Sunday, September 8, 2013

Reading Response Form Letters for Upper Elementary Students: Beginner Level

Recently, I received this email from a reader:
Hi there, I have been following your blog for quite sometime and would like to ask a quick question of you.  I have been using reading response notebooks/letters with my 5th graders for 8 years now and am still struggling with what is the best accommodation for my inclusion special education students.  I have 5 students this year with limited writing abilities. Do you use a cloze template for them to fill in?  If so, so you have an example one?  We have used verbal response, a scribe, cloze paragraphs, shortened response, etc. and I'm still wanting something a little bit different.  Thanks for your help and hope your school year is going well.    
There was a huge response to my posts back in 2011 on how I did my reading response letters back then. I had posted explaining how I set up my reading notebooks. I also did two separate posts on how I modeled writing a reading response letter, here and here.  At the time, I was working with enrichment students who had no difficulty in writing those letters.  Currently, I work primarily with students who sometimes have significant difficulty in writing even the most basic of response letters. While they aren't special education students, I completely understand the situation that email stems from!
Thesis Statement

As I worked more and more with my new students, I could see that they definitely needed more support in writing the letters.  As I noted, they weren't inclusion special education students, but there were still  many for whom the task was just too overwhelming. Cognitively, it was too much to put together.  There was deciding what to write about, then connecting that writing topic to selected information from the book to include in the letter.  There was getting all that thought together, and then putting it all in the specific format of a friendly letter.  For children who are struggling readers and writers, this is a tremendous task.

To help those students, I created a number of reading response form letters that address some different thinking stems (comprehension strategies.)  There is nothing cutesy about these letters.  I didn't put in borders, clip art, or use fancy fonts.  It's a basic form letter to fill in.  There's a reason for this.  My goal is that eventually my students are able to take a plain piece of lined paper and generate a letter on their own. I want my form letter to look very much the way the letter will eventually look in their notebook or lined paper. I also wanted nothing visually distracting.  I am focused on the content, and since I'm asking them to write in letter form, providing the format.  Content is exactly what my plain form letters focus on and modeling the format provides familiarity with it as they use the forms.

There are 13 letters in all that focus on setting, character, plot, making connections, asking questions, visualizing, inferring, predicting, plot, summarizing, synthesizing, an open response for fiction and non-fiction.
You can download the letters by clicking HERE.   It is a PDF that I uploaded in to Google Docs.  There shouldn't be any problems downloading them, but I know there are always a few people who have some trouble with it. For that, I apologize.  I would love to trouble shoot that for you, but my tech skills are just not that advanced! :-)

These letters are meant to be a tool in helping our students transition to writing independently.  However, there are students that will need extended time using these letter forms.  There are students that will need these types of forms for most of the year, if not all year.  That's okay!  It depends on the child's needs.

Now, let me tell you why you may not want to use the letters at all!

I do want to note that I strongly suggest not getting caught up in letter writing as your only form of reading response.  For upper elementary students, I like it because it is a way to organize their thoughts in a form (paragraphing) that will be necessary if not required as they head to middle school. But never forget that the content is of primary importance.

If you have a student that simply can't master using friendly letter format independently no matter how many times you show them or they practice using it, stop requiring it of that student.  At least for a while.  After all, you are asking for these responses to see if students are effectively applying reading strategies, if they are monitoring for comprehension, if they are extending their thinking. Think about what the goal is here.  It's not to see if they can write a friendly letter.  When the letter just isn't working, we may need to start providing variety in their reading response opportunities.

We've often been told our students need to be writing reading response LETTERS.  And, hopefully if you are doing that these form letters are helpful to you.  But, what they should be telling us is that students need to respond to their reading.  That response can and should take many forms and be as varied as your students' needs. Some alternate responses to a letter format response include:
  • Conferencing - A conference discussing the book where a teacher takes anecdotal notes can be very useful for students who simply have difficulty getting the hand to write what he brain knows!
  • Graphic Organizers - Some students need the visual organization a graphic organizer provides.  They also often allow a student who is limited in writing stamina to give specific, succinct answers in each section.
  • Identify Key Words - There are a few ways to do this. Here are two examples.  One way could be, if you are looking for the student to respond with character analysis, to jot down three or four character traits on a piece of paper.  Have the student circle one and at the bottom of the page explain why they chose that trait.  Of course, you want them to explain what in the text makes them choose that word.  The support comes in that you have provided the possible character traits.  Another way to do it for non-fiction is to jot down a few words related to the topic.  Have the student choose the word that is most important to the book and tell why.  This is definitely higher level thinking.  We aren't trying to get away from higher level thinking, but instead looking for other ways to show it beyond a reading letter.
  • Sketching - Have the student sketch the most important scene and explain what is happening and why it was important.  Or, have them sketch and label the character.  They can label with three things we can see and three things we know but can't see.   Notice I said sketch, not draw.  It is not meant to be an art project but a reading response.  A quick sketch should do the trick!   
  • Record It - Write some general, key comprehension questions on index cards.  Give one or two to a student and have them record their answers verbally.  Hopefully, most schools have simple microphones for the classroom computer that make this easy to do.  
Those are just a few ideas.  Some are easy, and some require a bit more work.  But, what they all do is provide alternate response choices that might better fit the needs and abilities of certain students.  One of the most important things we can remember as teachers is that; 

Fair isn't everyone getting (or doing) the same thing, 
but everyone getting what they need to succeed.  

Reading response letters are just one way of doing it. So, please keep that in mind as you use these letters or if you go back  to my previous posts and follow my reader's notebook letter format.

By the way, if not using the form letters for a weekly reading response letter, throwing some in a folder can make a quick and easy literacy center.  I've also found them useful in my guided reading groups where time is so limited. If you decide to use them, please take a minute to comment and let us all know how.  You never know when your idea may be exactly just what someone else was looking for!