Are Your Reading Notebooks Missing the Mark?

Before I get to reading notebooks, allow me to start with a story.  I think it’ll help make my point.  

Eons ago, when I began my teaching career, I got hired to teach kindergarten.  The Friday night before school started on Monday.  In an empty room that used to be a music room.  With only 2 tables and some random chairs.    

There was no Pinterest quite yet, so I had only my own experience and imagination to work with.  And as a newlywed, zero dollars.  ZERO. 

But I went to the teacher store the very next morning and spent all kinds of money we did not have, and then worked my tail off the entire weekend, late into the night, putting it all up.  A few of my purchases were helpful things, but the thing that I really thought would be the piece de resistance–and that I truly thought I’d use all the time–was a huge display of clowns with numbers on them. It had all the digits along with that number of dots.  I thought it’d be perfect to fill up a huge blank space on one side of the room. I was right about that.  It certainly filled the whole space.  And it was colorful.  I thought for sure it would be a helpful counting reference for my kindergarteners.  I ended up being completely wrong about that. 

How many times did I reference it?  None. How many times did my kids use it?  Also not once.  It was just wallpaper to them.  A cute display (please give me a break here; it was 1999!) that wasn’t needed, wasn’t used, and didn’t help my kids’ learning in any way.  

@Interact Images via Depositphotos

What would have been better?  Well pretty much anything.  (Clowns?  Really, Michelle?  For 5 year olds???)  A blank canvas to display my students’ artwork would have been so much better.  Or a number display that they had created. Heck, they could have drawn their own clowns holding numbers!

That’s when I learned that if I’m going to bring something in to my classroom, especially if I have to spend time putting it together, it had BETTER help my kids learn, no matter how aesthetically pleasing I think it is.  That very big lesson my very first year is when I realized how important it is to simplify.  If I can accomplish the same thing in an easier, faster, and better way, even if it’s not cute, I’m sure as heck going to do it, no question.

Which brings me to reading notebooks.

Several years into teaching, I thought a reading notebook was a great idea.  By then, Pinterest had been born, and there was plenty of inspiration.  If you search “reading notebooks” in TPT right now, in fact, you’ll get more than 80,000 hits.  So I purchased and downloaded some packets, and tried a bunch of things out over a couple of years. And they all fell flat.  Here again, I learned I needed to make it simpler, and to build it slowly over time, as my kids needed more.  

So I’ve made some major adjustments, and the reading notebooks I use now are nothing like what I started with.  I don’t want you to make the same mistakes with reading notebooks that I did.  

So here are 10 ways reading notebooks can become a total waste of time and energy–like my clown display–and what to do instead:

  1. Gluing or taping cute dividers.  This takes a massive amount of time, and it’s really difficult to know how exactly to space them.  You’re also going to have to reinforce them with multiple layers of Scotch tape or they’ll rip in one use or become so folded, faded, and fingerprinted that they become more confusing than helpful.  An easier way?  Use those little round circle stickers as dividers instead.  They even actually come in pretty colors.  How do you use them?  Just fold one in half over the long edge of a page.  Voila–instant divider.  And they’re moveable if you need to add more pages.
  2. Any cut, fold, and paste thing.  Do you really need to have kids take the time to cut out and glue in that trifold that opens up to a T-chart to list character traits and text examples?  Or worse–cut and glue a preprinted T-chart? Instead, they could just take 3 seconds to draw the two lines needed to make a T-chart.  Having them physically do this is not only far faster, it also teaches them how to make this type of graphic organizer–which can then be applied in a multitude of ways across the year and across subjects. Always having some sort of printable for this kind of thing is also a huge waste of paper.
  3. Same for cutting out and gluing on a pretty cover for kids’ names.  Again, this will need covering with clear contact paper or tape if it’s going to last–a huge extra step that’s not worth it.  Instead, just write their names in Sharpie on the front of the notebook and call it a day.
  4. Along those same lines, TPT packet after TPT packet includes a cute cut and paste page (again, more copy paper used, more time spent cutting and gluing) that looks like a shelf of books.  Kids are to write titles of books they read on the book pictures.  And there’s not nearly enough space to do that.  Aside from that….what will kids do with this list?  How will they remember something important from the books they record?  Instead, how about just another simple T-chart (which now you’ve taught them how to quickly make) to list books they’ve read on one side and a rating with a reason for that score on the other?  Or the book title and why it’s memorable?  Or the book title and the genre and what makes it that genre?  The sky’s the limit, really.  Cute is not always helpful.
  5. Teachers also use this same bookshelf template to list books that they want to read later.  Great idea, and one I’d recommend. But why would a cut and glue template with too-little writing space be needed? How about just a list on one of the notebook pages? 
  1. Some teachers have their students record a full on book log in their notebooks.  I just have to ask a couple of questions:  how will you use those book logs to further kids’ learning?  And how will that work, logistically?   (I say much more about reading logs here).
  2. Another idea that doesn’t land?  Having kids glue down things to write definitions, for things like types of genres, text features, parts of speech…I’ve even seen one that asks kids to write down the definition of the word illustration.  If you really want kids to learn these things, have them apply it to their own writing.  We learn by doing.  Plus, when exactly would kids pull these pages back out?  How would that look, logistically?  If you simply create an anchor chart as you teach these things in writing that the entire class can reference, they are much more likely to use it–because you can actually call attention to it.  That’s nearly impossible to do when it instead lives inside of 25 closed notebooks.  
  3. Having kids write down new vocabulary words as they come to them in their reading.  What will you then do to ensure that all kids have indeed figured out what those words mean?  And in the context of the sentence they were found in?  How will you then help kids move those words from notebook page to memory?  In other words, how are you going to help kids learn the words?  There are much more effective ways to teach vocabulary!  
  1. Lists of things like sentence stems or questions to ask yourself as a reader.  How, logistically, will these be used?  How can you ensure kids will use them at the right times and in the right ways?  Instead, think about the context in which these things are most likely to be used.  Do your kids need some sentence stems to help their conversations flow?  Then it’s likely a class anchor chart that everyone can see would be better.  I used to have these on different shapes of speech bubbles right above my whiteboard in my meeting area–that way everyone could see it and I could quickly point to one if a child needed some help getting started–or as a reminder to be more polite.  With something like before, during, and after reading questions, how about putting a few on a bookmark for kids to keep inside the book they’re currently reading so it’s right there in front of them and can serve as an on-the-spot reminder?  
  2. Spending time on (you guessed it, MORE cutting and gluing) including things that are only used for a very short time, like the first week of school.  Things that come to mind here are “my favorite place to read” sort of things.   This could simply be a class discussion, or even drawn on paper and made into a temporary display.  How is putting it inside a reading notebook going to help move learning forward when it’s done?  If you want it for your own data to help know what sort of classroom reading environment your kids need, then have them write it down in some way and collect it.  

I’m not against a reading notebook.  Not in the least.  I like them a lot, in fact, and believe that they can be a valuable tool to capture student thinking and to support them in their work.  As long as they’re carefully used, that is, with intentionality as Melanie Swider of Choice Literacy advises in her article.  

But that’s the key. 

The reading notebook is meant to support kids’ learning.

If it doesn’t do that, it’s just clown wallpaper.  Something nobody cares about or has time for.  

Teacher shocked with how fast the time has gone by.
Teachers have no time to waste! @Depositphotos

One final thing.  You might be saying, “but I like things to look pretty.”  I get you.  So do I.  But is this the place where it matters? Will the time it takes making your students’ reading notebooks pretty pay off in deeper student learning?  And a follow up question: are there other things you could spend that time and energy on instead that would increase student learning?

I hope these tips were helpful to you. My mission is to help other educators save their sanity by simplifying, so there’s time and energy left for things that will really impact student learning. And that means looking for places we can clear up clutter. Reading notebooks can become just clutter if we’re not careful. It’s happened to me, and I don’t want it to happen to you!

Looking for more ideas to save time? 

Access my free guide, Hidden Time Sucks You Can Avoid.  In it, I share 12 very common time sucks traps. They’re all totally preventable but also happen without our even realizing it–which is why they’re traps.  Learn to avoid them and you’ll gain back a great deal of time in your day so you can do more of what matters: teach!

Could you use a thinking partner to help you simplify a process or a part of your day?  I’m here for you! Send me a DM on Instagram, let me know in the Facebook group, or send me an email!

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