Making In-Class Reading More Engaging in Middle and High School

Deep thinking and active collaboration aren’t mutually exclusive. These strategies extend silent reading by centering student engagement.

October 10, 2023
SDI Productions / iStock

Students have read a short passage in class, annotating or taking notes on its content. What’s next?

In my classroom, I’ve faced a tension in this moment: After a stretch of independent work, I want to inject life back into instruction through collaborative discussion, but I don’t want to lose the deep thinking that took place during independent reading. Neither do I want to ask for volunteers to share what they found, again and again.

Instead, I’ve tried to lean into new post-read activities that keep students engaged with their deeper thinking but also allow them to collaborate purposefully, whether they just read a short story or an informational background article. Here are the three things I’ve been doing more often:

Most Important Word Whiparound After ‘Consensus Chats’

This activity seems deceptively simple: Every student chooses the most important word from the text they just read and crafts a one-sentence reason why it’s most important.

With a partner or small group, students then must come to a consensus. This means deliberation and negotiation. I love this activity, because we—as adults—use these skills often in professional and personal settings, and therefore students will transfer their practice beyond classroom walls.

Next comes the “whiparound”: Every partnership or group shares their word and reason while I record the answers at the front of the room. (To keep students engaged, you could ask them to circle other groups’ words in the reading as they’re shared.)

You might have the class vote on their top word (with the requirement that they cannot vote for their own word), providing reasoning for their rankings. If you teach multiple sections, students can compare results across classes for further discussion. 

I started using this activity during my 11th year of teaching and immediately regretted not using it during the first 10—especially as someone who has probably spent hundreds of hours posting things on walls for traditional gallery walks.

The better way that happens to also be much easier is to invite students to put their papers on their desks, then silently go around the room and annotate each other’s work. I ask them to not only mark the text but explain their thinking, in their own words, on the text itself. (We call this “Getting as messy as possible with your thinking.”)

From there, I’ve used two extensions:

  1. Tell students they’re going to silently read as many annotations as possible, strolling the room and looking for noticings and explanations they hadn’t considered—with the task of looking for at least two to three additional annotations they can steal and apply to their own text. (I recommend doing this the first time you try the activity.)
  2. Have students add their thinking to classmates’ annotations. When we do this, I project sentence frames on the board and remind students that they can converse with the annotations: If there’s a question, answer it! If there’s a thought, add a clarifying question!

The key here is that students refrain from discourse. I usually play soft instrumental music and watch students’ eyes widen when they see what classmates noticed—then scribble furiously once they’re back at their own papers.

‘Title Crown’ Competition

In our classroom, I make a new crown each year to give to winners of individual and group competitions—including my favorite, “Title Crown.”

In Title Crown, I ask students to create a title for something they’ve just read—a new title for a specific section or full text. They also have to come up with a convincing reason for their title.

In my experience, creating an original title is a simple, engaging way for students to draw upon their observations and interpretations while considering creative expression. When explaining their reasoning, students are highly engaged and practicing deep thinking about reading. 

You can go immediately to the competition or, in larger classes, narrow it down to a smaller selection of titles by having students come to “consensus titles” in partners or small groups.

Then, the competition begins.

The first student to share a title and their reasoning starts with the crown (and, in our classroom, receives a quiet golf clap). From that point forward, I take on the role of “solitary judge and jury” considering whether each subsequent title and explanation is worthy of stealing the crown.

Group two has a better title? I explain my reasoning for that determination, and they get the crown. Group three not as good? I explain again, and the crown stays.

The winning group is the last one with the crown, and they sign it and have bragging rights until the next competition. (They also sometimes sneak back into class to take some selfies wearing the crown.)

I believe that deep, critical thinking matters as much as purposeful peer conversation. The above strategies have allowed me to center both of those objectives and beliefs equally, enlivening reading comprehension and instruction while fostering collaboration.

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Filed Under

  • Literacy
  • Collaborative Learning
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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