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TNLI: Action Research: Curriculum Implementation: Making Meaning through Written Response


Research Summary

The Questions:

  • How do reading journals guide instruction to improve student learning?
  • How do readers with varying abilities respond to literature?


These questions originated from a desire to better understand what students think about while they read. With great pressure on teachers to ensure that students perform well on standardized tests, teachers must be able to understand how different kinds of readers comprehend what they read. Formal assessments often lack the insight into student thinking that teachers need to tailor their instruction to improve learning. By gaining a deeper understanding of how different students process what they read, teachers can design instruction to better meet diverse needs.

Data Collection Tools:

  • Student reading journals
  • Teacher reflections and observations
  • Student questionnaires

The Process:

Reading journals were used as the primary response and assessment tool in a 5th and 7th grade classroom during novel studies. Students were expected to respond several times a week to a novel that had been chosen for the whole class. The novel study took three weeks. Responses alternated between teacher prompts and student-selected prompts. Journals were collected from six students per class including two lower level readers, two average readers, and two high level readers. Student responses were divided into categories that commonly emerged and then analyzed accordingly. Both teachers kept a journal documenting their observations and reflections during novel studies. Students also completed a questionnaire indicating their understanding and preferences when using the reading journal.

Data Analysis:

Reading journals
Entries were analyzed using six categories including summary, interpretation, personal connection, literary elements, opinions, and wonderings/predictions. Low level reader entries were simple with few details to support ideas. These entries lacked structure and were often unclear. Student entries typically fell into the summary or opinion categories. Average reader entries became longer, but repeated the same structure. These entries reflected specific examples from the text to support ideas and opinions. The entries included each of the categories, but students generally repeated the same categories in their journals. High level reader entries provided ample literary analysis that included each of the categories with almost every entry. These student entries reflected a high engagement with the text and always provided text support for their ideas.

Teacher reflections
Teacher journals had two main themes. First, teachers noticed the higher level thinking skills that high level readers regularly exhibited. They wondered, how can we get all students to reach that same goal? How do we raise the bar for all our students? Second, students’ entries were inconsistent with their previously shown capacity. Teachers questioned student motivation and their ability to increase the quality of student entries.

Student questionnaires
Student responses to the questionnaires reflected a general understanding of the purpose of the journals. High level readers demonstrated a deeper understanding of the teacher’s goals for the journals. When asked whether students preferred student-directed prompts versus teacher-directed prompts, the student responses varied. Low level readers and average level readers indicated a mixed preference for both teacher and student-directed prompts. High level readers demonstrated confidence in their ability to respond freely and preferred to direct their own journal responses.


We found that reading journals facilitated discussion among students by allowing students the opportunity to reflect and share their ideas. We were able to gain insight into their thinking, and provide instruction based upon our observations. We were also able to model higher level thinking.

Next Steps:

We will present our findings to the faculty at our school. We can also provide professional development to support teachers who would use the reading journals. Ideally, as a faculty we could collaborate regularly to discuss the implementation of reading journals throughout the school year. Individually, we will continue to use and improve the reading journals within our own classrooms with a specific focus on assessment. On a broader scale, we hope to collaborate with teachers in CPS to continue the discussion of making meaning from written response.

Policy Recommendations:


  • Implement the use of reading journals at every grade
  • Differentiated instruction with a small group approach

District and State-wide:

  • Provide opportunities for written response
  • Provide teacher professional development

Rosemary Barilla

Karen Dreyfuss

Research Focus:
Reading Comprehension

TNLI Affiliate:

Sauganash Elementary School
6040 N. Kilpatrick Avenue
Chicago, IL 60646

If you would like to learn more about Teachers Network Leadership Institute, please e-mail Kimberly Johnson for more information.



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