Inviting Students to Read Required Books in AP Lit #WorkshopWorksForAP

Grade distribution for the summer reading exam over The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice

To the right is the grade distribution that describes how my students did last fall on the multiple choice exam over their summer reading books.

What would you conclude if presented with that set of data from your students: did they read the books assigned for summer reading?

The grades seemed pretty strong–only 16 of them (28%) got fewer than 80% of the questions wrong. Given how notorious we ELA teachers are for writing difficult and specific questions over the books our students read, this appears to be pretty strong data suggesting that they did in fact read.

But I wasn’t so sure.

So I asked them.

Only 42% of students reported to have read all of both books assigned for summer reading. 51% said they read one (most often The Great Gatsby) and some or none of the other (most often Pride and Prejudice).

Students wrote on a piece of paper how much of the assigned summer reading they completed and how carefully they read. I asked them for complete and total honesty because in order to teach them well, I needed to know exactly what I was dealing with. I assured them that there was no grade penalty whatsoever attached to what they said, so it would not hurt them to admit to not reading if that was the case.

I discovered that only 41% of them had actually read both books. Over half of them had completed one book only (having read some or none of the second book). Two students completed neither book but read some of both of them. And two students read none of either of the assigned books.

I saw a contradiction between what the multiple choice reading exam showed and what my students told me when I asked them. Had I based my assessment over whether or not they had done the summer reading solely on the exam, I would have been pretty confident that the vast majority of them had read both books. But the majority of them had NOT read both books.

How did they still do so well on the exam?

You know how. Sparknotes. Watching the movies. Shmoop. It’s actually pretty easy to do okay on a multiple choice exam over books you haven’t read as long as you consult enough of these kinds of sources. I know. I’ve done this. That’s how I survived AP English Literature myself as a high school senior. I read not even one of the assigned books and got a B in the class and a 5 on the exam.

I’ve been teaching high school ELA for a couple of decades. I was not actually surprised by how few of my students had actually completed the summer reading assignment. In fact, I surveyed a class of 30 students several years ago to get a sense of how much they read of what was assigned to them in school. Only ONE of the 30 students indicated that she had read every single book assigned in the previous year of school. Most students could not recall even one title of a book that had been assigned to them.

I want my students to read. To ACTUALLY read. And I want them to read because we must read to make sense of our existence as human beings.

So if my goal is that my students will actually read the books, I need different data to help me see if they are hitting that goal. The multiple choice reading test didn’t give me the information I need; there was no reason for me to continue this kind of accountability measure . So as I did back in August, I asked students throughout the school year to tell me about the reading, with complete honesty, with no grade penalty at stake. On the date we were scheduled to begin conversation about each book, I gave each student a note card and asked for an honest report about whether or not they completed that book and how carefully they read it. I read their note cards, wrote a note back to them, put some data in the gradebook about what they said, and ask them to tape the card into their writer’s notebook so they could keep track of their reading over the course of the year.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

The first book we discussed together in class was Gatsby. According to student self-reports at the start of the year about their summer reading, most of them had read the book in its entirety. It was the book they had most likely read had they only read one of the two books. But the summer reading self-report data showed a different story for the second book we discussed in class together, Pride and Prejudice. Most of them had NOT read it. They had some time to read P&P if they hadn’t completed it over the summer while we were dealing with Gatsby. And by the time we started discussing P&P in class, 71% reported that they actually read it in its entirety. I was thrilled. Only 6 of my students reported to have read only some of Pride and Prejudice.

71% of students reported to have read all of Pride and Prejudice by the date we started discussing it in class. This included students who did not read it over the summer as assigned but read it in time for our work with it in class.

I’ll let you scroll through the charts for the rest of the books we discussed together and follow up with some thoughts…

70% of students reported to have read all of Frankenstein by the date we started discussing it in class.
71% of students reported to have read Othello by the date we started discussing it in class.
57% of students reported to have read all of The House of the Spirits by the date we started discussing it in class. (There were several students absent on this day for a field trip.)
70% of students reported to have read all of Beloved by the date we started discussing it in class.

Pretty consistently, around 70% of my students said they read each book completely– except for The House of the Spirits. From talking with my students and reading what they wrote on their notecards to explain what got in the way of completing the book, I think the book’s length and complexity was an issue. Many students told me that they just didn’t give themselves enough time to read it or that it took more time than they thought it would. This will be helpful information to pass along to my students next year. It’s also important to note that it’s uncertain how the 10 or so absent students that day skewed the data.

Another consistent data point was the number of students for each book who reported to have only read some of the book–4 to 6 students. I would have liked to see that number decrease, and I will work on that for next year.

When students wrote on notecards for me to tell me honestly if they read or not, I also asked for them to tell me how carefully they read. It was here that I saw some real growth:

Only 32% of students said that they read the summer reading books carefully.
Only 38% said they read Pride and Prejudice carefully.
69% of students said that they read Frankenstein carefully.
52% of students said that what they read Othello carefully.
61% of students said that they read The House of the Spirits carefully.
70% of students said that they read Beloved, carefully.

I was glad to see the jump from how many students reported to have read carefully for the summer reading and for Pride and Prejudice to how many students said they read carefully for the remaining books. The slight dip on Othello I think is very likely connected to it being Shakespeare. It takes much more time and effort to read carefully, which some students admitted to not having done in their notecards to me due to the difficulty of the text. Several students told me that they started out reading very carefully but then just wanted to get it done.

Thank you for hanging in there with all of my graphs here–by mistake, I purchased a writer’s notebook that had graph paper instead of lined paper and, well, it inspired the graphing.

Putting my purchased-by-mistake graph paper writer’s notebook to good use.

But the point here is this: traditional accountability measures like reading quizzes/tests fail to give us the data we need to really know how our students are doing as readers. If there are high stakes attached to these measures (grades), then students might do whatever it takes to get the grade that they want. Often this includes things that they do instead of reading. If they can still do fine on the traditional accountability measure with out reading, then why would they engage in the difficulty of reading the challenging literature that an AP Lit course asks of them?


My students did reasonably fine on the multiple choice test over the two books that they were supposed to read for summer reading, yet only 41% of them actually read both books. I am not okay with that. I will not use traditional accountability measures to get my students to read. Here’s my alternate approach:

1) Dedicate class time to reading.

If reading is so important, then we need to spend class time doing it. Students will learn to value whatever it is that we teachers decide dedicate minutes in class to. Hence, my students have 30 minutes every Monday to read silently. I tell them that job #1 is reading the books assigned for class. Job #2 is reading other books of equal literary value (I provided to them the list of authors recommended by the College Board for AP Lit). Job #3 is reading anything they want. I have some ideas for next year to provide a bit more structure to the independent reading (a list of contemporary writers doing really incredible work like Jesmyn Ward, George Saunders, Mohsin Hamid, and Paul Beatty and some book clubs to help to cultivate some reading habits for life) (the Man Booker award winners and shortlist nominees has become a go-to for me in my own personal reading of late). The 30 minutes on Mondays for reading has become critically important in my classroom. Students know it’s their job to show up with a book to read. Many use this time to re-read sections of our assigned novels (which I love). I also invite them to use a few minutes of it to head to our school library to browse the fiction section as needed. I can monitor their reading and have some brief reading conferences. And I always try to sit down for at least a few minutes of it and read with them. It makes reading a thing we do together.

2) Re-purpose traditional accountability measures as low-stakes “reading comprehension checks.”

Since I’m not using reading quizzes as accountability measures, I have re-purposed them into “reading comprehension checks.” These are google forms that I build as I’m reading the book myself. It’s multiple choice so I can set the google form as a quiz and the students can get immediate feedback on how they did with the questions. They can go through the form as many times as they want–it will let them know which answers they got wrong but won’t tell them the right answers (look here for screenshots of the necessary google form settings). In this way, working through the form becomes a learning experience–they can use it to check and hone their understanding of the text. I make it available as they are reading so they can check comprehension as they go, but I set a date for completion about a week or so after the book is due for class discussion. As an example, here’s my reading comprehension check for Beloved. It’s a difficult read on so many levels, but the constant movement between present and past in the book makes simple comprehension of what’s happening in the story a challenge. Of course we talk about the purpose of the interplay of past and present in the narrative once we get into our discussion of the text, but I designed the reading comprehension check to help the students to keep track of what happened–present vs. past–in each chapter. There’s a list of plot events for each chapter and their job is to check off which of them happened in the present timeline of the book. You’ll see at the start of the google form that I drew the plot events from an online source (Shmoop). I’m working to model for them responsible use of those kinds of resources–alongside a text rather than instead of reading the book. Especially with a tough book like Beloved, students might give up if they have no help to make sense of things. There are many tools at their disposal that they can use to assist a successful reading of a difficult piece of literature.

3) Use a variety of strategies to support students as they work toward deadlines for assigned reading.

We don’t discuss or write about a book in class until the students have read it in its entirety. In a class like AP Lit, I have always wanted to have the entire text available for our work with it. Otherwise, it’s like trying to interpret a painting when you’ve only seen a little bit of it. I do know, however, that my students need some help along the way for a successful reading experience. I assign discussions in Google classroom (using the “question” feature). Students post a thought or question they have about the reading when we are maybe 2 weeks away from the due date for discussion and then read other students’ posts and choose one to respond to. This becomes an opportunity for me to monitor what they are thinking about the reading and jump in to offer some clarification where needed. And it’s a bit of encouragement to read. The weekly in-class reading time also helps here because I can check in with students if they’re struggling with the reading and offer some individualized instruction. I also launch the reading of each book with a short presentation–who wrote the book, what was going on in the world when the book was written, what the key elements of the text are, what might be difficult, some essential questions to consider as they read, etc. I spend no more than 20 minutes on this, but it lends some context and background to students for their reading and also is a very clear “hey, you need to start reading this book!” And of course having the reading comprehension checks available for students while they are reading can be an important support to them. So I’m not assigning ranges of chapters and working with students as they read, but I am offering some supports to them, suggestions about how to manage their time to hit the reading due dates for each book, and creating natural opportunities for me to monitor their reading along the way.

4) Be an active member of the reading community.

I have to remember that I’m a critical member of our reading community. I re-read the books every time I teach them, and I tell students how it’s going–quick updates at the beginning of class, stories about my efforts to get through a book, etc. I also talk a lot with them about my own reading practice. Over the last several years, I’ve made concerted efforts to read more and to model that for my students. There’s a link in my email signature to my Goodreads account, and I also post that link on my Google Classroom pages so students can take a look at what I’ve read, what I’m reading, and what I plan to read.

5) Frequently collect meaningful data on their reading progress.

I ask students every week how their reading is going. They fill out a google form that takes them only a few moments during Monday’s reading time. The form asks them how much time they spent reading in the past week (I ask for 2 to 3 hours), what they read during that time, how the reading is going, and what their reading plans are for the next week. I look over the resulting data to make plans for reading conferences, and cumulatively over the course of a semester, I end up with a detailed portrait of each student as a reader. This is way better information for me than a bunch of reading quiz scores. This information actually gives me a shot at helping students strengthen as readers–not just for my classroom, but for the rest of their lives. (This is what I say to them on the last day of school, that their assignment is to read books that challenge them as human beings for 2 to 3 hours per week for the rest of their lives.)

6) Do not attach any grades to students’ reading progress. 

This is so critical. You can read much more about my approach to grades in my blog series on grading. But the relevant point here is that students may not be totally honest with us about their actual progress as readers if they know that there is some high stakes grade consequence for what they say about it. And it’s high stakes to our students if there is some kind of score attached to reading progress data that calculates into the overall grade that students monitor so carefully through our online gradebooks. Even in my gradebook where I tell students that the number they see is not their grade but rather a simple metric to let us know if they are getting the work done or not, I don’t let the reading progress data I collect have any impact on the number the gradebook spits out. I build a qualitative data record instead. It looks like this:
The words you see in the last column are the student’s own. They are what she typed into the weekly reading check in google form. I did a simple copy/paste from the spreadsheet holding the google form data to the gradebook–this takes me about three minutes per class. For very little time and effort on my part, I have an excellent qualitative data record on this student’s reading progress. I can use this to get insight into her life as a reader. And she was honest with me because she knows there was no grade penalty if she didn’t achieve the weekly reading goal.


What do you do to invite your AP Lit students to read the required texts?

This post is part of a blog series on teaching AP Lit with readers/writers workshop. Click here to see the entire series. 

This entry was posted in #DisruptGrading, #WorkshopWorksForAP, AP Lit, blog series, gradebook, making change, motivating students, summer 2018 blog series, teaching literature, teaching reading, workshop teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Inviting Students to Read Required Books in AP Lit #WorkshopWorksForAP

  1. I love everything about this post. I need to go back through it again with my reader’s notebook open so that I can pull ideas that I want to adopt. Thank you!

  2. Dawn Finley says:

    I don’t teach AP- it an honors college credit class for Jrs. Independent reading has improved their reading on our whole class texts. I give 20 minutes a day for independent reading.

    We do a weekly Socratic seminar and types reflection (while in process of reading the text). If I give a quiz it asks for % read (of assigned reading—most students are completely honest) a headline for the section and reason for the headline. Then I pull a quote/passage/moment/character or two (depending on section) and they have to explain the significance. It forces thinking and not just recall.

    • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

      Hi Dawn! Love the headline idea. Awesome that you’ve seen an improvement in required reading due to the independent reading. The most important thing we can do is build readers. Thanks for reading!

  3. Cindy Erhart says:

    I teach AP Lit as well, and we are definitely working on a student-centered workshop approach to the course. We have required class texts (about 50%), and the rest of our reading is done in student book clubs or independently. As far as how we invite students to participate in reading our class texts, we also abandoned multiple choice quizzes. We sometimes use quotation reading comprehension checks–these are not “gotchas,” but they do hold students accountable for being prepared for class. Students say that if they are reading, even if they are challenged by the text, they do well on these comprehension checks if they are doing real reading. We do discuss our class texts as we are reading them, breaking the reading down into 4-5 chunks per text. We provide 10 minutes of reading time at the beginning of each class and sometimes full class periods to read–especially when beginning and finishing a text. Almost all students say that they have read more in senior English than in any other English class in high school. Workshop AP Lit is definitely a work in progress for us!! I love the idea of having informal ways of tracking progress with texts with the form you shared!!! Thanks for this article!

    • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

      Thanks for reading! I love your strategies. I want to work in more independent reading and book clubs too. These model reading practices for life.

  4. Maura Rhodes says:

    A terrific article about the work you do with your AP students. We want them leaving high school loving reading and not hating it. Reading is power in a democratic society.

  5. Pingback: Focusing Class Discussion on What Students Want to Talk About #WorkshopWorksForAP | The Paper Graders

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