Just Say “No!” to Boring Book Reports

Try a fresh spin on the tired book report assignment and use “book talks” instead. A book talk is just an informal conversation with the student wherein I determine whether the student actually read the book. No more speeches, no more poster boards, no more fatigue. As the kid talks about the plot, I flip through the pages of his book and ask about specific characters or scenes. I also like to read a small bit aloud to the student and have him tell me what happens next in the chapter. As he’s talking, it’s easy to look through the next few pages and see if he’s right.

It’s awesome not to have a stack of book reports to grade at the end of each term, but my favorite part of this assignment is the one-on-one time it allows me to spend with each student. Even if the book talk is only two or three minutes, I find it helps to build connections with kids (most of my classes have 35-36 students) that I wouldn’t otherwise have time to make. It’s also a nice pocket of time to talk about books (one of my favorite subjects) and help struggling students find titles that will hold their interest.

Give it a try for one quarter and see how it works for you. Less to grade. More fun for all. I mean, S.S.R. is supposed to be a fun time, right? My teens really respond well to not having to build yet another poster board or collage. Some years, they’ve actually cheered when I introduced the assignment.

Tracking page-counts for students is super-simple, too. Just use the tally sheet for each student and jot down the titles and page-counts of successfully reported books. At the end of each quarter, add up the pages, consult the sliding scale, and – bam! – enter the grade. You’re done. It takes me less than five minutes to figure and record the grades.

Click here for a free copy of student handouts and tally sheets. Hope you like this approach to managing your S.S.R. tasks.

39 thoughts on “Just Say “No!” to Boring Book Reports

  1. I really want to try this next year, but I’m not 100% sure to go about it. I have 2 levels of 8th grade kids, Gen Ed and Honors. If a kid reads a 300 page book, that just counts for one book talk? If they read 2 200 page books, they do 2 book talks for the semester? I’m confused! Help!

  2. Hi Caiti,
    No worries. I always have to say it a few times before my students “get it,” too. 🙂 To get full credit for the quarter assignment, my gen. ed. kids need to successfully report 250 pages, while my honors kids must hit the 500 page mark. I’ll just talk about gen. ed. kids for the rest of this note and you can double the pages when thinking about your honors classes.

    Toward the end of the 1st qtr., a student will need to have successfully book talked 250 pages’ worth of SSR book/s to me. If he successfully reports on a 300-page book, he’ll earn a full 100 pts. on the 1st qtr. assignment and have 50 pages rollover in his book bank account, so to speak, for 2nd qtr. If he reads a 200-page book, he’ll book talk that one as soon as he’s done but then also need to book talk another book before the 1st qtr. deadline. If he gives me another 200-page book in the 1st qtr., he then has built 400 pages in his account. On the deadline day, I’ll take 250 of his 400 pages for the 100-pt. assignment, and he’ll have 150 pages of credit rolling over into his 2nd qtr. tally.

    Some of my eager readers are actually able to get their book talks done for the entire year (250 pgs. x 4 quarters = 1,000 pages) before winter break and then they have a book with them to read every Friday for the rest of the year (they still need to earn the 10 pts. for weekly reading) but no longer have to see me for Book Talks. Sweet, right?

    Hope this helps clarify things. I know there’s a lot to wrap our heads around with this one, but it’s worth it! 🙂

  3. Lindsay McCann says:

    On your SSR guidelines, #12 emphasizes that you “don’t allow reports on books that you haven’t finished.” Does this mean that if a student chooses a book that is 312 pages, but only reads 250 pages, thinking that it meets the requirement, you give zero credit unless he/she has finished reading the entire book? If a student chooses a book based on a movie, though they only receive a credit for 150 pages, they must complete all of the pages in the book? If the student has finished one book of 200 pages, then reads 50 pages into the next one, you don’t allow a report on the second because it isn’t finished?
    Sorry for all the questions, but I love this idea. I just want to decide how to interpret that rule in the guidelines for my students.

  4. Hey Lindsay,
    So glad you’re digging into the materials. Okay, I’m going to number my answers, just to keep my brain organized. Here we go!
    1. Yes, that student with the 312-page book would need to finish the whole thing and book talk it with me by the quarter deadline. He’ll need to plan ahead. On the upside, he’ll get a jumpstart of 62 pages (312-250 = 62 pages of rollover) for the next quarter’s assignment.
    2. Yes, a book that’s been turned into a movie will count for only 150 pages, regardless of how long the books actually is. I tell my Lord of the Rings fans that might want to choose something else because they’ll need to read an entirely separate second book in the same quarter in order to earn a 100% on the assignment.
    3. In this case, I’d allow the student to “abandon” the second book to top off his quarter page count. I leave that option to abandon a book in my policy for cases just like this. The warning, though, is that once a book has been “abandoned” and we’ve book talked on those pages (25-to-50 is the window) then the students can’t return later with the same book to complete a full-page book talk.
    Never apologize for asking questions, Lindsay. I’m thrilled that you’re considering the idea and I love talkin’ shop! 🙂

  5. I found this and started it last year with my juniors, and I’m continuing it this year. I LOVE IT! I like that it simplifies my grading time. Who doesn’t love that? However, I absolutely love that it gives me a chance to talk one on one with each of my students every few weeks. I have adapted the timing a bit and included specific genres over quarters, but every student has a book in hand, everyone loves Fridays. As our periods are only 43 minutes, they actually get upset if I have to “borrow” time to complete something or take a quick quiz.

    Thank you so much for sharing your ideas. You have certainly saved my sanity with this year and last. [grade change, toddler twins, house change, and craziness in general]

  6. Oh, Paige, thanks for taking a few minutes to leave this feedback! I, too, LOVE that the book talks let me actually sit down for a few quiet moments and talk to each student individually. With some of my quieter kids, that’s the only time I think they feel heard. As for you, I cannot even imagine your life – new prep, new house, twin babies!?!? Oy! Enjoy your extra hour of sleep on Sunday (it’s daylight savings time again); I know you need it! 😀

  7. Reyna Jasmer says:

    I absolutely love this idea. I have two questions for you:
    1) What kinds of questions do you ask your students during book talks?
    2) Also, have you considered doing this with non-fiction? I’m teaching 7th grade in an area where I have so many students who don’t “like” reading and don’t. I’m trying to get kids to read anything at this point, so I encourage non-fiction, magazines, newspapers (not that anyone has actually brought one in yet), how-to-guides. Do you think this could work for non fiction as well?

  8. So glad this might work for you, Reyna! I ask my kids a variety of questions during Book Talks. Sometimes, I’ll start by having the kid recap the plot as I thumb through the book and stop at a random spot. Then, I’ll stop the student and ask about a particular character whose name pops up a few times in the chapter I’m skimming. I’ll also often read a paragraph or two aloud and then ask the kids what happens next in the story. As the kid explains, I’m skim-reading ahead to see if he/she is correct. Hopefully, it becomes more of a conversation about the book than a quiz. If a student can’t answer my questions or seems flustered, I’ll say that I’m not convinced he/she read as closely as needed to pass the Book Talk and encourage the kid to try again on another day.

    As for non-fiction, I allow only memoirs or non-fiction written as a narrative for SSR; it’s too difficult to Book Talk on traditional non-fiction books because there isn’t a plot line and there are too many details for kids to reasonably remember. In my world, SSR works best with fiction and I don’t allow magazines/newspapers. My kids, though, are older, so the system works well for my classes. Hope this is helpful info. 🙂

  9. On a block schedule, how would you fit in your reading and book talks? We are on a M-TH, 90-min block schedule, and I’m struggling to figure out how to squeeze in the independent reading let alone the talks. Thanks for all your insight!

  10. Hey Jessica,
    Hmm…standing in your shoes, I’d probably dedicate the last 45 minutes of each Thursday class session to SSR reading. The book talks would still be due each nine weeks, just as with a traditional schedule. I do the end-of-quarter Book Talks during SSR time and other independent work time, but with scheduled due dates assigned by alphabetical order of last names to avoid a crush of too many procrastinating teens trying to report on the same day. Hope this helps!

  11. Hi Laura, I was just wondering, when do students complete their book talks? Do you give them time in class the day the book talks are due? Do you have them complete book talks as the other students are reading their SSR books? Thanks! 🙂

  12. Hi Heather,
    Yes, indeed. Most of the Book Talks are completed during class time, either while the rest of the class is reading SSR books or during independent work time on, say, a podcast- or documentary-based lesson that doesn’t need me leading things at the front of the room. I also complete some before school, at lunch, or after school as needed to fit a kid’s schedule, but most can be done in class. Hope this helps with your planning!

  13. Thanks! I have a few more questions, though:
    • Why do you have a 25-50 page window? Why don’t you allow book talks on unfinished books?
    • How do you determine a reasonable page count for books with pictures?
    • How many weekly SSR points do you subtract when students talk/make noise/sleep? And is there a way for students to make up those points?

  14. Adding on to the 25-50 page window question – why not just allow students to just do book reports on the pages if they read past the 25th page, regardless of whether or not they had surpassed the 50th page?

  15. Hey Heather,
    Good questions! Glad you’re digging into this idea. I offer the 25-50 window so kids aren’t stuck with a book they don’t like. I certainly don’t finish every book I start, and it’s nice to have an escape clause. After 50 pages, though, they must finish the book in order to earn the pages because I want my kids to stick with something for the long haul and finish it by the deadline. Without that rule, too many of them would procrastinate on their out-of-class reading, and the finish-the-book rule helps keep them on track. If you don’t like that piece, feel free to drop it and run the program in a way that feels good to you.

    For books with pictures, I’ll thumb through the book once the Book Talk is finished and the kid and I decide together how many pages of illustration to deduct from the total. If I see about 30 pages of illustration, I suggest we take 30 pages off the total. If that sounds reasonable to the kid, it’s a done deal. If not, we keep talking and tallying.

    For sleeping or misbehavior, I usually start with a one-point deduction and we go from there. Every time I notice a kid off task and give a correction, I’ll ding another point. And, no, those points can’t be made up. If I offered that option, I’d have to deal with a lot more goofiness during our quiet reading time, I’m sure.

    Hope this helps! 🙂

  16. Thanks! By the way, how did you determine the grading scale for SSR? I might want to adjust the page count for different groups of students and was wondering how you determined that 470/500 pages is equal to an A or 394/500 pages is equal to a B–.

    Also, what made you decide on the total pages required for each quarter?

    Thanks, again! 🙂

  17. Oh, those were decided by consensus of the English department back at my old school in California. We needed everyone on the same page (Ha! See what I did there?) as we introduced the SSR program to our students.

  18. I see. So how would I compute the grading scale if I wanted my students to read, say, 400 pages per quarter?

  19. Thanks!

    Did you adjust the math in any way when you came up with the scale? I noticed that to get a B-, a student would have to read 197 pages minimum out of 250, which is only 78.8% of 250. Or to get a C-, a student would have to read a minimum of 170 pages, which is only 68% of 250.

    Is there a reason why a B- isn’t 80% or a C- isn’t 70% on your grading scale? Thanks! 🙂

  20. You know, I’m sure the team has a reason for that, but I don’t recall it. That meeting was so many years ago and it looks like I just never went back and updated it when I left that district. Moving forward, I’d clean up the scale to keep the math simple and the page counts even. Ever onward!

  21. Oh I see. Thanks! By the way, what’s your reason for having the 150 page limit for books with TV shows/movies? And why 150 pages?

    Also, do you include under this rule books that have been turned into plays, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, or Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton?

    Thanks! 🙂

  22. Also, since your SSR scale has letter grades, would you give a student who read 448/500 pages the same score as a student who read 469/500 pages the exact same score, or would you adjust the grade to fit how many pages he/she read? Thanks! 🙂

  23. For the 150-page limit, that’s a number, Heather, that makes reading the book worth a student’s time, but not high enough to earn a passing grade for the quarter assignment without reading another book that doesn’t have a film companion. It’s a way to allow but not encourage students to choose books that’ve been turned into films.

    As for plays, I don’t put the same limits on those works. I’m up here in Idaho and neither of those shows (sadly, for me) have performed locally; few of my students would have the opportunity or means to attend, so these situations haven’t come across my desk. If I felt like a student was trying to dip into his theater knowledge instead of actually reading the book he presented to me, I’d just narrow my questions during the Book Talk. (Is the Chernow biography told in a narrative form? If so, I’d green light it. If not, I’d ask the kid to choose something else because book-talking traditional non-fiction can be tough; there are just too many details that cause me and the kid to struggle during the Book Talk.)

    Finally, yes, on my scale, an A-/90 percent is earned if the student’s page total falls anywhere within the 448-to-469 total. The 500-page total is used in my honors classes, while the 250-page total is for my regular/college-prep classes.

    As always, you’re welcome! 🙂

  24. Alright! Do you allow students to read the current novel the class is studying during SSR? What do you do if a student has a difficult time understanding his SSR book or mixes up details of his SSR book and the book the class is studying?

    Also, do you give your students a reading list/list of suggested books? If so, why do you do so? If not, why not?

    Thanks! 🙂

  25. No, Heather, students can’t earn their weekly SSR points by reading our current class novel. If they don’t bring their SSR books, one of the options is to use the time as a study hall, which could include reading the class novel, but they still lose their weekly Friday reading points. For students who struggle to keep plot points or characters straight in their reading, I allow them to keep notes and use those when they Book Talk with me. Finally, I don’t have a suggested reading list for my kids, but I do meet with individuals who need help narrowing their search and offer suggestions. Our school librarian is also a great resource to help us stay on top of the latest YA titles and get the right book into the hands of the right kid. Have a great night! 🙂

  26. Oh I see. Do you provide a way students can make up their SSR points? Thanks! Have a wonderful afternoon! 🙂

  27. Oh sure, Heather. If a kid has an excused absence, she will need to read at home for 45 minutes and bring me a signed note from a parent/guardian stating that the reading time was completed. Then, I pour those 10 points back into the grade book. Easy peasy.

  28. Hi Laura,

    About the grading – if Student A read 0 pages out of 500, Student B read 285 pages, and Student C read 150 pages, (all page counts would mean an F), what score would you give them? Would you give all students a 0/100 or a 59/100? Or would you adjust based on where they are on the scale?

    Moreover, what, specifically are the grades you put in the gradebook? That is, does a B+ on the grading scale translate to an 88/100 or an 89/100 on the gradebook? Does a B translate to an 83/100, 84/100, 85/100, 86/100, or an 87/100? Does a B– translate to an 80/100, 81/100, or an 82/100? And does the grade you put in the gradebook change depending on the number of pages the student read (within the letter grade including the +/–)?

    Also, are you more lenient with SSR when your class is in the middle of an intense novel unit? That is, do you do at all adjust your expectations for your students (i.e. the required page count, whether they’re allowed to read the full class novel or not, etc.) when you’re in the middle of a novel that may be particularly hard to read?

    Finally, how do you deal with students who might think SSR is a great way to waste time – those who don’t see the point of SSR and think it’s just busywork?

    Thanks!! 😀

  29. Hi Kelsi,
    As always, you have great questions. It’s clear you’re really digging in to make this work for your kids. Love that! To keep things clear in my head, I’ve numbered my answers below:
    1. I’d give Student A a 0/100, though I’d also check in with his/her privately to find out what happened. Why didn’t this kid come in to complete this major assignment? For Students B & C, that score would be entered as a 59/100, an F. I’d also confer with each privately to let them know I noticed the low performance and find out what might help them do better in the next quarter.
    2. For converting letter grades to numbers to enter in the grade book, I use the scale provided by my department: B+ = 89, B = 85, B- = 82, etc. I’d just stick with whatever your school/department has written as the policy, erring in the student’s favor.
    3. No. There’s no change to the page count or deadlines, regardless of our regular curriculum. SSR is extra and students are encouraged to find books they enjoy. They’ll hopefully view it as a treat, not medicine, and I do give them roughly 45 minutes in class each week to work toward their page goals.
    4. All of the usual approaches – no magic here, I’m afraid. I talk passionately about books and share with them what I’m reading. I make SSR time something to look forward to rather than dread (they can sit on the floor, grab something soft from my blanket drawer, enjoy a healthy snack). I help reluctant readers find books that they’ll actually enjoy (hello, Jason Reynolds!) and work with our librarian to supply audio-device versions when possible. And I don’t let kids wallow in negative talk about books, themselves, or the work we do together. Basically, I guess I brainwash them. 🙂

    As always, I hope this helps!

  30. Haha, I think I’m going to have to try to brainwash my students too! 😀 Thanks for your reply! I still have some questions, though.
    1. How do you select scenes in a book that are not so obscure that most readers wouldn’t be able to pick up the action and tell what happens next?
    2. How would this method work if a student chooses a book with a non-linear plot?
    3. How much of the scene do you read during book talks?

  31. Indeed, Kelsi! More answers, too:
    1. It’s totally random, just whatever page I flip to that catches my eye that doesn’t have too much dialogue. I’m looking for action more than anything else. I’m pretty generous, too. If a kid blanks on one scene, it’s not a big deal and I just move along to another. If he blanks on the second scene I choose, then we’re starting to have a problem.
    2. It works fine. I haven’t had any issues with those modern storylines or switched narration chapters.
    3. I usually need to read only two paragraphs or so, depending on the length, for the kid to be able to pick up the action. Maybe, half a page of me reading per scene.
    Have a great Tuesday!

  32. I am struggle with this. All my students leave their book talks to the last two days of the quarter. How do you prevent this?

  33. Oh, Cann, you are far from alone in teaching teens who procrastinate. 🙂 To prevent the end-of-the-quarter Book Talk clump, I stagger the deadlines over the last three weeks of the quarter alphabetically by students’ last names – A-H, I-P, Q-Z. Each quarter, I rotate the deadline order, so the group that went first in the first quarter goes last in the second quarter, etc. By all means, build those deadlines so that they work for you. Hope this helps!

  34. Hello Laura! I have implemented the SSR into my classroom this year (I teach sophomore English). I loved it the first quarter; however, I have found that second-quarter that a good chunk of my students did not read. What did you do in situations like these? Did you give them a zero since they had 9 weeks to complete this opportunity, or did you let them make this up? I am trying to decide how to go about this next semester. Thank you in advance!

  35. Hi Shea,
    Thanks so much for checking in with me! I give two scores connected to SSR. First, students earn up to 10 points each Friday for having their book and reading quietly during our weekly 45-minute SSR session. Second, students earn up to 100 points for successfully completing Book Talk/s, which are due toward the end of the nine-week marking period. If a student is not reading or struggling to connect with a book choice, I know early in the term because they struggle/check-out during our Friday reading sessions. Is that what happened here? I have had a few students over the years who opt out of their Book Talk assignment altogether, but they usually have other issues going on aside from this particular assignment. If I haven’t already contacted home for those particular students earlier in the term, missing a major assignment like this would warrant a call or email home. As for make-up assignments, I’ve had to follow the English department’s policy, but I also take the humanity of each student’s situation into account as I figure out next steps. Sorry you’re facing this. I know this year has been unlike anything we’ve ever seen. My heart is definitely with you. ❤️

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: