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Want to get to know your readers? Ask these 3 questions.

readerfavicon The first step of any strong independent reading program is to do a preliminary diagnostic of your students and their reading skills and interests.

Many schools invest in online or paper assessments to determine students’ grade-level equivalent. Many teachers give out reading inventory surveys for their students to complete.

Both of those are good ideas. I do them.

But this year, I’ve found out that it’s pretty easy to figure out the reading lives of students. Here are my three quick-and-easy questions:

1. What are you reading now?
2. What was the last book you read?
3. What book would you like to read next?

Yep, that’s it! In about 30 seconds, I can find out a lot of information.

Question #1 separates the avid readers from the rest. If the student has an answer to the first question, I’m ecstatic. I won’t ever have to worry about him or her. All I have to do is make sure he or she has access to a Kindle or a library. (About 10 percent of students have an answer.)

Question #2 is where it starts getting interesting. If the student answers within a few seconds, and if the answer isn’t something like Clifford the Dog, then the student is a regular reader. Too many teacher-assigned texts have likely sapped this student’s interest in reading, but independent reading will soon turn that around. My move is to make sure this student has one or two good books in a row to read, and then everything will be fine.

On the other hand, if the student has trouble answering, or doesn’t remember, or reveals that he or she has never read a book before, then the student is a reluctant reader. (Some teachers prefer the term “emerging reader.”) I write this student’s name down. After all, no regular English class with whole-class novels and nonfiction articles will change this student’s relationship to reading. Independent reading could work, but only if I do a good job building a relationship with the student, finding out more about his or her interests, assessing reading skill gaps, and vigorously following up on them.

Question #3 is my favorite because it gets at the student’s interests. If the student is a regular or reluctant reader, who hasn’t read in a while, specific titles of books are hard to come by. That’s OK. I ask him or her what kinds of books he or she would like to read.

Usually, though, the student does come up with an answer. And the answers are very revealing.

Just two weeks ago, when the Kindle Classroom Project expanded to its second classroom, I asked the students Question #3. Here is what some of them said:

my bloody life  life in prison  child called it  goosebumps

Alex: My Bloody Life: The Making of a Latin King, by Reymundo Sanchez
Johnny: Life in Prison, by Stanley “Tookie” Williams
Brianna: A Child Called It, by Dave Pelzer
Mariyah: Goosebumps, by R.L. Stine.

So, what would you be able to notice? And what would you ask next? For Alex, Johnny, Brianna, and Mariyah, what would be your next move? favicon


  1. Meg Griswold

    When I taught in New York, I had to keep replenishing copies of “A Child Called It” because they read it so voraciously. Same goes for “Tears of a Tiger” and “Forged by Fire.” I usually try to follow up and ask students to try to identify what about those books is appealing. Usually, they like how real, gritty and honest they feel. They like, like the rest of us, to read about someone who has it worse than we do. I usually then try to start sneaking suggestions in that tend towards the more literary. “Hatchet.” Stranded and starving. “Down These Mean Streets” by Piri Thomas. How many hops and skips until they get to “Jane Eyre”?

  2. Mark Isero

    You’re right, Meg: If the student has a favorite book, asking a follow-up question, like, “Why did you like that book?” can yield a lot of good information.

    It also sounds like you’re an expert at encouraging students toward more literary texts. If a student can get from *Tears of a Tiger* to *Jane Eyre* in just a few (or a few more) “hops and skips,” then we’ve done our jobs! I have to say: I’m not an expert (yet) at this.

    Have you heard of or read Teri Lesesne’s *Reading Ladders*? It really helped me figure out the give-and-take of book recommending. (The Kindles have also helped because six students can read the same title at the same time.)

  3. Tony

    Not to get too jargony – or pretentious – here, but research suggests that a real good question to asks students after they read, or little kids after being read to is…

    What does this story remind you of?

    This is better than the “what just happened” type of question or asking specific gotcha type quiz questions. The mental process involved in considering what a story reminds one of is a real important activity that teaches comprehension, genre and thematic awareness, and other good stuff.
    With older students, in high school, asking them to bring in “partner texts” is an extension of this idea. When students bring in a book, poem, song, work of art – that they see as being in conversation with a novel the class is reading – it can lead to great discussions and can be a usefull assessment strategy for teachers.
    I miss teaching.

    • Mark Isero

      Love the question, Tony. It seems like a way for the teacher to learn more about the student, too. It’s not “What are your thoughts about this story?” or “What’s your reaction to this story?” Yours is a deeper question.

      Same thing goes for having students bring in a partner text. What kinds of discussions have you seen come out of this kind of work?

Please share your brilliant insights!