Tracking Readers In a Sustainable, Simple, & Significant Way

How to keep track of your students' reading progress, in a way a way that's simple enough to not get in your way but significant enough to actually help your readers grow! (A Blog Post from The Thinker Builder) For a long, long time, tracking the progress of my readers felt like a ride on a huge swinging pendulum. I was always looking for a method that would work for me, yet I always settled on something either too complicated and fussy, or too open-ended and random, or just plain meaningless, all of which created this Bermuda Triangle of short-lived attempts at tracking my students as readers. Where I write from today is where I landed after finally sliding my way off the pendulum, somewhere (I hope) near the middle of its swinging arc.

With this final post in my series related to the literacy block, I want to show you how I track readers, and of course the thinking behind it. If you are interested in the other posts, click the links below. 

The Backstory

When it comes to tracking the progress of readers during a reading group or one-to-one reading conference, I've been to both edges of the spectrum. On one end, I've used forms teeming with boxes to check and strategies broken down into every possible category. And on the other end, I've used a plain ol' notebook. Like, literally a blank notebook. The only thing I haven't used are digital note-taking programs like Evernote. Maybe that would solve everything, but I've mostly been a pen-and-paper sort of guy.

It took me awhile to find the right balance between structure and flexibility. (Hmm, this sounds a little like my other literacy block posts, doesn't it?) I wanted something simple, so it wasn't bogging down the actual interactions with the reader, but also something that enabled me, urged me even, to record significant information that would actually help me move the reader forward, and also sustainable and versatile enough for me to use throughout the year.

What's the Point?

Before I show you the record-keeping method that works for me, I want to be clear about what I think the purpose of your notes should be: to help you move readers forward. If you can't somehow track it back to that purpose, I don't think you need to write it down. 

If that's the purpose, then the most effective vehicle for me to achieve it are goals. Having a goal for each student helps me stay focused on recording things that help me move readers forward. I like to have a broad reading goal, like Fluency, and then set more specific, reachable goals based on the interactions between the student and me, small goals that allow me to be responsive to the reader's needs right now. The broad goals that I pull from include: Comprehension, Accuracy, Decoding, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Extend Meaning (And yes, there are some similarities here to the CAFE model, created by the Sisters.)

So if I have a purpose for tracking my readers, and I have goals to push towards, what exactly do I write down? For me, there are two categories of things I tend to record, both tied closely to my purpose of moving readers forward: "Now" and "Next." And when I say "write down," I mean something short, specific, and to the point.
  • NOW: This refers to observations I make about a reader right there during the reading group or conference, either evidence of progress toward a goal or a struggle that is significant which might lead to another goal later.
  • NEXT: This refers to where I want to take the reader next, based on the "now." It's the reflective thinking "in the moment," right there at the table, of my next steps with this reader. It is usually one word or a phrase, enough for me either to pick up the thread again in our next interaction, or sometimes to form a strategy group of readers with the same struggle.

A Revelation

I designed my forms in a way that solves another glitch I always ran into with other methods. I like to have a dedicated page for each student, but when I met with a reading group and had notes to make, I found myself flipping from one student's record sheet to another, wasting precious seconds and getting annoyed. So then I made a page for each group, which eliminated the constant flipping, but then I had notes about a particular student on her group page and her individual page, which made it cumbersome to look at her growth (in came the flipping again), unless of course I copied the notes from the group page over to each student's individual page, which was even worse than the constant flipping from before.

And that's when I started using sticky-notes.

I could record notes about a reader on a sticky-note, and I could stick it anywhere... on the group page, on the individual page, on her forehead.  

AND, the notes are movable! It could start out on the group page and then be transferred to the individual page later. I could stack them, rearrange them, whatever.  

AND, sticky-notes are small! Using sticky-notes was almost like giving myself permission to be brief. I already knew I didn't like using up interaction time with a reader just to write down a bunch of "stuff." The sticky-note is small enough that I literally couldn't write very much.

And hey, if an interaction with a reader brought nothing significant enough to write down, or if I just didn't have time to write it down, I simply didn't. And guess what... there wasn't a bunch of blank boxes staring at me making me feel guilty for not writing anything down. I just had a blank sticky-note ready.

The Forms I Use

What follows are the forms I created to track readers, to use within a teacher "reader binder" and in conjunction with sticky-notes, all for that same purpose of helping myself move readers forward.

Let's start with the Individual Record Sheet.

Each individual record sheet has a place for the student's name and number. (I assign each student a number to make labeling a sticky-note quicker.) There are basically three parts to the form. In the top right portion is a small table to record formal reading assessment data. I record fall, winter, and spring scores. Below this is an open area to gather sticky-notes of information not related to the student's reading goal. For example, maybe we had a small-group lesson on visualizing, and a student with a fluency goal really struggled, so I may note that here.

Let's look at Estelle's individual record sheet "in action":

The entire left side of the form is dedicated to the student's reading goals. The goal is written at the top (using the code at the bottom), and then sticky-notes are stacked from the bottom up, following the chevron arrows, literally reaching toward the goal.

When Estelle reaches her goal, or if I feel we should change her goal, I gather the post-its and stick them over on the right side (or even onto the back of the page). Let's zoom in now.

You can see five spots for goals, and I've written two for Estelle, the first one being crossed out. Goal #1 was a fluency goal about paying attention to punctuation. After working with Estelle on this, I felt like she was ready to move on to another goal, so I crossed out Goal #1, signifying it has been met, and we wrote her next goal about reading in phrases. That specific goal is what I'm tracking with sticky-notes during individual conferences and reading groups.

Let's look at the Reading Group Record Sheet now:

So when my binder is open to a specific group's page, I have a left side and a right side. And I have a sticky-note for each student in the group, literally in front of where each student sits.

On the left page, toward the spine of the binder, is a space for bare-bones planning for the group: the text we're using, the text's level, and the focus for the session. On the right page, in line with the plans, is space for group notes, to help in knowing where to go next. Sometimes it's easier to record something once here than write it six times, one for each student.

Also included near the bottom of these forms are some simple codes I use for commonly used language, like for goals and for oral reading record-keeping (e.g. if I'm listening to a student read to me and notice great expression, I could note: "E++" or if I notice trouble decoding a multi-syllable word, I could note: "D-") At the very bottom of the right side is the alphabet, to note the group's current reading level. I like to circle the letter of the current level and record the date we moved to that level. Hopefully over time, I see the level moving to the right.

Let's look at a group's record sheet "in action":

Sometimes it takes a few interactions before I fill a student's sticky-note, and other times I may need to grab a second one to really capture a significant moment. Either way, at any time I can transfer a student's sticky-note over to her individual record sheet. Let's zoom in to a couple of places now.

In the image above, you can see the use of codes to help speed up the record-keeping process.

You probably have noticed each sticky-note's set-up. I like to make a quick t-chart of my "Now/Next" format on the sticky-note, to help organize my notes. The image above shows that Frank has a comprehension goal, and on 9-15, I noted that his fluency was great, and even his comprehension was good, but out of order. When I asked him to retell what happened in the previous section, he started with the last main event, so I noted in the "next" column to work on "sequence" with Frank.

Questions You are Probably Wondering

Do you only record goal-related notes during a reading group? What about notes related to the focus of the reading group session?

I definitely lean more towards writing notes that are related to students' individual goals. I may make a couple quick notes in the "group notes" section of the form about the focus for the lesson, so that I know where we need to go next as a group, but I usually don't write something down for every student that relates to the group lesson's focus.

Why not? I don't have time to write down everything, and I want to focus on recording things that will move readers forward, and I've already identified each reader's individual goal that I think will do so right now. Also, in general, my small-group guided reading lessons support my whole-group reading lessons, and in both cases, whole-group and small-group, students have opportunities to practice a skill in their notebook or with an activity, and these I can use as formative assessments to track progress of those skills. 

If a reading group is working on cause and effect for instance, how would you have anything to write down for a student with a fluency goal? 

The general structure of a reading group session, for me, is to introduce a focus skill/strategy to the group, model the skill/strategy with a text, and then ask students to practice the skill/strategy while reading the text independently, either in writing or to share/discuss with the group at the end.

During this independent reading time, I visit with each reader (or at least half of them, and the other half at their next session) and have them read aloud to me. And THIS is the time I'm checking in with their specific reading goal and trying to relate it to what they are reading to me right now. Sure, sometimes it doesn't match up very well and sometimes I really want to discuss the skill I asked them to practice, but in general, if I write something down during a reading group about a student's individual goal, I do it during those two minutes of one-to-one interaction. 

What if you want to move a student to a different group? 

Then I do.

But what you mean is, what happens to the notes and forms, right? So if I want to switch Jerry and Newman, moving Jerry up a level and bringing Newman down a level for instance, I transfer their sticky-notes to the appropriate reading group pages in my binder, and I cross out (or white-out) their names and write the new member's name (which isn't perfect, I know, but it's a heck of a lot better than trying to rewrite all of Jerry's notes or starting a whole new group sheet just because of one small movement).

Now sometimes, especially after a seasonal formal assessment, I'll want to rearrange groups completely. In these cases, I'll start with fresh group forms, and then transfer students' current sticky-notes onto the fresh group forms. 

How do you organize the binder as a whole? 

I keep four tabs in my Reader Binder. 
  1. The first is for my monthly calendar, where I jot down my weekly reading group schedule. (See my post on Organizing Your Small Groups for details.)
  2. The second is a place for me to stuff class reports printed from the formal assessments we are required to do (like NWEA, for example).
  3. The third is where I keep my Reading Group Record Sheets. I have to pay attention when I'm hole-punching here because I want the left-side form and the right-side form to look correct. I do not copy the group forms front-to-back because if I want to change a group around, or add another sheet, I don't want the way I copied the forms to be a problem. So, if my binder is opened up to a particular group's record sheet (where I'm looking at both the left-side and the right-side), when I turn the page, I'm now staring at blank pages. When I turn the page again, now I'm looking at the record sheets for my next group.
  4. The fourth is for my individual forms, one for each student. I do not copy these front-to-back either. I want to be able to flip through and see every student's name in the upper right corner. It also allows me to easily add a second record sheet for a particular student if needed.  
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If you want to use the individual record sheet and the reading group record sheets that I talked about in the post, pick up your FREE copy by clicking HERE or clicking the image below. You'll find two versions of each, one a little more structured (which I used here) and one a little less structured., I think you should only record notes that will help you move your readers forward. Feel free to add to the comments with other strategies and formats you use to help track your readers.

How to Keep Writing Centers Fresh Without Losing Your Sanity

Get lots of great tips for keeping writing centers or stations fresh and engaging all year. (The Thinker Builder)Writing centers or stations can be a great fit to use in a structure like Daily 5, where students are choosing and working on meaningful tasks independently or with partners. Often, however, keeping the writing activities fresh and engaging within those centers can be time consuming, draining, and downright difficult.

I had tried lots of things that started out with promise but soon became stale and eventually abandoned, or that required too much of my time to change out. I wanted writing activities that I only needed to explain once before students could do independently, but also kept students' interest and engagement time after time.

And that's when I started creating my "Keep It Fresh! Writing Centers." The driving force behind creating them was to provide my students with opportunities to practice different forms of writing in a format that I could keep fresh and alive easily.

Having 17 of them now gives students plenty of variety, but each center even by itself has built-in ways to, well, keep it fresh!

The centers include a variety of types of writing. There's "Character Scrapbooks," where students create their own character to use in later stories (Picture A), and "Choose Your Chapters," where students pick a path of chapter titles to inspire their own chapter story (Picture B), and "One Prop Skits," where partners write and perform a skit with a given prop (Picture C.)

There's also "Memory Twists," where students start with a true memory and twist it into fiction (Picture D), and "Object Mash-Ups," where students choose two objects to mash together into a new invention and then describe it in detail (Picture E), and "Adventures with Strange Items," where students use three random items in an adventure story to find a lost treasure (Picture F).

Other forms of writing from some of the other centers include: persuasive writing, poetry, interviews and articles, personal narrative, opinion, letter-writing, comics, story-writing from different points-of-view, mystery, and procedural-writing. 

If you don't have any of the centers yet, and want to check one out, "Memory Twists," is totally free. You can download it from my store HERE.

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Goodness! With so many centers available, I want to give some tips and guidance for how I assemble, organize, introduce, and manage the centers, especially for those of you who have them all.

There's more than one way to put together and use my writing centers, but for now, let's stick with how I've done it with my students. I use a folder set-up, mainly so the centers are portable and students can take them to their desk or other work space.

Detailed assembly instructions are included with each center (like you see to the left) that explain where each component fit on the folder, including labels, student directions, writing organizers, writing paper, and student tips.

The materials used to assemble the folders in this way are shown below.


To help organize and manage the centers I created a free pack of "accessories," many of which I've used in my classroom. I'll dig into them here in the post, but make sure you download a set HERE. (The accessory pack is also included in any of the bundles.)

Here's a little time-lapse video of me assembling two of the centers:

A Student Sign-Up Area
My students used the writing centers as a choice during their Daily 5 rotations, so I needed an efficient way for them to sign-up for the writing center they wanted, for the rotation they wanted. The accessory pack includes two options to make this happen.

One option involves printing 3 inch x 3 inch "tags" of each center, laminating, and attaching magnetic tape to the backs. Then you choose which centers you will have available to students that week, arrange those tags on the board, and give space for students to sign up by writing their name in the appropriate box. (See below right.)

The second option, which I ended up preferring (mainly because it didn't take up space on my whiteboard) uses smaller "tags" of each center. I used Velcro dots on the back of each tag, and stuck the other side of each dot onto a sign-up sheet that I had laminated. Just like with the board display, I chose the centers I wanted to put out for the week and stuck those tags to the sign-up sheet. Students could then sign-up with a white board marker (which we'd erase for the next day). Below, you can get an idea of how my sign-up area looked last year. I kept the writing center folders that were available for the week on a shelf just below the sign-up sheet, filed in one of those vertical sorter thingies.

My normal day included three rounds of Daily 5, but the accessory pack has several versions of the sign-up sheet in case your day looks different. I normally have six writing centers set out for students in a given week, so one sign-up sheet is all I use, but you could definitely use multiple sign-up sheets if you want more than six centers available at a time (see below left).

All of those little center tags, especially the ones I'm not using for the week, need a home. So I attached extra hook-and-loop dots to the inside cover of my teacher-binder to store them (see below right).

Speaking of the teacher-binder, let's look at that next...

A Teacher Binder to Stay Organized
I keep all of the copy masters for the writing centers in a binder. (The accessory pack includes a cover and spine insert to "class it up.") A one-inch binder works well to hold materials for about four centers. I use a three-inch binder to hold the masters for all of the centers.

The rest of the materials to assemble the teacher binder like I did are shown below.

Since I use sheet protectors to keep the copy-masters in (which also can hold several extra copies of each master, as well as some of the miscellaneous items and printables that go with some centers), standard full-sheet binder tabs don't work well because the tab part doesn't stick out far enough from the edge of the sheet protectors. This is why I purchased the Post-It sticky tabs, and just customized them with labels for each center. The accessory pack includes a set of printable labels with all the writing center titles. The pictures below show how I created my binder tabs. (You could also just write the titles on the tabs by hand.)

Introducing the Writing Centers to Students
How you introduce the writing centers to your students depends a lot on how you want the centers to be used. Since I used a Daily 5 framework, where the writing center folders were available for students to choose from while I met with guided-reading groups, I needed students to be able to work independently on the writing activities. Several features of the writing centers help students in this regard, like easy to follow directions on what to do, as well as tip cards to strengthen students' writing.

Still, I found the most success when I introduced each center to students before allowing them to choose them on their own. So for the week in which I wanted to begin, I took four of my writing centers, and introduced one a day, Monday through Thursday. 

When I introduce a center, I gather students around and show them the folder. We walk through the directions and I orient them to where each piece is found: the planner, the writing paper, the tip cards, etc. Then, depending on the center, we'll either talk through an example together or I'll give students the planner and writing paper to do a practice-run with a partner.

On Friday, I remind the class of the four centers we introduced, and then I place them in the sign-up area. We then talk through the sign-up procedure. When a student signs up for a particular center on a particular round, she takes the folder to her desk at the beginning of the round and returns the folder at the end of the round so it's ready for the next person who signed up for that particular writing center.

Some of the centers are meant to be done in partnerships, like "One Prop Skits," "Direction Drawings," and "Newspaper Memories." But many of them work well as partner OR individual centers. To signal whether a center can be done with a partner or not, I just put stickers on the edge of the folder. A single sticker means it must be done alone. Two stickers means it must be done with a partner. And a single sticker and a pair of stickers means the center can be done either way.

The following week, the four centers that were introduced become available for students to sign-up to use. I usually wait a week or two before I introduce another four writing centers.

Managing the Writing Centers through the Year
Once I've introduced all the centers to the students, which takes me about six to eight weeks, I begin rotating the centers available to students. The number of centers I have available to students in a given week is mainly dependent on what I'm requiring from students during that week. Sometimes I leave the writing centers completely optional, which means I don't need to put out as many... maybe 4-6 for a week. But often I will require students to complete a certain number of centers, so I need to make sure the supply meets the demand... maybe 6-10 for the week. If there is a particular center that I want all students to complete during a week, I will just give each student the needed materials for the center to keep in their own writing folder.

In the accessory pack, I've included a couple of student record sheet options for students to keep track of what is required of them. One is more of a contract set-up, and the other is more of a tic-tac-toe choice board.

During the week, I have a basket for students to turn in completed writing activities. Usually on Fridays, we carve out a little time to share some of the final pieces. I record the information I need about who completed what. The accessory pack includes two teacher record sheet options.

At the end of the week, I change out some or all of the writing center folders, and make sure each one is "freshened up." For example, on "Character Scrapbooks," I may change the type of character students create from a "very old person" to a "dog."  Or for "One Prop Skits," I may change the prop from a "ruler" to a "calculator."

Since this is one of the crucial parts of maintaining the centers long term, TONS of ideas and suggestions for keeping each center fresh are included.

Click the image below to see the Big Bundle of writing centers!

Or click below to grab my free Memory Twists center and free Accessory Pack!

If there's a question you have about the centers that I didn't answer, let's chat in the comments!

The "Do NOT Do This!" List for Writing Ideas

I'm on the Who's Who collaborative blog today writing about... writing! Here's a little excerpt...

"The thinking behind the "Do NOT Do This!" list comes from my belief that one of the most integral qualities of a strong writer is the guts to be bold... to take a risk, take a stand, take a different path, carve a new path... to look at the act of writing as an ongoing experiment. Writers surely fail more often this way. But writers surely learn more this way. And here and there... a gem surfaces."

I'd love for you to go read the whole post... right HERE!

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