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.  
*   *   *

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.


  1. Absolutely amazing! Love this and will share you blog with my teacher friends.
    Stephanie from Principal Principles

  2. Replies
    1. In third grade, my team did periodic fluency checks, which would be similar to a running record, where we used assessment passages that came within our reading program. And then we had more formal assessment measures in the fall, winter, and spring. But I did not do full-on running records very often, except for my below-level readers who were in a reading intervention (LLI), and thus were progress monitored much more often.

      However, probably like many teachers, I developed kind of shorthand to do informal "mini" running records with whatever students were reading. Instead of having a copy of the text to mark on, I just use a sticky-note, and mark the same sort of errors ("O" for omission, "S" for substitution, "R" for repetition, etc.). And then for a significant error, I write: "principal (practical)" (where 'principal' was what the student said, and 'practical' was the actual word in the text). This helped me notice error patterns in an informal way.

  3. Ahhh! I cannot WAIT to try this out! I have struggled for years - YEARS, I tell you! - with a system and love the way this just may have brought new life to my guided reading, since I hate meeting with groups because of the data collection piece! THANK YOU!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. You are brilliant! I am excited to try anecdotal notes with your system this year! :)
    I'm wondering you you would consider sharing a version that has DRA number levels at the bottom instead of F&P letters? I would love a copy if this is an easy edit for you!

    1. Brandi, that's a great suggestion. I went in and added a "replacement page" with DRA levels instead of F&P. So just go back and click on the link, and it should be there for you! And for everyone! :) Thanks,

    2. Oh, God bless you! This system is making my heart happy, and the DRA levels are an added bonus! Thank you again!

  6. WOW! This is so helpful, Michael! Thank you for all of the detailed information and free resource. I have tried many ways to take anecdotal notes, but this is definitely how I will be doing it from now on! I will be sharing this with my team as well.

    Take Care!
    Kristina Zucchino
    {Grade 3 with Mrs. Z}

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your thinking. It's a relief to see that I'm not the only one struggling through record keeping and progress monitoring. I also appreciate the insights you shared regarding your classroom library in another post.
    Mrs. Star... Grade 3

  8. This is absolutely brilliant!!! The struggle is REAL and this is a practical and smart solution! I love the "Now" and "Next" and the flexibility of the sticky notes. I appreciate that you offer so many of your resources for free and invest so much time to share your wonderful strategies. I truly, truly appreciate you!!!

    1. Aw, thanks, Kelly! And I sure appreciate you visiting my blog so often and staying in touch with your kind comments.

    2. Of course! You are my saving grace!! I always look for your blog first on my feed when I finally have the time to sit and read. I know it will always be something great and tangible that I can use immediately. I can't tell you how much I appreciate you. As a fellow (wanna-be) blogger, I know how much time it takes to put together a blog post. It makes me even more appreciative. :) I hope you don't mind, but I will be mentioning this on my blog and sending people your way!

  9. Hi Michael,
    I would like to know, as a first year intern, will I be able to use these tracking records as evidence for my e portfolio?
    Kind regards,

    1. Hi Christine,
      Thanks for checking! As long as you keep my copyright info in the bottom corners, that's fine. If you are including blank copies that would be distributed for others to access and use, please be sure to provide credit/links back to the blog post.

    2. Thank you Michael! Will do!
      Excellent work by the way! Love these tracking records!
      Starting my Block week next week and these are going to help me so much!
      It will be wonderful to share them with my mentor teacher.
      Christine :)

  10. Thank you! Can't wait to give it a go.

  11. Wow Michael! What a lot of thought (and no doubt trial and error) has gone into your system - I think this is something that would work for me too - thank you so much for sharing!

  12. Thank you so much for all of this work you are sharing with us. I love your detailed sheets and the idea is brilliant to move the sticky notes to each student. Like others have stated before me, I've tried various ways to keep track of anecdotal notes but nothing seems to work. I'm going to give this a try. Thank you again.

  13. This is fantastic! I am researching reading groups and so far this is the BEST one yet! so easy and smooth! I teach 2nd and I have yet to find and use an easy way to keep records of my students during a small guided reading group! YOU did it and simplified it for me!! so excited! I am including your blog and resources in my research paper =) thank you!

  14. Love this! I, too, have ended up with the "sticky note solution". I like the way you organize your stickies a little better than the way I do mine and your "now"/"next" T-charts are great! You've given me some terrific ideas to tweak my binder.

    One thing I do in my binder (that may or may not be effective) is put a blank overhead transparency between each page. My paranoia when I started was that my stickies might de-stick-ify and fall off the page. So, in an attempt to be proactive, I inserted transparencies for their weight and static cling as I flip through pages. No lost sticky notes yet, but it might be overkill. They might never have come loose anyway.

    As a share-back for the great ideas you've posted, if you're interested, I made a single-page goal sheet for my students to use to motivate them toward practicing their reading goals. They keep it in a duotang in their book boxes. It's kind of cute.... a boy or girl stick figure climbs stairs toward his/her goal. I just don't know how to attach it to my comment. Let me know if you want to take a look & I'll figure out a way to get it to you (or anyone else interested).

    Thanks so much for your fantastic blog!

  15. When I print these incredible forms, many of the lines don't print. Any ideas?

    1. Hi Cathy,
      Everything is printing fine for me. I'm not sure what the problem might be. Be sure you download the file and open it as a pdf, and be sure you have the latest version of Adobe. Here is a link with many troubleshooting tips. I hope you get it to work!

  16. This is awesome! I, too, use Post Its because I like the flexibility. But I felt like I needed to rewrite them to make things "more official". This often doesn't happen and I just end up with a big mess of Post Its to sort through to find my info. When I saw the two page spread with a Post It positioned in front of each student's spot I may have literally heard angels sing!!

  17. Thank you for such a detailed explanation of every part of your forms. I know it takes time to write everything down, and we really appreciate it. Thanks so much for sharing the forms, which seem to make a lot of sense. I want to try them.

  18. Hi Michael, I am a year 5 teacher in Australia and have come across your blog. I run a "Book Club" in my classroom which is a version of guided reading but with an older grade. I am looking for a way to track their progress with the skills we are practising each week. Did you use this with the year 5 class you taught or something different?? Thanks Georgia

    1. Hi Georgia! I didn't get my tracking forms refined until I was teaching third grade, but I think they would work fine in grade 5 guided reading. The individual form I use is really based on setting and tracking individual goals for students, rather than whole class skills that all students are working on at the same time. So, for example, if your class is practicing "identifying the underlying message" within your book club groups, and that is the one thing you really want to focus on "checking in" with each student about during the week (which I think this is a perfectly viable way to spend your time), I think a more efficient tracking method in that case would be to organize your record-keeping around the skill (or group of related skills), with ALL students listed on the same sheet. You could still have individual sheets for each student for other notes, but it's going to save you a lot of "flipping pages" to have everyone on one page, IF the focus skill is what you really want to focus on.

      I hope that I'm making sense and that I jumped to the right assumptions about your situation. Hope that helps!

  19. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  20. Thank your so much for all your hard work and sharing it with us!

  21. LOVE your system! I have groups that do not have 6 kids though (2 groups of 7, 1 group of 5, and 1 group of 2) because of where their F&P levels are... is it possible to get an editable version so I can make the group pages have space for 7 kids?

  22. Thank you so much for offering this. I love sticky notes. I love the fact that my group will all be on the same page. Great!

  23. Thank you for sharing. I can't wait to start using this.

  24. Just discovered your blog, and I am slightly obsessed. Thank you for sharing this! I have been searching forever for a way to organize my anecdotal notes.

  25. I have been looking for something like this for a month. I will be trying this next school term. This is great and I will be sharing this with my co-workers. I also teach third grade thank you for the great ideas.

  26. THANK YOU! Definitely need a better system so will give this a go!

  27. Thank you for the free resources. My goal this year is to improve my reading groups and data collection. Can't wait to try this.

  28. Love the use of sticky notes to make it so much easier to move/record for each student!! I have struggled with keeping notes during guided reading simply because it took time away from my helping and teaching the kids. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us, and for making it simple!! Can't wait to use it in a couple of weeks!!

  29. Do you have a system for math? Note taking and tracking that has worked for you? I am going into second grade and this is my third year teaching and i still haven't found something that works so i can keep track and completely know my students as mathematicians...

  30. I think these are great forms to use during the guided reading time. I like the structure and organization.

  31. I think these are great forms to use during the guided reading time. I like the structure and organization.

  32. Your resources are so valuable for me and my reading instruction! Thank you so much for sharing your resources as well as being authentic about your struggles! I can really identify with your struggles and love your solutions! Thanks!

  33. These are absolutely fantastic! I cannot wait to use them. I was wondering if you would ever consider one of two things: offering an editable version so that I could type the levels of the system my school uses or replace the F&P/DRA levels with American Reading Company's IRLA color levels?

  34. Hi Michael, I am a yr 4 teacher in Australia and have just come across your stuff courtesy of a FB post today. So glad that I've taken the time to read it all. I'm always on the look out for resources to make record keeping more efficient yet substantial. It looks like you have nailed it! Many thanks for your time and effort and willingness to share. I shall enjoy shopping in your store!

  35. Wow! This is exactly what I've been looking for! Being in Australia I would like to be able to make a couple of changes to suit our curriculum and formal assessments. Is that ok to do?

  36. My professional goal this year is to get more organized with how I record student literacy data. This post, and the documents, are EXACTLY what I was looking for!! Thank you so much, and what a simple yet excellent solution this is! Can't wait to try it out next week.

  37. Hi Michael, I have just read your blog through a facebook page that I follow. I am Aussie teacher and we use a different leveling system, Is it possible to have this emailed to me so I can make some modifications to suit our curriculum here in Australia.

  38. I would love to print this whole article, any ideas?

  39. This is so wonderful. I LOVE it. Thank you for sharing.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...