out of books in my life but i do understand i need to continue growing as a reader and open my mind to different types of literature i have found myself checking in new areas for books and really asking friends who know me best what they would recommend this trimester has been  much different with reading but the main goal from this point forward is to read at home more.

I have improved a lot more than i ever would have thought in the first week of school i came into this class thinking reading is not my cup of tea it made my eyes hurt looking at the pages my brain would pound after reading a chapter and i wasn’t interested in anything but it did not take long and i wouldn’t put some books down i’ve been reading more magazine articles and the newspaper every once in awhile also i started to really dig into deeper thought about what i want to read next and a lot of this growth in reading has given me a mental drive to write more which has always been my favorite topic in school until high school so over all  reading is advancing me in more places than reading.

Book Reviews & Text Complexity: No Right Turn was the easiest book i’ve read this trimester however it was my favorite. i was introduced to this book by Mrs. Beaton and i really enjoyed it i have even considered reading it again. what makes this book difficult for me was the parts when the main character would think back years time and talk about his thoughts but it wasn’t very hard to follow.

The second book would be Forever and this book is a great young adult book in my eyes and a great piece of literature at times the drama and “girl talk” could be hard to follow and the pregnancy issues were interesting to read about i really enjoyed this book because it was all high school drama and because i’m a 10th grade adolescent all i am surrounded by durring the day is highschool drama.

Next i dug up the book Othello this book was difficult not only because its a shakespearean tragedy but the form it was written in was a play format and i did not enjoy it in the beginning of the book however Mrs. Beaton had use act it out in class and we were assigned individual parts also when some words didn’t make sense, mostly fault of the old english writing, on the other side of the book a modern version was offered of the same play and this in the end really helped me grow as a reader that constant struggle with reading is not a good sign but i overcame that and finally started to understand the tragedy.

After that, the autobiography My Orange Duffel bag was new in this class and despite the elusiveness of me holding a book at this point i was first on the list to read it and i passed it up at first however Mrs. Beaton told the class a little bit more about it and i felt the need to give it a chance and i have to admit i really enjoyed it. The difficulty with this book was the few moments reading about his college football life and the only reason i claim this is because i’m adolescent not really a huge fan of sports “jocks” also have never had a true interest in football but this book is much more than that and i’m glad i got the opportunity to read it.

the next book can be argued the most difficult out of two but i really enjoyed it Jumping off Swings was an excellent book i think many young adults should read however the most complicated part with this book is the fact it is told from four points of view and each chapter is a different person’s point of view only changing between the four friends and how they see life drive by. This is a style of writing i am not familiar with however i was interested and would love to try it with a story of my own.

finally the hardest book i’ve read ever was this trimester The Great Gatsby however i was not a huge fan of this book but i think if i could totally understand it and compare it to the american dream and view any other perks it may have to offer i feel i would appreciate Gatsby a lot more and my respect would build

Personal Goals: I am more than satisfied with my reading rate and really appreciate the opportunity i have here in class to read like i do the past nine years of school i spent fake reading and  googling books however i am happy to say i don’t really do that anymore i am really enjoying reading in school i still struggle to read at home now and then but as one of my goals i will read 15 books this trimester and i will get there without gimping out on children’s books but on top of that i will start reading 30 minutes at home every night to strengthen my reading skills i may have got a late start on the reading and loving books but i’m glad it’s now and not never  really happy to see how blind i was up until this year when it came to books. Next i would like to read a nonfiction.

I’d love to hear how you’re using Reading Ladders in your classroom, so please share your ideas below. I’m always hungry for more student examples and variations of the process.

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10 thoughts on “Tips for Holding Students Accountable to Choice Reading: Reading Ladders

  1. This is so thoughtful. I love that it’s not a “prove you read something” type book report due after every single read, it’s instead a thoughtful way for students to critically think about their recent reading lives. Thanks for sharing! Looking forward to following your blog!

    • Thanks, Chris! That means so much, especially from you. I am finding your work Pathways to the Common Core so helpful as I finish my Master’s project. Thanks for creating such a great resource!

  2. Great post! My colleague and I do something similar with our 9th and 10th grade English students and I am always amazed at their critical thinking. I also give them a list of questions to reflect on, like what was your favorite book, what would you recommend I read, etc. I love that there are more and more teachers doing this!

    • Thanks, Kyle! I love that idea of asking them what they would recommend to other readers. That way it extends their thinking beyond just themselves. Very cool! 🙂

  3. Wow. I can see I’m going to need to do a lot of adapting for my sixth graders, but I am 100% geeked out at reading this over and over again and uncovering how we might articulate this through our middle grades at my school. I just know that combined with our 40 Book Target, getting kids in the zone and reflecting on it will be powerful. Thanks for your blog!

  4. This is an awesome post! I love the way you take the work of Kittle, Gallagher, Lesesne, and Tough (a few of my favorite authors, too!) and implement all of it into your classroom.

    I especially like how you take students through the process of determining books’ difficulty. Before reading your post (and Kittle’s *Book Love*), I’d never considered doing that step. What’s great is that you challenge students not just to remember which books they’ve read but also why they chose them in the first place (to push them upward on the ladder).

    I can’t wait to try this out with my students! Thank you again for your thoughtful and thorough post.

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