Increasing Reading/Comprehension/ Engagement: The Response Journal

I spent about a decade teaching composition at the college level (a job commonly known as being “in the trenches”), and that experience, more than the many pedagogy classes I took, taught me how to be an effective, efficient teacher. (The alternative is not to finish your graduate work.)

One of the most useful tools I took from that experience was the response journal. For those of you who teach literature or comp, it’s a staple, but I have found that it’s a classroom-transforming tool in any class where texts are important.

In my version, it’s document with a header with their name, my name, the course name, the date, and the text that we’re focusing on. They then insert three columns and 50 rows. (Okay, not really 50, but start there and have them delete the unused rows when they have finished the assignment.)

  • Column 1 is a direct quotation, a summary, or an annotation.
  • Column 2, much narrower, is the page number where it appears (or, if assigning a film or podcast or radio broadcast, the minute marker).
  • Column 3, roughly the same width as Column 1, is a response to the information in column 1. It can be a question that the passage prompts, a personal story, a connection to some other text or what the student has learned in this class already or in another class. It can reference pop culture or politics or history.

Each row is thus a specific reference to the text, a page number/minute marker to reference it, and engagement with it.

Finally, beneath their table, I have them complete the following sentence: “I would like Dr. Barrett-Fox’s help understanding…” “N/A” is a legitimate answer here.

I actually give them a template and also create a video for them showing them how to create this document. The 3 minutes or so it takes to record and upload a video showing them how to insert a table is worth it. Trust me.

You may want to assign students a certain number of rows (1 for every 3 pages of a book or 2 for each section of an article or something like that) or a total word count. I often use this assignment in my Soc of Sex class, a 3000-level course, and use a minimum word count of 10 words per 1 page–so 2000 words for 200 pages. Many students far exceed the word count, but the minimum is to help those who think they don’t have much to say to return to the text.

Here’s what I love about the assignment (and what students end up admitting works for them, even though they might not like doing it at first):

  1. It increases the percent of students who read. If I use reading quizzes, many students will be take a risk on multiple choice. If they can get 3 out of 5 multiple choice questions right by guessing, they’ll be happy with that. I’m not–because I want them to actually read.
  2. It teaches them how to choose when to directly quote and when to summarize.
  3. It teaches them how to take notes–identifying key passages and documenting them in such a way as when that final paper topic is assigned, they’ve already done the work of finding the important parts of a book. And that, in turn, typically means better final papers.
  4. It keeps the focus on the text. Especially in classes where there is room for disagreement and people have strong opinions, a reading journal keeps us focused on what we have in common–literally, the common book we are reading.
  5. It slows down the jump to argument. We often push students to stake claims and make arguments before they’ve done the work to earn the right to share an opinion. (Yeah, I said that.) Let’s be frank: it’d be better for everyone if we slowed down the movement to argument and gave more time to reading comprehension and analysis. That’s why we’re in school–to enter a discussion because we’ve done the work of learning the content of the conversation. By demanding that students link their responses to the text, I slow them down and help them ground their argument in our shared reading. This isn’t because I’m training New Critics but because I find that my students tend to veer more toward ignoring the text (often because they haven’t read it) rather than really engaging it. By labeling that third column “response,” not just “Do you agree or disagree?”, I stress that we respond to texts in many and varied legitimate ways. They are invited to make connections that I can’t assign to them by bringing multiple parts of their lives, as they see fit to share, to the conversation. It respects their lived experiences and their privacy, invites connections without demanding that students trade personal information.
  6. They improve class discussion. As long as students do this assignment, they have something to talk about. I can put them in small groups according to which quotation they selected. I can teach them how to code their own responses for themes and organize them into groups by theme. I can ask everyone to select their favorite passage from the book or ask “Who made a connection to another text we’ve already read?”
  7. They are relatively easy to grade. In Soc of Sex, in particular, I have to scan for attention to disclosures of sexual violence or to comments that might signal someone has a demeaning or threatening attitude that I should watch out for. But, mostly, I grade these on a scale of 1-10, and within the first few submissions, most people are earning a 10 consistently. And I’m okay with that, because it means that the students are doing what I wanted them to get out of the assignment: better reading comprehension, better engagement, better preparation for class. I grade very simply–I check for word count (which I ask them to include in the header) and then skim, looking for any red flags. Assuming there are none, I select one spot in the response column and share an encouraging word about it: “I enjoyed reading your perspective as the child of pastors on preaching about purity.” “Thank you for sharing a bit about your own struggle from judgment to compassion for women who have had abortions.” “I see that you care a lot about queer students on our campus. Our Lavender Graduation is coming up soon, and I’d love to see you there! Here are the details…” This is also where I recommend further reading or start to guide students toward topics for their final paper. By keeping my comments positive and light, I free up students to write without so much fear of judgment.
  8. I can quickly identify comprehension questions. By having students put into words what they don’t understand, I can quickly see if there are patterns to their struggle, which helps me become a better teacher because it shows me what I might not have explained well or might have incorrectly assumed they understood.

I make these due by the start of class, online. Other people collect them every few weeks, but I find that this undermines their effectiveness as a tool to shape class conversation.

If you assign a text each day of class, this might mean 3 graded assignments per week. I recommend, in that case, writing into the syllabus that you will grade 1/3 of these at random. Then you are grading 1 per week, which is much more reasonable. Remember that grading 1/3 of them doesn’t mean you have to grade the same 1 out of 3 for everyone. You could grade students Abbot through Harmon on Monday, Ito through Mendes on Wednesday, and Norman through Zimmerman on Friday. Or you could grade everyone’s Friday submission. My advice, if you grade only some of these, is to be sure to grade the last one. Otherwise, if you tell students you are grading 14 of them, they’ll stop submitting as soon as they submit 14.

And, personally, I don’t drop any. If someone wants to play chicken with me and ends up failing to submit on a day I grade, that’s a risk they took. I don’t have to do extra grading to soften the consequence of their choice.

If you try these out, let me know how they work for you!


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