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What’s authentic about independent reading?

favicon When I first started out as a teacher, I was the king of authentic performance assessments. In English, when I wanted my students to read Native Son or Animal Farm, a test and a essay wouldn’t do. No way. Instead, we would have to conduct a mock trial. And it couldn’t be in a classroom. It would have to be in a real courtroom with a real judge.

The same thing was true for history. A study of World War II and the atomic bomb turned into a full-blown Smithsonian museum exhibit. A research paper about the Civil Rights led to a youth resistance symposium at Stanford University. The Great Depression and New Deal unit resulted in a community service project to combat hunger.

I still believe in authentic projects. They’re complex; they’re memorable; they get students to work on real-world problems. Even when they’re simulations, performance assessments encourage students to read, write, and think like professional adults. They offer young people opportunities to rehearse their future lives.

There are many opponents of project-based learning, particularly when it’s not done well. A few common claims: It’s not rigorous enough. It lets students avoid their weaknesses. It doesn’t hold students accountable. There isn’t enough reading and writing. Many of these arguments are valid.

In fact, over the past several years, I’ve moved away from authentic performance tasks and toward more old-fashioned teaching practices. In short, I believe in the importance of reading, and I see that our students are struggling as readers, and I feel the urgency, and I believe that the best way to improve reading is to make sure there’s tons of reading happening every day.

That’s why I care deeply about independent reading — where students get to choose what they read, where there’s a lot of time to read, and where reading is the focus of the classroom. In my opinion, there’s no better way to build highly skilled readers.

But sometimes I worry that independent reading doesn’t lend itself to authentic performance assessments. The act of reading is, of course, authentic — and so is becoming an avid reader and identifying as such. But what can I assign to my students that would demonstrate their transformation, their reading journey? What real-life issue would a year of independent reading address?

This is the part that’s missing in my thinking. I might know why I’m reading, and individual students might know what reading means to them, but why are we reading together? What’s the bigger purpose here, and how can our reading improve our community?

As I’m sure you can tell, this is a new question for me, and I would love your ideas. Please let me know your thoughts! favicon


  1. Vanessa

    I love when my obsession with keeping 1000 tabs open on my computer pays off. Today, as I was reading through some of them, I came across both this post and one on Edutopia that I had been meaning to read to deal with a similar problem in my reading support class.

    First, the link, which lists ten book report alternatives.
    One of my favorites is to have students create a list of questions like those for book clubs at the back of some editions of various books. Challenging and authentic – especially if their classmates use them for lit circles.

    Secondly, I’ve been requiring my 9th graders to write a one-paragraph Goodreads review of every book they finish for independent reading–not a summary but a reaction and recommendation. It is not the BEST way to ensure they’ve read and understood cover to cover, but I have other methods of teaching and assessing reading comprehension. Independent reading, in my mind/class, is more to get them to think of themselves as readers and to start really engaging with books.

    The Goodreads reviews get them connected to a community of readers and get them thinking about books-read-for-fun in an authentic way (namely, the way I think about books-read-for-fun). It is aslo a additional way to help them keep track of the books they have read.

    Several students have really gotten into it, posting reviews without being prompted, recommending books to me and to friends, taking the quizzes, marking books as “to read.”

    For it to be more successful across the classroom, I will have to spend more class time on it, allowing students who don’t go online regularly on their own time to compose reviews and explore. I also need to introduce the free Smartphone App, which some of my students have discovered and have been using on their own.

    One other thing I’ve been thinking about (which is similar to a couple of the ideas on the Edutopia post, sequal, next chapter, etc.) is fan fic (hopefully not slash!), in which a student would write another story within the universe of the book just finished that follows characters from the book in different adventures. Authentic, check (people do it all the time on line). Engaging, check. Could be rigorous, as well, especially if paired with teacher conferences in which students had to explain their choices by referring to character development in the original novel. Might be too time consuming. I haven’t thought about it in great depth. But it could be fun!

    I can’t wait to hear more ideas!

  2. Vanessa

    Sorry, just a bit more. I just reread the end of your post, Mark, and the part about reading improving the community sunk in a bit more. I don’t have any answers, but it does make me think that I might like to more explicitly encourage/require more of the interactive features on Goodreads. I think for some students it is easier to reply to a post or press a button to recommend a book to someone (even if they have to write a few words) than to do this in person. It just doesn’t jive with what they are used to in face-to-face peer interaction. Should I be fostering this online to the detriment of fostering it in person? Not sure. I do both in my life. Maybe one will lead to the other? Maybe both should be required in class. Would a book talk serve the purpose of in-person interaction around books?

    • Mark Isero

      Vanessa, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I am really happy and impressed that you’re having success using Goodreads with your students to promote independent reading.

      You nailed the purpose of independent reading. It’s not to assess comprehension. In my mind, it’s to encourage students to read a lot and to see themselves as readers. There are tons of other benefits, too, depending on which research we read. But my main hope with independent reading is that we all read a lot, we challenge the notion that young people of color do not read, and we see reading as personally meaningful.

      Your comments got me thinking that maybe the personal definition of authentic (relevant and valuable to each student) is more important here than the collective definition (serving a community need). Perhaps the community we’re talking about is the classroom community rather than the outside community.

      There is, of course, another definition of authentic: what real people do in the real world. And independent reading — especially the way you’re doing things with Goodreads — encourages students to share books, share their thoughts about books, and talk with other students about books. (I’m not concerned about whether those conversations are online or in “real life.”)

      Let’s keep this conversation going! I’m very interested in your next steps with Goodreads (particularly the phone app part). A few years ago, I tried Goodreads with my students — and got mixed results. I think the problem was that I required my students to do too many things, when independent reading should remain as free and clear as possible, in my opinion.

  3. Soren

    The question you raise about the community benefit of reading is interesting. I wonder if part of it has to do with the ability to see through myth, exaggeration, marketing, and political rhetoric and to critically analyze the slew of written materials with which people in power try to influence our opinions.

    As a society, we’re all better off the less we’re influenced by facile, seductive appeals from ad firms and Super PACs. Maybe the ability to read critically – to parse what’s solid from what’s fluff – is an authentic community good that could be assessed through the ability to both create and analyze commercials; political messaging; newspaper editorials; etc.

    • Mark Isero

      Soren, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I like them a lot. In our media-crazed world (where fewer people read), there’s definitely a push in schools to teach students how not to be hoodwinked by ad agencies and politicians. This is important work.

      But it sounds like you’re suggesting something bigger: to encourage similar work with reading. After all, bias and faulty evidence emerge more nimbly in text. If you have trouble reading and then watch a TV commercial, you might be able to sense when someone is leading you astray. But what happens if those same moves are in print and print alone? It’s much harder to discern what’s right from wrong.

      This is definitely why I believe so strongly that we need to have more reading instruction in our schools — particularly in our middle and high schools, and particularly across all disciplines, not just in English. We haven’t done a good enough job to demonstrate how important and urgent this work is.

      What do you think? What do you think can be done — what’s possible?

  4. Dave

    How do you make reading an act of social justice or just an act of responsible adult behavior? What an amazing question. At our school we have parents lead book discussion groups. Kind of like an Oprah reading club. These groups are called “Book Talks.” You might have heard of writing mentors. Well, this is a similar activity only for reading rather than writing. I’m not a huge fan of book clubs but having an adult who is not a teacher, from the student community, who is authentically interacting with a book – priceless.

    It works for us and I can only hope that it would work in other schools. But my comment to your post comes with a very big disclaimer – my school is in an affluent community.

    Thanks for this conversation – hope it continues.

Please share your brilliant insights!