How to Get Students Thinking Critically about their Reading

Growing up, I was a little obsessed with lists, to the great annoyance of my big sister. A list was often the cause of vast stretches of silence during our family car trips. The preliminary back-and-forth went something like:

Amanda, reading Babysitters' Club #578 in the car.
Michael, not reading in the car (ya' know, motion-sickness): "So, whatcha readin' there, sis?"
Amanda: Sideways glance. Quick flash of the cover. Back to reading.
Michael: "Is that a good one?"
Amanda: "Yep."
Michael: "Like how good?"
Amanda, sensing me spiraling out of control: "Just good."
Michael: "Well, like is it better than the last one? I bet it's not better than the first one, is it? Would you put it in the top ten Babysitters' Club books of all time? Wait, what are the top ten Babysitters' Club books of all time? Could you rank them? In order, from one to ten please."
Amanda, eyes rolling: "No."

Okay, so maybe the list itself wasn't so much the cause of the sighs and ensuing silence as was the person trying to force said list onto the sister.

But there's just something about a good, ordered list that I enjoy. The 100 Greatest Hitters of All Time, the 25 Best Seinfeld Episodes, Top Vacation Spots on a Budget... whatever it is, I've always liked dissecting them, especially lists with an element of opinion.

Over the years I honed my craft, and as a teacher I began using my "mad list skills" to get students thinking critically, discussing possibilities, and defending opinions. A major part of my evolution from Annoying Little Brother to List Master Facilitator was reducing the list load from ten (or more) to just three... a top 3 list. 

A Top-3 List.

It sounds like such a specific, "maybe-I'll-use-it-once" idea, but actually it's super versatile. Any setting in which you ask a question, the potential for a top-3 list is there, lurking, waiting to pounce on your students and drag them into deeper waters.

Just so we're on the same page, let me give you an example of how to take a commonly asked question during a reading lesson and turn it into one that can spark a rich, powerful little discussion, all based on a top-3 list.

Did you see what happened there? We morphed a simple question (which has its place, sure) into one with layers and meat. Using a phrase like "most important" within a key question opens the door for opinion. It automatically encourages students to start mentally organizing characters based on their importance in the story.

When asked for only the single most important character, students can usually pluck one pretty quickly from the upper crust of characters (unless the story has two protagonists, like Jack and Annie from the Magic Tree House series for example, which would be an interesting mental decision). But when the question expands to asking for the top 3 most important characters, ranked in order of importance, the door opens even wider. And if you have students create their lists with a partner, the door pretty much gets blown off its hinges. The task...

...involves brainstorming and listing

Now with three answers needed instead of just one, students think more broadly about the possibilities, the characters in a book in this case. They think back through the book, maybe creating a list of choices from which to choose the finalists. They snatch up the main character or two, but must also consider several supporting characters for their remaining spots... better jot them all down for now.

...involves making (a lot of) judgments and decisions

Creating an ordered list, where the chosen order is up to students, requires lots of decision-making. For this question, which characters are more important than other characters? Who's not going to make the cut? And once the top three characters have been identified, who will rank higher and lower than each other? Who gets the top spot? Who gets number two and three?

...involves developing criteria and reasons

In order to make good decisions and judgments, students start to form criteria to help them choose (which may come naturally to some, and to others may take some prompting). This question is all about the importance of the character. So what factors matter? What exactly makes a character important? Is a bigger role proportional to a character's importance in the story? Does a character need to be part of every chapter to be considered? Does a character have to be "good" to be important? Should "bad guys" be considered? Can a character have a small but important role? Is there a character who appears less often but makes a big impact?

The criteria students value will give them a base for making the tough decisions in a thoughtful way.

...involves negotiation and reasoning

If students work with a partner to create their top three list, they'll be negotiating with each other on what factors matter most when making decisions, practicing key reasoning and compromising skills. The task consists of so many variables it's the perfect situation to involve another person. It's important, however, for students to look at their partnership like a single unit throughout the process, not one against the other, and save the debating for the whole class discussion.

...involves discussing and defending

Bring the class together after pairs have created their top three lists for a class discussion, and with only a few well-timed prompting questions, you'll find students motivated to take a stance, share and defend their opinions, analyze others' decisions, and even be open to revisions of their own. That last part can be tricky with questions that are more personal, like "What's your favorite...?", but our "What's the most important...?" question is one we can help students try to look at objectively, considering factors and criteria other classmates bring up during a discussion.

Here's one way to guide a discussion like this, using Charlotte's Web as a just-finished read aloud: 

So what do you think, boys and girls... who are the top three most important characters from our book, Charlotte's Web? Who'd like to share their list to get us started? (sharing) Okay, so tell us why you put Wilbur in your number one spot. (sharing) Who agrees with that? Raise your hand if you also have Wilbur as the number one most important character? Do your reasons match? What else makes Wilbur so important? (sharing)  

Not everyone has Wilbur #1, so who else? Charlotte? Why her? (sharing) Interesting. So let's dig into that more in a moment to see if we can decide who should be at the top of our list. But I'm curious: does everyone have Wilbur and Charlotte in their first two spots? (sharing)  

What about the third spot on your list? (sharing) Let's dig into Fern's situation more: if I asked for the most important characters from the first chapter, I think we'd all agree that Fern would be close to the top. But what about the story as a whole? How did you go about judging Fern's importance? (sharing) Let's discuss Templeton. How important is he? Whose list did he make? (sharing)  

Take a minute and talk to your partner about your list. See if there are any changes you'd like to make (talking). Now let's get back to the Wilbur vs. Charlotte discussion. Who really deserves the title of most important character? (sharing)...

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We've been working with the same sample question for awhile now, but many questions you ask during your reading time could be styled into a top-3 list.

With the question above, moving from the word "favorite" to "memorable" removes some of the subjectivity while keeping it an opinion-oriented response. Prompt students to think about what exactly makes a part "memorable" to them: action? emotion? a twist?

What about a top-3 list to go along with an informational book?

Here we move from a "check-up" style question that centers on what students learned about the topic of the text, to a question that centers less on the topic and more about determining the importance of each piece of information read. Prompt students to think about what makes a fact important. How closely should your chosen facts relate to the main topic? If you were asked for the three most interesting facts, how would your list change?

Download a FREE top-3 list response page (in three differentiated levels, printable AND digital) by signing up below. 
You can also check out my full "Top 3 List Reading" Response Pages resource, with 27 differentiated pages, plus customizable templates, right HERE. It includes printable (half-page and full-page) as well as digital (Google Slides) versions!

We've focused our top-3 list questions on reading topics, which is awesome, but I also expanded the idea into a morning work framework with some fun topics like, What are your top 3 dream jobs? and Who are the top 3 coolest superheroes?

The process students go through for each topic is broken up into bite-size chunks spread throughout the week, formatted as a presentation to display each morning, and with a student record sheet to go along. Click HERE to see details!

And if you like the reader's notebook style of the top-3 list freebie, you should also check out my popular Reading Response Page BUNDLE for Literature and Informational Text. Click HERE for details.

If I were making a list of my top 3 favorite ways to get students thinking critically and defending their opinions, using top-3 lists would definitely be at the top of my list.