Tips for Engaged, Independent Readers [Part 4: Holding Kids Accountable]

If you’re familiar with Jennifer Serravallo’s hierarchy of reading goals for instruction, you know that engagement is at the very top, just below the most foundational goal of emergent reading.   Her book Reading Strategies 2.0 offers many tips for engaged, independent readers.  This is because without engagement, students will have a much more difficult time developing their growing reading skills. In the introduction to that section of the book, she says:

“You could be the most eloquent teacher, the best strategy group facilitator, the most insightful conferer.  But if you send your kids back for independent reading and they don’t read, then they won’t make the progress you are hoping and working for.”

Jennifer Serravallo, Reading Strategies 2.0

She goes on to cite just a handful of research studies that point to the importance of independent reading and its impact on achievement.  She also shares a few of the ways that teachers can support reading engagement.  One is through “helping children select books that are both readable and interesting,” which I talk about in Part 1 of this blog series.  Serravallo also shares that supporting kids’ growing stamina is another important way teachers can help their students, which I discuss in Part 2 of this series.

When kids are in what Nancie Atwell calls the “reading zone,” they are engaged and even engrossed in their text.  When in the zone, they are making connections, visualizing, questioning, determining importance, and synthesizing.  They are gaining insight and learning about the world.  In short–they are growing.  


So every time kids are interrupted when in this reading zone, all of this breaks, much like the rrriiiipppp that is heard when a record player’s needle is suddenly snatched away in the middle of a song.  The magic is gone.

In the previous blog posts in this series, I’ve shared three of the four ways we often stand in the way of allowing kids to enter–and remain in–the reading zone.  They are:

I encourage you to refer to those posts for better context (or listen to my free webinar all about this instead), as we arrive here, the final way we tend to put up barriers to students’ becoming truly engaged, independent readers: the ways in which we hold them accountable.

The question of accountability comes up constantly.  And I get it–we want to be sure kids are applying the learning, and that they aren’t checked out.  This is an important goal for all of us.

Teachers ask all the time:  how can we ensure students are engaged, independent readers if we don’t hold them accountable?

Let me ask some honest questions about this.  Honest questions that require honest answers: 

  • If you had to time yourself for 20 minutes, would your focus really be on the text?
  • If, after you were done reading, you had to write down the title, author, genre, and number of pages read…day after day, even when there were hundreds of pages in the same book…would you resent it? 
  • What about if you had to have three jots by the end of each reading session?  And what if the jots you were asked to do didn’t really fit your particular text or the part of the text you were on?
  • What if you loved reading psychological thrillers, but you were only allowed to read nonfiction, because that was the genre under study?
  • What if you really wanted to read a longer book, but reading it would mean you’d use all your available time and completely miss the 10 book challenge that was assigned…so you frown and put it back, only to grab something short so you could finish the challenge requirements?  
  • What if you had to write a page-long response that nobody would ever really look at, but you had to do it because you were being evaluated on compliance?  

Would any of these tasks to hold you accountable help you grow as a reader? Would any of them help you become more engaged?  

My guess is you’d say obviously not.  

So why would we do this to kids?  The very kids who we lament for being unengaged?

Hear me out.  I get you.  We do want our kids held accountable.  We do want their learning to propel forward.  That’s part of our job.

But, let’s really pause and think about what we’re asking kids to do.

Reading logs can have a place, but they must have a purpose–a purpose that drives learning forward.  

Challenges can be fun and a change of pace, but could they be done differently?  Maybe as an option, or as a way to track the kinds of read alouds you’ve done together as a class, or even a grade level?  

Timers are one of many distractions we add to the mix…are they needed?  Is that timer helping or hurting engagement?  If you assign 20 minutes of reading for home…how can you even really know the answer to that question?   

Jots are a fantastic way to hold kids’ thinking, but what is then done with the jots?  How do we use them as a teaching tool for engaging in conversation?  Or lead to deeper responses?  How are they used to evaluate thinking? Or lift it? 

The same goes for longer written responses. What’s the purpose?  How is feedback given?  And most importantly…is the time spent on writing about reading eclipsing the time for actual reading?  

I know what you’re asking.  If I’m not doing these things, how else can I hold kids accountable for their reading?  

Let’s think about how this could work without getting in the way of engagement.  Let’s find a happy medium.

First, we can begin with observation. We need to watch how and what kids are choosing to read in order to provide support.  We need to monitor engagement by taking stock with tools like simple engagement inventories.  We can peruse their book bins and take note of so many things…are the choices appropriate for the developmental reading level of the child?  Are they jotting to hold their own thinking as they process the text?  Are the jots of quality?  Do they seem to have too many books going at once?  Have they had the same books for ages?  Is there any kind of variety?

And most importantly, one of the best ways to always have a pulse on the level of engagement and independence is through conferring.  Those 1:1 conversations will tell you everything.  

Through all of this kind of authentic data collection, we’ll have loads of data to tell us next steps.  Maybe we need to pull some small groups to teach some strategies for staying focused, or coach into how to choose interesting and appropriate books.  

As for the accountability tasks we ask our students to do…

The second thing we can do to hold kids accountable is to think carefully about the kinds of tasks we ask kids to do.  Do we need them to stop and jot a specific number of times, or have one of each kind of jot we’ve taught?  Or is it more important that they’re choosing the right kind of jot to hold their thinking for bigger purposes:  to process the text or to prepare for conversations?  Do they always need to jot in their own books, or would the same goal be met if we just handed them clipboards with 3 sticky notes on them and paused a few times in our interactive read alouds for them to jot then and there?


Does everyone need a reading log, or are there specific students who need it, for specific purposes?  If they’re not used to help propel kids’ reading development forward, then really, what’s the point?  

As with most ideas in teaching, the way we hold kids accountable needs to be carefully thought through.  And it needs to be balanced with other important parts of instruction.  

I’ll share my own thinking about this balance between keeping students engaged while holding them accountable as one example. 

When I taught 4th grade, I felt it very important that my students could respond well–at high levels–to their reading.  I also knew that they’d be expected to do this on the end of year state assessment, which meant I needed their responses to be well organized, grammatically correct, and very clear.  I decided that this was important enough that I’d ask kids to write about their reading once per week.  

This was a hard decision for me, knowing I was cutting their reading time down, but I stuck with it because I needed to strike a balance.  Both reading and writing about reading were important. 

They all signed up for their own day (but I made sure they were spread out so no more than 5 kids did this each day), and I knew that that day, they probably wouldn’t read much, if at all.   I read and responded to each and every entry.  In my response, I pushed my students to ramp up their writing. 

I’m not going to pretend it was all smooth sailing.  

At first, it was painful.  There was a lot of grumbling. I had to do a lot of coaching.  But not long after, their writing began to vastly improve, and they were responding in a variety of authentic ways (that I’d taught and modeled).  No one grumbled anymore.  And they became so fluent with this kind of work that by about February, they were able to write a high-quality, one or two page response about their reading and still have time left to read independently.  

This was how I balanced it.  They jotted as they needed throughout the week, but they really wrote once a week.  And there were plenty of times a couple kids had to redo it because they didn’t really put in the effort.  I held them accountable.  The rest of the time, they read.  And I was ok with that, because what I was asking them to do mattered for their learning.  

It was also a beautiful rapport-builder, with all the feedback and conferring this involved.  An unexpected bonus.  

And that end of year test?  They passed it with flying colors.  

So, fellow educator, put the question to you.  In what ways will you hold your students accountable but still keep them engaged this year? I’d love to hear your ideas!  Post a comment below, DM me on Instagram, or better yet, share your results in my private FB group!

Interested in learning more literacy tips? Check out my other blog posts or consider joining my private FB group!  It’s a community full of supportive teachers and coaches, here to help with any and all literacy questions on your mind, 7 days a week!  

For more direct, personal support in helping you ensure that your readers are engaged, and to think through ways you might hold them accountable at the same time, I’m here for 1:1, virtual coaching!

Related Posts:  The Secret to Setting Up Your Library for Maximum Student Impact, Is Independent Reading Time a Waste of Time?, Engaging the Disengaged [Where to Begin] 

Related Resource:  Engagement Tips Webinar (Free)

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