Writing About Reading Blog Series

Writing About Reading Blog Series

Back in November, we asked you, our readers, which topics you would like us to explore for our next Blog Series.  The overwhelming majority answered “Writing About Reading.”  We were thrilled with this response, since writing about reading was high on our interest list as well.

This week, we are pleased to bring you our Writing About Reading Blog Series!
Writing About Reading Blog Series FINAL (1)

When I was a classroom teacher, writing about reading often vexed me.  I knew I wanted my students to write about their thinking while reading.  I knew writing about reading was important, but I never really knew how to go about it.  I assigned a weekly Letter to the Teacher, but these letters were often simply book summaries.  I tried teaching into the weekly letters, explaining (over and over again) how I wanted the students to write their thinking about their reading, not just a summary of their book.  I modeled my own letters. Still, I always felt as though these letters fell flat.

Today, with the Common Core State Standards outlining the expectations that students will be able to read a text closely, cite evidence from a text, analyze story elements, determine central ideas, interpret words and phrases, etc., it is more important than ever that students are able to do some of this heavy thinking on paper.   It is more important than ever that students are able to write about their reading.

So, this week, we offer you several explorations of writing about reading for your classroom.  Our schedule for the week is as follows:

Today, I will share three ways for students to write about their thinking while reading.
On Tuesday, Anna will offer a quick guide to literary essays.
On Wednesday, Stacey will write about crafting notebook entries in response to books and articles.
On Thursday, Tara will blog about offering our students choice in reading responses.
Finally, on Friday, Betsy will write about opinion writing in a K-1 collaboration.

Then, as a culminating event to our Blog Series, the Two Writing Teachers will host our first Twitter chat on Monday, February 3rd at 8:30 EST.  Scroll down to the bottom of the post for more information!  We hope you will join us to continue the discussion about writing about reading.

Let’s get started.

Three Ways to Write about Thinking While Reading

1.  Lifting a Line

I originally read about this method in Aimee Buckner’s book Notebook Connections: Strategies for the Reader’s Notebook. The idea is that students will copy, or lift, a line from their reading.  Perhaps it is a line the reader found surprising or well-written or thought-provoking.  The students copy the line on top of the page and then free write off the line.  In this way, the lifted line becomes a fresh starting place or inspiration for new thinking.

Last week, the sixth graders at my school did a shared reading of an excerpt from Dragonfly: A Childhood Memoir by W. Nikola-Lisa.  Afterwards, they lifted a line, and then they wrote off that line for ten minutes.  Looking at the students’ writing, I was able to see how they were thinking as readers.

Image 1-25-14 at 10.20 PM

As you can see above, this student showed evidence of:

  • visualizing
  • asking relevant questions
  • reading like a writer

Lifting a LineThis student:

  • is beginning to determine a central idea of the memoir
  • appreciates writing that is aesthetically pleasing
  • is asking relevant questions

The strategy of lifting a line prompts students to think deeply about a particular line of text.

2.  Character Connections Web

This approach to writing about reading works well for older students who are reading texts containing an abundance of characters.  I remember wishing I had done this when I read The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan – so many characters and relationships to remember!  The gist of this approach is students make a web, or map, to track the characters and their relationships to each other.  In the December 2013 issue of Time magazine, Dan Macsai and Noah Rayman review “The Year in Connections” on this two page spread:Two Writing Teachers

Notice the connecting lines all represent different relationships – those who feuded, collaborated, or broke up, for example.

Character Connections Time

I showed this web to a group of 5th graders, and they went to work on tracking the characters in their novels.

Character Connections

Notice the multiple levels of relationships on this student’s web of characters for Under the Cat’s Eye by Gillian Rubenstein.  Hugo is related to Jai, but also to Mr. Drake, who in turn in related to Jai, but also to Fern.

Another group of girls reading Flying Solo by Ralph Fletcher created this web of characters.


They chose to use different colors to represent different relationships, similar to the sample from Time magazine.  Notice the key in the upper right hand corner:

The key explaining the colors

3.  Visual Note Taking

When I saw this blog post on A Year of Reading about visual note taking, I knew I had to try it.  This method is quickly becoming my favorite way to take notes.  Visual note taking uses a combination of colors, words, and images to capture important information.  When I use visual note taking, I write down quotes that resonate with me, along with key words and phrases that summarize the central ideas.  I switch colors as I feel the ideas shifting.  I sketch images that capture the essence of what I’m thinking. I think of it as doodling-with-a-purpose.

My Visual Notes2These are my visual notes from a TED talk I recently watched titled, “What a Bike Ride Can Teach You” by Shimon Schoken.

My Visual NotesHere is one page of my visual notes from the keynote speech by Gay Ivey and Maria Nichols at the Reading Recovery Conference this past week.

After introducing the concept of visual note taking to a group of sixth graders, I read aloud the first chapter of the book Little Audrey by Ruth White.  As they listened, they took visual notes.

Vis Notes

Vis Notes2
I was pleased with the level of detail the students captured in their visual notes, such as that Audrey calls her sisters “the three little pigs”, or that Audrey has two different colored eyes.  They also recorded the basic story elements in words or pictures, such as the setting of row houses in a coal mining town and the names of the main characters.  I think visual note taking can not only serve as a way to keep students engaged with their reading, but also as a way to help them remember what they’ve read.

Lifting a line, creating a character connections web, and visual note taking are three ways for students to write about their reading.  All three ways provide an opportunity for students to share their thinking, offering more than just a summary of the book.   All three ways offer a glimpse into their minds as readers.

Visit again tomorrow for Anna’s quick guide to the literary essay.  Also, please remember to mark your calendars for our Twitter chat on Monday, February 3rd.  We will be using the hashtag #TWTBlog.  For more information, click here.

13 thoughts on “Writing About Reading Blog Series

  1. Dana,
    This post is so useful.I can’t wait to offer these strategies to my kids. I have shown them a bit of this kind of thinking, but not to extent you show here. I’m thinking it would be great book club work! Coincidentally, I have a student who struggles with books with multiple characters, and she read Flying Solo. It’s like you are in my classroom. Thank you!


  2. Dana,
    What a brilliant beginning to the week’s worth of writing about thinking about reading! Such an important topic that moves well beyond the old “assigning worksheets!” I can see the value of collaboratively planning to purposefully use these across a variety of content areas!

    Thanks! I quoted your three activities in my own post today as an example of just that collaboration I was thinking about: http://franmcveigh.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/do-i-have-to-teach-writing/


  3. This post is rich with ideas for reader response. I assign it every week, but my students at this time of year are running out of ideas. I will be introducing all three of these ideas to them. Thanks so much for this resource.


  4. Great post, Dana!

    All three of these are new to me. I’m more of a left-brained person, so the first one seemed like the one I would latch onto the most. That being said, I can see the need for teaching students all three of these since all three honor different learning styles (and different writing about reading skills).

    Thanks for kicking-off our Writing About Reading Blog Series! Can’t wait to see what everyone else has in store.


  5. I’m working with 3rd Graders on responding to their reading and used an idea much like the character connection web with a student. It has worked beautifully. I love the visual note taking! It’s such a broad topic and so abstract for a lot of students to think about exactly how they are going to respond to a text. We need to build their capacity at a young age for all the possibilities this writing can offer.

    I’m super excited for the posts this week and thanks for the great kick-off!


  6. These are wonderful suggestions Dana. One thing that especially resonated with me was that you showed the 5th graders the Time piece – I’m sure that simple act of modeling went so far to raise the level of their work. Reminds me of the power of models, something that’s easy to forget.


  7. I love the idea of visual notes. I think this is something I could do whole group with my kindergarten kiddos as we read. I do a comparison of gingerbread stories … that would be a perfect way to keep it all straight!


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