informational writing · Jennifer Serravallo · nonfiction writing · reading · reading-writing connections

Quality Reading Instruction Leads to Better Writing: A Review of Jennifer Serravallo’s Independent Reading Assessment 

When I tested Jennifer Serravallo’s Independent Reading Assessment (Scholastic), I was an immediate believer. Finally, here is a reading assessment that gives rich, clear information about upper grade readers, using an authentic reading task (It is the only reading assessment system to date in which readers read a whole book. This assessment system is directly correlated to reading instruction, and leaves teachers not only knowing just what to teach, but also understanding expectations for proficient readers at a certain grade level more fully.
Here’s what you get in a grade-level IRA kit:
  • Authentic trade books for students at a range of levels
  • Pads of sticky notes with pre-printed questions (with page numbers so students know where they go if they fall out of a book)
  • A teacher’s guide with clear instructions
  • Online access to a handy digital assessment tool, student reports, printable forms, video tutorials, and more
  • A bin to hold everything



To administer the assessment, the teacher gives students a book to read at a level on which the teacher would like to assess the student. There are pre-printed sticky notes the teacher or student can attach to certain pages where the student should stop to answer questions. The student reads the entire book, stopping and jotting responses at the prescribed places. The teacher collects the students’ responses, and uses the teacher’s guide to evaluate them.

For nonfiction, the questions help teachers gather data in four categories: Main Ideas, Key Details, Vocabulary, and Text Features. The teacher’s guide has rubrics and sample answers for each of these categories to help teachers with proper evaluation. Because the descriptions for each level of each category are so rich (i.e. to be scored as exceptional in the main idea category, a level T nonfiction reader must articulate complexity or duality in books with multiple perspectives, points of view, and angles on a topic), scoring the assessment is its own form of professional development.

But I’m not here to talk about reading instruction. I’m here to talk writing. Of course, reading and writing are inextricably linked, so the ways in which quality reading instruction can lift the level of quality writing are endless. As an extension to our recent blog series, Diving Into Information Writing, I am focusing exclusively on the Nonfiction Independent Reading Assessment (IRA), though the Fiction IRA has similar potential to lift students’ writing.

For the purposes of this review, I use a guided reading level O book (approximately correlated to DRA levels 34-48 and lexile levels 500-900) as a case in point, an expected level for an exceptional third grade reader or a proficient fourth grade reader at this point in the year (November).

Included in the teacher’s guide are sections with overviews for each level that help teachers not only to understand what to expect and look for when assessing the student responses at that level, but also that help teachers to know what is most important to teach at that level.

The information in this section has powerful implications for writing practice and instruction. For example, level O texts have around 10-15 sentences per page or section, and a main idea is often carried across more than one page. Also, many sentences are complex and include linking (because, also, unlike) and temporal (later, eons ago, in the future) words and phrases to help readers understand implications between details. All of those texts characteristics are ready writing teaching points.

Of course, we don’t expect the level of kids’ writing to always match their reading. For example, a third grader reading at a level O in November would be just above benchmark, and might write texts at around level K that fully meet grade-level writing requirements. But if students aim to write texts that more closely match their reading level, imagine how rich their writing could become.

3rd Grade Main Idea Rubric
Level O Main Idea Rubric
The assessment rubric itself is a powerful tool not only for its intended purpose, but also as a checklist for writing instruction. Here is just a sample of the way in which the assessment descriptors at level O for a proficient reader might inform writing instruction.
Main Idea: A proficient reader can determine the main idea of a single section and of the entire book. For the former, a reader might quote or paraphrase a sentence or heading that encapsulates the main idea of that part.
  • Implications for writing instruction (possible teaching points): 
    • Nonfiction writers must hold fast to their main ideas, both of sections of the entire book. They consider, did I keep my focus enough on the main idea that someone reading this figure out what the main idea is?
    • Nonfiction writers give readers clues about the main idea. They might do this with introductory sentences, or in headings, or with the words they decide to bold. They don’t just choose any words or sentences for these parts.
Key Details: A proficient reader must be able to determine the important details that support a main idea and analyze details to compare and contrast.
  • Implications for writing instruction (possible teaching points):
    • Nonfiction writers don’t just give any details about the topic. They carefully choose details that support a main idea.
    • Nonfiction writers leave out details that don’t support a main idea.
    • Nonfiction writers know that giving plenty of details helps readers learn more about a topic. If an idea is important enough to be considered a main idea, the writer should be able to write at least 10 sentences about it, and often more. (NB: This number is based on the level O text description in the teacher’s guide and would change depending on student levels.)
Vocabulary: A proficient reader uses context, either from the text or the text features, to figure out the meaning of a word or phrase.
  • Implications for writing instruction (possible teaching points):
    • Nonfiction writers know their goal is to teach others about a topic. They include important, scholarly words someone would need to know to understand the topic.
    • Nonfiction writers make choices about how to define words for readers. Sometimes they include exact definitions right in the text. Sometimes they use the word in a way that the reader could figure out the meaning, such as by using the word in a sentence or by saying more about it in a follow-up sentence. Sometimes they define the word in a sidebar or in a glossary.
Text Features: A proficient reader studies text features and gleans meaning that is additional to the text.
  • Implications for writing instruction (possible teaching points):
    • Nonfiction writers use text features not just to illustrate what the text says, but to say more.
    • Nonfiction writers consider what information is best taught in the text, and what information is best taught using a text feature.
Whatever reading assessment or instructional system you choose, you might consider ways it can inform your writing instruction and, in turn, your students’ writing practice. After all, as Samuel Johnson said,  “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; one will turn over half a library to make one book.”

12 thoughts on “Quality Reading Instruction Leads to Better Writing: A Review of Jennifer Serravallo’s Independent Reading Assessment 

  1. I have recently moved from resource K-5th grade to middle school. But some of my students are reading at 2nd, 3rd or 4th grade even tho they are in 7th or 8th grade. However they asre very sensitive about their reading level (and their age) that they are very picky about books that look or sound too babyish for these 12 and 14 year olds. Would these assessment not look to babyish? And can you recommend some books or stories that might appeal to older students but be at their reading level


    1. I think you could pull off using the 4th grade books with middle school kids, but probably not the 2nd and 3rd grade books. This is definitely a challenge. Best of luck with this.


  2. Hi Anna,

    Thanks for this review. I’m a graduate of Lucy’s program and have been using Jen’s IRAs in my classroom for several years now. I agree that they are incredibly helpful.

    What I don’t understand is why TC continues to recommend running records as the primary means of reading assessment rather than Jen’s IRAs. Like you, I feel that the best way to assess whether a child is ready for a whole book at a given level is to assess them on a whole book at that level.

    Feel free to email me, if you prefer ( Thanks so much.



    1. Hi April, Great question. The units of study do say that teachers can use running records or choose an assessment system that works for them. Of course, it’s important that all facets of a literacy program work together. Reading instruction, writing instruction, assessment. Great if we can find and spread the word about tools that do this.


  3. I am a literacy coach in FL and we are trying out the IRA kit in three classrooms(3-5 grade). This resource, along with professional development from Lea Leibowitz on independent reading levels and small group instruction, is transforming the way we think about our teaching based on text level complexity. Our staff is beginning to have deeper conversations about the reading and thinking our students need to do. The rubrics give a clear picture of what a student should do at each level. I was so excited to see this blog pop up in my email today about how we could take the IRA assessment and connect it now to our writing. Love it!


      1. These two resources were not planned or designed to go together, but based on my experience they very much do. Both use F&P/Guided Reading levels, so they already are are connected in that way. Both highlight a skill system that uses the CCSS as a base and extends to qualities of good reading based on text characteristics at each level.
        The IRA gives more detailed feedback than running record assessments and provides way more opportunities for writing connections. So yes, I say if it’s feasible for you, use both.


  4. Such great reminders, Anna!

    “Whatever reading assessment or instructional system you choose, you might consider ways it can inform your writing instruction and, in turn, your students’ writing practice. After all, as Samuel Johnson said, “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; one will turn over half a library to make one book.”

    It makes so much sense to use a “whole” text for assessment when the goal is reading real books! Thanks for these teaching connections!


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