Nancie Atwell · reading · reading workshop · reading-writing connections

Writing about reading: offering students choice in reading responses

When I first began teaching, Nancie Atwell’s In The Middle was my go to PD book for all things to do with reading and writing workshop.  I modeled so many of my teaching practices on what I learned through that book and through a few workshops with Nancie.  More than anything else, I wanted to create the environment Nancie had, one in which each of my students would feel the same sense of passion and personal investment in their reading and writing lives.

Among my “I must do this in my classroom” activities was Nancie’s once a week literary letters from and to her students.  “Through our correspondence my students learn … about the worlds of writing and literature,” she wrote,  “what good writers do, what good readers do, how readers of literature think and talk, what books are good for, and how kids can get in on it.”  A rich reading life is closely connected to a rich writing life, I think, one fuels and inspires the other. I wanted my kids to experience this connection,  so  I  began the practice of these once a week letters in my class, too.  And, just as it had for Nancie, these letters became important  conversations between my students and myself.

We wrote back and forth about themes, characters, ideas and life.  With each book they read, class readaloud, shared discussion, and minilesson, my students grew as readers and became comfortable navigating  varied literary landscapes.  Their letters reflected this growth – they became a place in which to experiment with ideas, pose interesting questions, wonder about characters and story lines.  There was no specific format,  no page specifications or particular questions they had to answer.  These letters evolved naturally, and their content reflected my students’ real time  reading experiences.   I loved the way these  letters allowed me to nudge thinking, make suggestions, pose questions   –  they were an extension, really, of my reading conferences,  as well as  an authentic way in which to assess reading workshop.  My students loved the letters, too, and many said it was one of the things they missed most about their reading lives after they’d left sixth grade.

Even after Nancie published The Reading Zone, in which she rethought the purpose and structure of the literary letters, and moved over to letter-essays once every three weeks, I didn’t see the need to change practices in my own classroom. My kids were reading lots of wonderful books, and they were also writing lots of wonderful letters: the literary letters were working for us.


But, there were some doubts I’d had from the beginning which continued to nag:

  • how much time was spent writing about reading as opposed to reading?

  • my struggling readers sometimes needed help composing these letters – wouldn’t it be better for them if they spent this time with me being guided in their reading as opposed to their writing about reading?

  • sometimes my kids would add a sketch or diagram to their letters, sometimes a picture from a magazine or a snippet from a newspaper, and these gave me added  insights into their thinking  – how could I act upon and grow these ideas?

  • was this weekly letter becoming a chore rather than an authentic response to reading?

  • was there another way??

And then I was lucky enough to spend a whole week with Mary Ehrenworth at the TCRWP Summer Institute.  In her characteristically enthusiastic way, backed up with tons of supporting research into best practices, Mary reiterated the one essential truth about reading workshop:  the primary goal was to keep our kids reading…a lot.   Yes, part of our reading instruction is to teach  our kids how  to be able to critique literature, and to how to articulate their ideas about literature in  well written essays and reading responses.  But, our kids need options – they need other avenues through which to express their ideas.  Mary shared some beautiful examples of creative approaches to reading responses:

  • emotional timelines

  • setting / plot maps

  • illustrations

  • thought clouds

  • title art

  • cartoons

The journals were lovely to look at, but, more importantly, they expressed such a range and depth of thought and creativity.   I knew immediately that my own students would love the opportunity to do work like this.  After all, bits and pieces of art work had been filtering into their literary letters already, my kids were definitely ready for this!

In the new school year, I introduced the idea of “creative reading responses” midway through  the second quarter, once I had laid the groundwork for reading workshop, and after we’d spent some time exchanging our usual literary letters.

I created a simple list of some ideas they could tackle  :

                                              The “creative reading response”: making your thinking visible

The Title

The characters

A powerful scene

An unexpected turn of events

The setting – or a change in setting

The mood of the story

A series of important scenes

Thought shots

Symbols which represent ideas or characters in the book







“Let’s see what you can do!” I challenged them one Monday morning,  and then I waited to see what they would come up with.  That Friday, the day of our first gallery walk, they blew me away:

Creative response for Olive’s Ocean

Creative response for The Hunger Games

Creative response for Gregor, The Overlander – contrasting worlds characters can inhabit within a single text.

Creative response for The Book Thief –  important events in a character’s progress through a novel

My kids were so excited to see what everyone else had created, how their classmates had  made their “reading thinking” visible.  As they walked round the classroom marvelling at each others’ varied responses to literature, they were also learning new ways to respond to texts – titles and symbols came alive, settings were beautifully described through maps.  Best of all, some of the most stunning work came from my struggling readers and writers, here was  a wonderful way to express their thoughts and ideas!

Over time, I introduced other reading response  ideas I had learned at TC:

Creating an “emotional time line” as a way of explaining thoughts about a character’s development over the course of a book.

Being able to cite evidence for theories about the text:


“Writing long” from sticky note jottings:

And, over time, my kiddos came up with some ideas of their own:

  • heart maps for characters

  • a letter from one character to another, and the response

  • letters of advice to a character

  • a character or  novel scrapbook page

  • character Twitter chats

  • Facebook pages

  • postcards

Last summer, after another learning-packed Summer Institute workshop, Mary Ehrenworth generously offered to share more student samples on the TCRWP website, truly a treasure trove of reading response ideas: .  I keep a notebook  filled with reading response ideas  and examples from my students, and from PD books, teacher blogs, and workshops I attend, as well as   a class binder of examples for my kids to refer to.

I introduce these ideas one at a time, spaced over many weeks.  They become part of our literary tool box, one we can reach into when we respond to our texts for independent reading, book clubs, and readalouds.  They also become the foundation for more complex tasks like forming thematic analysis across various texts, and writing  literary essays.   Yes, we still write our literary letters once a month or so, but in the weeks between we get to change things up a bit. Because these days in room 202, we have choice in how we respond to our texts.   It has, I think, made our reading experiences richer and deeper, and my students love this freedom of choice .

This has been, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing.

We would love to hear more of your thoughts on writing about reading in a Two Writing Teachers community get-together of sorts. Please join us on February 3 at 8:30EST for a Twitter Chat on Writing about Reading. Please use the hashtag #TWTBlog. We hope to see you there!

36 thoughts on “Writing about reading: offering students choice in reading responses

  1. I always worry about the time, especially class time, spent on written responses when the students need to read A LOT ! I can see students wanting to finish (and being able to) these types of activities on their own time. There are so many opportunities for choice that are evidence of thinking and writing without a traditional paragraph form!

    Thanks again for the conversation!


  2. Tara,
    I enjoyed reading about the evolution of reader response in your classroom. Isn’t it funny how when we turn our students loose on an idea they just make it amazing. They help lead the way. The examples from your student are rich, interesting – and quite creative. Thanks for sharing so many possibilities.


  3. Tara,
    I love the variety of options presented here. You can see the depth of thought in each of entry. It seems to promote creativity AND rigorous thinking around books. So often my students don’t value their notebooks. They don’t see the purpose for jotting except for teacher approval. With this approach perhaps the notebook will be a more valued tool. Thank you for this great post!


    1. Thanks for the kind words, Julieanne. It’s that combination of creativity and rigorous thinking we aim for in these notebook entries. And, sharing them with each other helps us grow as readers and thinkers.


  4. I’m just now starting to play with the idea of readers notebooks. This post makes me eager to very started. What would you suggest as a good starting place mid year for 4th grade- free response or structured. I have kids still struggling with literal meaning


    1. I always start with structure and then move (gradually) to work of the sort described above. Perhaps a good starting point might be having your kids pick two or three post it noes from their reading and write long about these. The TCRWP link I shared has some examples of work like this.


  5. Wonderful article. The purpose of Reader’s Notebooks in my classroom has really evolved over the past three years as well. My students continue to write me letters twice a month, but their work in their notebooks get them ready to write those letters. I attended a wonderful workshop with Mary as well. I love that I can return to my class and implement many of the ideas she presents almost the next day. This kind of notebook work is the most authentic way that students can respond to what they read. Love it!


    1. Mary is so inspiring, I always return from her workshops with interesting and meaningful ideas which I can’t wait to bring into my classroom. And you are right about the authenticity of this work, Jen – I can see it in the way my kids treasure their reading journals. This work is meaningful to them.


  6. I appreciate the reader’s response ideas! I typically have my students respond in google docs. They have a document (they’ve shared with me at the beginning of the year) that allows me to read their thinking as they type (if I’m watching). This has proven very convenient for me and as soon as the students know how to type proficiently, it’s rather easy for them as well. But I think at the end of the day (figuratively speaking) I enjoy and appreciate these hand made journals more. There is a personal fingerprint and view into the child’s mind that the google doc doesn’t always portray. My eight year old students are still learning how to form a quality sentence. I have given them a pre scripted formula for their response. As a result, I often don’t get a true response, but rather just evidence that they know what is happening in their story. I don’t want to underestimate eight years, but it seems that their ability to think deeply, especially through writing, is lacking, or not developmentally there yet. I will try to incorporate some of your ideas into my reader’s response time.


    1. I hadn’t thought about responding to literature through google docs, Angie – something new to experiment with. I imagine your eight year olds would love to try their hand at a creative response or two.


  7. Great post! This reminds me a little of Handmade Thinking (, which has become one of my favorite options for reading response. Students are almost always more thoughtful and invested when I give them a blank sheet of paper than when I give them, say, a Venn diagram (although of course those sorts of structures can also be useful). Options for creative response help students show the true depth of their understanding and push them to make and articulate new connections. Thanks for sharing!


  8. I’ve been working with Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s literary signposts this school year, and I really like them because of their intent for readers’ independent use–not just during “school reading,” but when readers are reading their own self-selected novels. I’ll have to admit that now that the signposts have been internalized, I’m using them myself in the books I’m reading for my adult book club! I couldn’t help but think, as I read this article about student choice in literary response, that the two correlate and could be used together to further enhance student understanding and enjoyment of reading. It’s my firm belief that our major task as reading educators is to foster and nurture in our students a genuine LOVE for reading. Too often, what we do in school does not help us in this task.


    1. I began the school year with the Notice and Note strategies, Camille – and it was so worth the time and effort. Absolutely, the kids internalized these strategies – I think this is because they made such sense and dovetailed so beautifully with our natural reading processes. The playful aspect of creative and varied responses, and the fact that they have choice, just as they do in selecting books to read, helps to extend that love of reading. Thanks for sharing your ideas!


  9. Nancie, my second hero (first was MLK). I love the letters…but I love how it has evolved, how she has also changed up. Thank you for sharing your wonderful class and what they have done. Do you mind if I share these pictures? Thank you so much. How wonderful if we could get grade level teams and then whole schools approaching response this way. xo


    1. Please feel free to share the pictures – it helps to have a visual to share with our kids. And wouldn’t it be wonderful to teach in a school where everyone was working together…I’m still awaiting that day!


  10. Beautiful ideas, Tara-Thanks for so much here that I can share & use! We place a large emphasis on capturing all kinds of ideas through field journals and I want students to capture their favorite scenes in books, scenes that are turning points in the stories, to show they are visualizing, an important part of reading well I think. Your students’ responses are awesome to see and read! Thank you!


    1. I’d love to see some examples of your students’ field journals, Linda. You travel to such interesting and diverse places, it would be interesting to see what your kids make of these travels, and the different forms their notes might take.


  11. Thank you for all the samples. I really like the idea of a gallery walk. I would like to show them to my own students. Some of my students do a great job of sharing their thinking in their reader’s notebooks, while others, not so much. 🙂 I’ve been trying to give more choice in how they share their thinking (blog, paper), but not in what they actually put on paper. I’m taking your idea to school tomorrow. By the way, one of my dreams is to attend TCRWP one of these days.


    1. We do these “gallery walks” quite often, Julie. It’s a great way to jump start ideas and plant seeds for new ways of thinking about things. And, wouldn’t it be cool to do a summer institute together?!


  12. Great post! Often I question whether my students are getting bored with response letters. As I am getting ready to start book clubs I was thinking about how to get them to respond. This inspires me to let them continue to have control and respond to the text in a way that is meaningful to them. Thanks!


  13. I heard Mary speak and share reading responses at the Oct Reunion Sat and encouraged my students to respond this way too. Such great thinking comes through when they create an Emotional Timeline. An idea they created is choosing a birthday present for characters – they really need to know that character to buy them the perfect present!! Loved your student examples! Thanks for sharing!!


  14. Tara,
    I have been thinking a lot about what students do and many enjoy, perhaps like your literary letters… But is that a response that will continue after they leave our classrooms? Thanks for sharing so many examples of student thinking. Our kiddos definitely rise to the challenge! Can they show us their learning in different ways? Your post shows us how to do this! And of course I especially like the list that the students added as “their own ideas.”

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!


    1. Hi Fran,
      The response work that continues after my kids leave my classroom depends very much on how these habits are nurtured in the classrooms they move to. In the TC project schools, and in a few schools that I have seen, this becomes work that is carried out across grade levels, it’s a systemic approach to cultivating a rich and varied response to reading habit. This is really the meaningful sort of work that we as teachers should be attempting to do across grade level – otherwise, that work exists in a vacuum. Although my kids may not (in fact, they do not) continue this type of work in 7th. grade and beyond, they do think about themselves as readers who respond to texts in a writerly way, because they have lived this connection so deeply in our year together. They miss being given the opportunities to continue this work. Given the circumstances, that is the best that I can hope for.


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