Key Words: Extensive reading, writing
Learner English Level: False beginning to advanced
Learner Maturity Level: High school to adult
Preparation Time: None
Activity Time: Varies
In spite of being aware that any assignments based on extensive reading may prevent students from enjoying reading, most reading teachers see a need to monitor students' learning through some kind of a follow-up assignment. The most exploited follow-up seems to be writing a book report with a summary and reaction included. Looking for some ways to make writing about books more appealing to students while maintaining, or even increasing, their interest in reading, I decided to try shared reading journals with my students.
A shared reading journal is a highly interactive and communicative activity in which two students write to each other about books they read.
At the beginning of the semester, students choose the partner with whom they will correspond about the books they read. Each pair needs a notebook for writing their letters. They take turns in writing letters and exchanging notebooks in class or out of class. To achieve fluency in reading and writing, each student should write at least one letter per week.
Since each journal entry is written as a letter, students should start it with a date and greeting and finish with a closing. What comes in between has three parts. The first part is the response to the letter they received and includes their comments about the book their partner is reading. They can express their opinions about the content and characters, comment on their partner's reaction, or ask for some clarification of the summary.
In the second part of the letter, students write a summary of the book they have read. If they have not finished reading the book by the time their turn for writing comes, they can summarize only the part they read and continue it in the next letter. In this case, their partner will wait for the next letter with increased interest.
The letter ends with the third part, which includes students' reactions or opinions about the book. They are free to comment about what affected them most. For example, the focus of their reaction may include personality traits of a character, relationships between the characters, the reality of the plot, or their favorite part of the story. They can be also encouraged to look for any relevance of the story to their lives. Since very often students tend to present just general comments, a list of questions that they can address in their comments might help them.
Teacher as Monitor
A valid argument can be made that the teacher's access to students' letters might hinder genuine communication between students. However, since this a class activity initiated by the teacher to monitor students' reading and give them necessary guidance, there is a need for the teacher to step in. I usually collect students' notebooks once a week to read their letters and write my comments about their reading comprehension and writing. Since students may feel ashamed if their partner reads the comments that are not quite positive, I never write comments in the notebook but on a special comment sheet. Each student is given a comment sheet after each letter so that they know what improvements to make in their writing.
Regarding correcting grammar, usage, spelling, or other "form" mistakes, the literature on error correction has indicated that any corrections of this kind may prevent students from focusing on meaning. Moreover, having their corrected mistakes seen by their partner may make students feel embarrassed and turn their reading and thought-sharing into an unpleasant experience, particularly if they make more mistakes than their partner. On the other hand, some students expect the teacher to correct their mistakes and do not see a purpose for doing any writing assignment if their mistakes are not checked. This dilemma can be resolved by asking students whether they want to have their mistakes corrected, and if most of them want to, the teacher and students can agree on a number of corrections. If, for example, they decide on five corrections, the teacher will correct five mistakes, either choosing them randomly or targeting the ones that are more typical of this group of students. In this way, the fossilization of some mistakes may be avoided, while at the same time none of the students will feel embarrassed or discouraged since they all get the same number of red corrections.
Changes in the students' reading and writing habits can demonstrate the benefits of shared reading journals. Reading their partner's letters may increase students' interest in reading. From their partner's letters, they can learn about other books and decide whether to read the same ones. Also, they may feel motivated not to read less than their partner does, particularly if their partner is a more avid reader than they themselves are.
Regarding their attitude towards writing about books they read, students might try harder to do the assignments on time if they know that their partner is expecting a letter from them. They may not see doing this as an assignment but as a means of sharing what they read and their opinions with someone of their own age. I often remind students that this is like chatting about a movie with their friend in the coffee shop or over the phone in the real life.