Reader Response in All Disciplines

Much of the writing we assign our students is public writing—writing to communicate with others. Writing-to-learn is personal writing, writing that helps students increase their comprehension of texts in all disciplines. The 2000 report of the National Reading Panel states, “Teaching students to use … writing to organize their ideas about what they are reading is a proven procedure that enhances comprehension of the text.” Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading, a report commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation (2010), listed that the #1 core instructional practice effective in improving student reading is to “have students write about the texts they read.” Reader response compels readers to interact with the text and makes visible for readers and their teachers the depth of text comprehension. This is the second in a series of columns on scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching a variety of reader response strategies before, during, and after reading.

What Is During-Reading Response?

During-reading response is response students write while they are reading a text. Effective written responses should be meaningful and compel readers to explore, question, and challenge text and make connections and inferences so they can construct meaning and learn from text. There are many formats for during-reading response [see future issues of AMLE Magazine], and it is best to scaffold these during the year so that students can employ different response types to different texts and then make conscious decisions (critical thinking) about what type of response best fits the texts they are reading, their purposes, and their reflection “personalities.” Responses should be short, informal, spontaneous, and, most importantly, ungraded, although points can be awarded for the act of thoughtfully responding; one reader’s response should not be more valued (or correct) than another reader’s as response should be unique and personal; the purpose of response is to compel readers to interact with the text, the goal being increased comprehension.

Response should not disrupt or sabotage the reading. If the teacher makes response onerous or formulaic (“one paragraph of at least five full sentences, correctly punctuated and spellchecked, covering…”), students will either focus on the response rather than the reading—thus decreasing comprehension, elect not to write a response at all, or stop reading so they do not have to respond. Students should be reading at least 80% of the time and responding no more than 20% of the time. For example, if students are reading in ELA Reading Workshop or during a disciplinary class or as homework for 25 minutes, they should be expected to write a 5-minute response. This expectation is true differentiation as all students’ 5-minute response will look different, may be of different lengths, and will illustrate divergent thinking and critical thinking skills.

Beginning During-Reading Response

Teachers should begin with whole-class response to passages, which may be less threatening and illustrate to readers that there is not one expected response and that no response is “wrong.” The teacher can ask students to read an especially provocative or interesting short passage from a novel or news article (reading the first few paragraphs of a text works well) and ask students to respond orally to the class or to a partner or by jotting on paper:

  • A question I have about the text (what the author wrote or how the author wrote it)
  • A prediction I have based on what I read (what the passage will be about or what will happen)
  • Something I noticed (about what the author wrote or how the author wrote it)
  • This makes me think of… (something that happened to me, something that I read, a movie I saw)
  • I don’t understand…(something that the author wrote or something about how the author wrote it)

When reading an informational text, the teacher can add or substitute a prompt about prior knowledge:

  • I already knew/I didn’t know…
  • I agree with/This challenges what I thought I knew

These “prompts” need to be designed so that everyone can have a different answer and there is no “correct” answer; all students’ responses are acceptable other than a response based on a miscue. If the teacher is concerned that some students may misread the text presented for this introduction to response, the teacher can read the text aloud and then have the students re-read to respond. The point of the activity is to introduce during-reading response in general; cause the students to interact with a text for meaning, rather than decoding; and to orchestrate a successful experience with response. If the text is provocative, everyone should be able to generate a question, a prediction, and something to notice.

Reading the first part of the November 9, 2004 LiveScience article “Nature Hates a Fraud: Cheating Wasps Get Beat Up” by Robert Roy Britt, a few students responded to the second and third paragraphs:

Blue-collar wasps made up to look like CEOs get beat up by their superiors and peers. In a new study, spots typical for top-dog female wasps were painted on the faces of their subordinates. The phonies got harassed more often and for longer periods than other wasps when paired up in the equivalent of a wasp-world boxing ring.

Sarah asked, “A question I have is what about male wasps? Do they act the same? Did they just study female wasps?”

Ralph also had a question: “This article was written in 2004. Is this still true or have they conducted more recent studies?”

Greg added, “Something I noticed was that the author used hyphenated adjectives like we just learned about in Language Arts class.”

Jennifer added, “This makes me think of middle school where there seems to be a hierarchy, and you are bullied if you try to act higher than you are.”

John said, “I didn’t know that wasps interacted like that.”

A lot of thinking and interacting with the text was happening at a variety of levels of thinking, but all students were compelled to read critically in order to have a response.

From this activity teachers can collect information about how and what, and even if students are reading and what they find interesting (which provides a purpose for reading on), but they also can assess if students are misreading or require more background knowledge for a text. If a student had said, “I didn’t know there were wasps with blue collars. I thought they were all yellow and black,” the teacher knows that the reader either misread the term or is unfamiliar with the term. Given questions at the end of the text, such as Who got harassed more often and for longer periods of time?, it has been proven that many students can answer the questions with no comprehension of the text.

Using Response Starters

Even after working through this activity, the greatest challenge when asking readers of any age or level to respond to text that they are reading independently or individually is that they tend to re-tell or summarize the text. A solution is employing response starters. The teacher can turn the responses practiced above, as well as other types of personal reflections, into response sentence starters that encourage and provide a framework for readers to interact with text and share their unique impressions.

Teachers can make a classroom chart or individual handout with such response starters as the following:

I noticed… I predict… I can infer that … because I already knew…
A question I have is… I don’t understand… This makes me think of… I didn’t know that…
I wonder why/how… I can picture… This reminds me of… I think that the author…
I was surprised by… I want to know… I had thought … but now… I am guessing that…
What I found most interesting… I think … is an important detail because… What I think will happen is… My favorite part (fact, character, event) is…

Any response starter that allows for individual response and independent critical thinking would apply. Teachers can distribute the chart, discussing the type of information or thinking a starter (or “thinking words”) could elicit and encourage students to suggest others. The teacher should decide whether to introduce response starters with only one or two choices for the first times, next adding practice with other starters, or to display the chart and ask readers to choose one response starter and begin their 5-minute response. Usually once responders begin their response with at least one response starter, they do not shift to summarizing, and soon they only need to glance at the chart to channel reflective thinking and writing practices. The purpose of introducing readers to response starters is not to control what they say but to demonstrate how to interact with text and reflect on reading.

Teachers should model first, reading a part of a text or responding to a text that the students have already read, and writing a response. For example, reading the first part of the Scholastic Science World, January 2, 2012 edition, science article “Guardians of the Grizzly,” the teacher wrote, “What I found interesting is that, as a child, the scientist Chris Filardi “imagined being among the bears in the wild places where they live” even though he only saw bears in the American Museum of Natural History. That reminds me of my daughter who, as a child, loved to hike and camp and play outdoors and now works for the U.S. Forest Service.”

The students finished reading the first section and read the second section of the article and were asked to choose 1-2 response starters and write a short response. Sam wrote, “I think that ‘cutting-edge science’ means it is the newest science, and I wonder how this fits in with studying bears. Are they tracking them with the newest technology or using technology in a new way, both of which could be cutting edge? I don’t understand if they are using new science to study bears or to protect them?” After reading the third section, Sam found his answer. His first question had caused him to reflect, leading to more questions, and giving him a purpose for reading the rest of the article. His reading became inquiry.

Reading Chapter 8 of the biography Who Was Neil Armstrong? (Edwards, 2008) in social studies class, a student stopped four times during reading to write his 5-minute response. He first responded, “When I read that Charles Lindbergh came to wish them [the astronauts] good luck, I began to think how Lindbergh was the first person to make a transatlantic flight when he flew nonstop across the Atlantic in 1927, and I inferred that he came for dinner because these astronauts were going to be the first people to go to the moon, breaking barriers like he did.” A few minutes later John added, “Reading that Saturn V was a three-stage rocket engine, I am guessing that all three engines don’t come back to earth with the astronauts.” He continued reading the chapter and wrote, “I wonder how Michael Collins felt when the Eagle separated from the Columbia and he was left behind. I began to think he would be upset that he did the same training and didn’t get to walk on the moon. I think he was just as much a hero because he helped it happen.” And finishing the chapter, “What I found interesting was that Armstrong found a safe place to land with “less than a minute’s worth of fuel left.” That is very dramatic—like the ending of a movie. It makes me wonder if it is completely true.” His responses showed his teacher that he was reading, how he was reading, the level of his thinking about the text, and his personal interactions with the text.

It appears that many students miss questions on math tests, especially standardized tests, because, even though they can do the math, they can’t read, they misread, or they didn’t slow down to comprehend the question. Students were instructed to read through a math word problem and respond with their thoughts.

Nina went to a pizza place with 2 friends. They ordered a large mushroom pizza for $23.55 and a garden salad for $3.60. They also got 2 sodas for $1.00 each. The tax came to $1.50. How much change should they have received from $35.00?

Students were given directions: Jot what you are thinking. Start with one of these Response Starters:

  • “I noticed…”
  • “When I read…, I began to think…. “
  • “I am guessing that (I infer)…because…”

A sample response employed all three suggested response starters. Of course, the teacher could have given different or more examples. The point was to compel the readers to interact with the text, not only the numbers. Sometimes students jump in and start manipulating numbers without comprehending what the question is asking.

When I read “with 2 friends,” I began to think that it was going to be a division question, and I would divide my answer by 3, but then I noticed that it didn’t matter how many people were buying the food because the question asked “How much change should they have received,” so I knew to ignore the number 3. I am guessing that the answer is less than $35.00 because it asks “How much change … from $35.00,” and “change” means they are getting money back.

During-reading response addresses readers’ needs to increase comprehension or, for more proficient readers, to read more thoughtfully and critically for increased or deeper comprehension of text. During-reading response addresses the teacher’s need of “seeing” readers’ thinking to assess if they have read, what they understood, what they did not understand (or how they read), what they are noticing and noting and for formative assessment to know what to teach and what to re-teach. Response starters help readers discern the difference between summary and response to text so that teachers can accomplish this type of formative assessment of comprehension but also evaluate their learning from a text.


It is most effective for students to keep a response journal such as a 2-pocket Duo-tang folder. As students read through a text—an article, a story, a poem, a series of math problems—or conduct reading in a textbook or novel, they can submit their journal page(s) for the teacher to read, observe what students have written about, and discern what reading strategies and content needs to be taught. The response starters and choice of response starters illustrate what students are thinking as they read.

For grading purposes teachers can assign points per reading for thoughtful responses. If there is something particular the teacher wishes students to include in their responses, possibly based on a focus lesson for that day or an important point in a textbook reading, they can include that in the response directions, and the points can be adjusted for inclusion and deducted for exclusion. For example, if the teacher presented a lesson on character traits, they might direct, “In one of your responses, make sure you reflect on any traits the main character exhibited. You may begin that response with ‘I think that the character is … because I noticed she always….'” If a student submits a 5-minute response for the day’s reading and includes a response about traits, she earns 25 points; if a student submits a five minute response for the day’s reading and neglects to include a response about character traits, she earns only 20 points. However, points are generally given for response not for particular responses so that response can be unique and demonstrate what and how the student comprehends.