Using Book Journals for Accountable Independent Reading

I'm in a lot of teacher groups on Facebook and one of the questions that pops up most often is, How do you hold students accountable for independent reading? This is a question I have pondered throughout my years of teaching and I've struggled to find the perfect solution. Last year, when I read The Book Whisperer, I read about book journals and I was intrigued. I loved the idea of having a book chat with a student using a weekly journal and so I gave it a try. This post will explore my first experience with weekly book journals for independent reading.

I purchased a composition book for each student and handed them out on the first day. I told students that this book would be a conversation between us about the books they were reading. I presented them with a model book journal and I gave them a list of journal ideas should they get writer's block. I explained that they only needed to complete one thoughtful entry each week, to be turned in by Friday. They were excited to not have weekly logs, but I also told them that while they were not writing nightly, they should still be reading nightly. 

Now, let me digress for a minute. As a teacher, I know that the question that you want to ask is But how did you know they were reading nightly? The answer is that I didn't. I've become realistic after 12 years in the classroom. Some students are going to read every night and some students are not. The fact is, their lives outside of the classroom are sometimes chaotic with sports, helping with their siblings, and other family engagements. What is important to me is that they are reading at some point and I'm pretty confident that I build enough authentic excitement for reading in the classroom that most of my students will actually want to read on their own. As teachers, we're responsible for introducing students to new books daily and showing them that reading can be an enjoyable adventure. I also happen to be a voracious reader so there is not acting in my classroom, I am truly passionate and excited each time I get a new book in my hand! I also open my classroom early to readers who don't have a quiet space at home and yes, students do show up! 

The first journals were pretty good! For me, it was exciting to see what my students were reading and how they were responding to the characters and events in their stories. Of course, my students who were already in love with books turned in journals that were much more detailed, but I was happy to see that my struggling readers and English Language Learners were also able to write several sentences about their reading. It was fun to write back to each one of them. This is also where I was able to get them to "dig deeper" with their responses. When I wrote back to them, I asked them questions that would activate more critical thinking about the text. When I first started the journals, one of my biggest concerns was that I wouldn't be able to evaluate their comprehension strategies and skills, but I did not need to worry about that. Our conversations were authentic and I was able to better activate their use of skills and strategies through these journals than I ever was with a reading log. If you're new to teaching and so these skills and strategies won't come naturally to you just yet, don't worry. A quick Google search of ELA stem starters for your grade level and state will give you lots of resources. When you find some good ones, print them out and have them handy when you are responding to journals. After awhile, it will come naturally. Here's some examples: 

Now, another question that you are going to have is Did you grade them, Mrs. O? I marked them for completion only. The point of this is not to get a grade, it's to monitor their independent reading and guide students to think deeper about the book they are reading. I don't know that there is a proper rubric for that. For me, it's more of an informal assessment that doesn't need a grade, because the proof is in the journal. 

Speaking of which, guess what else your students are doing? They are writing! That's right, book journals trick your students in to working on their writing and reading at the same time! Genius, isn't it? Now, some teachers including the writer of The Book Whisperer, do not correct grammar or spelling in the journals. Now, I do not take the red pen of death (just kidding, I use pretty Flair pens of death) to the journal, but I do some marginal corrections here and there, sometimes on sticky notes to avoid marking their journal up. I think, Hey, why not stick a quick note about too, to, and two in their journal? Though the focus is certainly on comprehension, it's also a great chance to give a little grammar and writing feedback and I'm all about double dipping! 

So this all sounds lovely, doesn't it? Well, I'm all about being honest so I don't want to leave out the stuff that didn't go so well. Here's a list of the "oh no's" (Mrs. O "Knows" - get it?) that I will be revising for the upcoming year. 

#1: Responding takes a long time. This is the biggest drawback of journals. I don't have a great recommendation for making this easier. One thing that did help was allowing the journals to be turned in on any day of the week. They were due by Friday, but I encouraged students to turn them in whenever they were done. That way I wasn't responding to all of them over the weekend, though some weeks they all turned them in on Friday so I'd try to break it up and do 5 here, take a break, do 5 more, etc. I had a recent chat with another teacher about this problem and she came up with the idea of assigning students different due days - 5 on Monday, 5 on Tuesday, and so on. I think this is a wonderful idea to make it less overwhelming! I also think if I did the journals online, my responses would be faster because I type faster than I write. I'm currently exploring online options, but haven't found anything I love yet. Plus, I'm a sucker for a handwritten journal! 

#2: Model, model, model! For some students, the freedom of writing anything about their book actually made it difficult. They needed more structure and examples. I ended up modeling for individual students throughout the year. This year, I'm going to not only model a lot more at the beginning of the year, I'm going to share good examples of their work weekly. I'm also planning to let them do their first few weeks of journals in class with me in hopes that a more gradual release will better support those students who don't know what to write about. 

#3: This is not a book report. This is not a book review. Because my students do a monthly book review or project, some of them started to write book reviews for journals. I am going to make sure that I stress the difference between the journals and the book reviews/reports so that they aren't writing a weekly book review, which is not only tedious for them to write, it's also tedious for me to read! 

#4: Model some more...and make sure you're doing both fiction and nonfiction! Are you reading a book aloud? Write a journal about it for the class to see. Did you read a really good story as a mentor text for writing? Write a journal for the class to see. Was that informational text on hurricanes mind-blowing? Model a journal! It's definitely a great idea to have your own journal that you can write in throughout the year and have on hand for students to access for ideas. Also, make sure that you model both fiction and nonfiction. I had a few students who just loved nonfiction, and my prompts were really geared towards fiction. I'll openly admit I only modeled nonfiction once. I'm going to give my students two separate pages of prompts (one fiction and one nonfiction) next year to make this easier for my nonfiction readers! 

Overall, it's the best thing I've tried yet to hold students accountable for their independent reading. I truly enjoy reading their entries and my students can't wait to read my responses! When I place their journal on their desk, they immediately open it up to read what I wrote and get these big, adorable smiles on their faces. I love it! Also, it's a great way for me to assess their comprehension of the books they are choosing and push them towards deeper thinking through our journal conversations. Although it takes a bit more time than I'd like it to, I think it's worth it. 

To grab a printable of the directions, journal prompts, and samples I included in this post, click on the image below. 



  1. Rachel - I used Google Docs to do this last year and it worked great. Each student started a reading journal file, shared it with me, and then added to it each week. It was great because both the students and I could access the document from anywhere, at anytime.

    1. That does sound wonderful! I'll definitely look into that. Thank you!

  2. Hello! I recently read your blog about weekly journals and I'm excited about implementing them in my 5th grade classroom next year. I downloaded your free resource, but I wanted to tweek a few of the pages, but with the same border. I'm having difficulty determining which resource you used for the last 3-4 pages with the sample entries. Could you tell me where you found that clip art/frame?

    1. I contacted you back on Facebook, so I think we are all set, but feel free to contact me again if you have any additional questions!


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