As a reading teacher, the first thing I do at the start of each school year is try to find out as much as I can about the relationship my students have with books and reading. The ever-popular reading survey is a quick and easy way to do that. I have been using reading surveys for three of the five years I have been teaching, and have always found them to be helpful. I like to give one in the fall and one at the end of the school year. It’s an interesting comparison, and a helpful measure of what my students have learned about their own reading processes over the year.
This year I used Nancie Atwell’s September Reading Survey. I liked the format; the questions addressed a wide range of reading issues — from exposure at home to strategies the student uses. I gave the survey to my students within the first week of school and away they went, pencils furiously moving. At the start of the school year with 6th graders, many of the answers are thin and give very little information other than telling me my students lack the language needed to talk about the reading process and books. These surveys help me see which students have a firm grasp on reading, choosing books, and using strategies and those who need more help. They help me find a place to start.
And now, several months later, we are officially halfway done with this school year. Second quarter grades have been posted, and report cards have been sent home. It is like clockwork that at this point in the school year I start to have a mid-year crisis of sorts. I freak out. I think about how much time has gone by and how much more my kids need to learn. I start to think of all the instructional time I have wasted and really start to wonder, “Have my students learned anything at all this year?!”
This year as I was contemplating what has been taught and where to take my reading instruction, what I was really wondering is what my students have learned so far. Are they more competent readers? Do they know what strategies to use when they get stuck? Are they taking anything away from the lessons I teach? And most importantly, do they enjoy reading more? I was feeling unsure. I thought back to the reading surveys at the start of the year. Very few students could name strategies they used as a reader or list books or authors they loved.
I decided to give my students another survey. This survey would be similar to the one that I gave them five months ago. It would tell me what they had learned so far, and with a comparison to the September reading survey, if they were growing as readers. I wanted to know what my kids were taking away from our 70 minutes of reading class every other day. I wanted to know where to go from here. What lessons need to be re-taught, and what were my students still lacking as readers and lovers of books?
I sat down and wrote up a reading survey that included specific things taught this year, as well as the students’ personal thoughts about books and the reading process. I revised the survey form — you can download a blank copy of my new survey by clicking here.
When I handed the survey out to my kids, I was expecting to hear the usual whiny groans of “We did this already Miss Doherty.” But to my surprise, as I was explaining the assignment and the similarities to differences from the September Reading Survey, what I heard were eager responses, “Oh yeah! I remember that!” “Oh, this one’s different!” “How long do we get to work on it?” It was as if my 6th graders were excited to write about their thoughts on reading and books. I think they were happy that their knowledge was so important to me.
Learning from the Surveys
This time, their responses were much more fruitful for me than early in the fall. Many more of my students were able to name authors they liked. Most students were able to list reading strategies they thought they were skilled at using, and WHY the strategies helped them as readers. Some students came up to me and asked, “Do I have to list just three of my favorite books? What if I have more that that?” Looking over the shoulders of my students and reading their mid-year responses was encouraging. It was validating to see that they are learning and growing. They are becoming more proficient at talking about books and reading.
I can’t say that every single one of my students wrote amazing in-depth responses that show they are thoughtful, purposeful readers. Like every teacher, I have those kids who think deeply, are truly insightful, and understand how and why they read. Then there are those kids who struggle more. These kids know they are using strategies when they read and choose books. They are starting to understand and use more thoughtful language for discussing their strategies, and they keep trying. And then there are those kids who seem to need a lot more time to understand the concepts.
There are kids who are still having trouble choosing books to read, and who don’t yet like or understand reading and why it’s important. But even these students are trying to understand. They are learning how to learn. Like James for instance, who came up to me while he was completing his survey and asked, “What strategies?” I reminded James that we talk a lot about reading strategies during class and he said, “I know, but I can’t remember their names . . . oh! Can I go look at the chart we made?” He pointed to a chart with three sections: Activating Schema, Making Connections, and Visualizing. Beneath each heading were statements written in the words of my students explaining each strategy and why or how it was useful to them.
Of course I let James look at the chart. The reading survey is not a test. It is a way to access the knowledge inside the heads of my students. And even though James didn’t know the strategy names off the top of his head, and couldn’t verbalize why or how they are useful, he did know how to access that information and that it is an important part of our learning as a class. Heading into the second half of this school year, that is an important place for me to start with James. The rest of the surveys, as well as my observations while my students were completing them, hold a plethora of validating, encouraging, and most importantly, useful information to guide and strengthen my teaching with all students.