Essential Engagement!


When starting the work of readers’ workshop, I found many of my students were passive readers that read on autopilot. Some read for plot fixes, some read because they were supposed to, and others tried to fake read. It was a definite struggle to get my students to read with meaning. In writing, my students struggled to find their voices and usually began by staring at blank pages. They weren’t truly engaged.

In 2002, a researcher, named Schlechty, defined five levels of student engagement in his book Working on the Work:

  • Authentic Engagement – students completely immersed in valuable and meaningful work
  • Ritual Compliance – students are doing work for an external reward like grades, but the work is not meaningful
  • Passive Compliance – students are doing the work to avoid consequences, but find little to no meaning or value in the work
  • Retreatism – students are not engaged in the work, but do not disturb others
  • Rebellion – students refuse the work and are disruptive

When I look at all these levels, I can picture students’ faces in each category. Ideally, we want all our students to be authentically engaged as that is where they get the most instructional benefit. The question then becomes how can we get as many students authentically engaged as possible and to do the work necessary to grow them as readers and writers? Unfortunately, there is not a simple answer. We have to find what makes each one of our students tick. Like Tracy wrote a few weeks ago, it starts with relationships.  Here are my top strategies for helping students get engaged.


Choice is a huge motivator for students. If they get to choose the work they are doing, it instantly becomes a lot more meaningful and relevant to them. When starting the work in reading, many teachers focus on the reading levels of their students. The intent is to have students working in texts they can be successful with.  That is a great idea. However, there is much more to a reader and a book than a reading level. After all, book stores and libraries usually don’t have books organized by level.  We need to help our students become independent at selecting just right books. Donalyn Miller talks all about finding just right books in her book, The Book Whisperer. Jennifer Serravallo has a great strategy in her new book The Reading Strategies Book.  The strategy asks the student to read the first page of the book. Then ask:

  • Does it grab you and make you want to keep reading?
  • How do you feel about it?
  • Can you see the story or topic?
  • Do you care to find out what comes next?

If the answers are negative, that is probably not a just right book.

In writing, it comes down to student choice as well.  Do students have the choice on what to write, or are they always writing to a prompt? A choice in prompts can be useful when starting with writers that don’t know what to write about. By that I mean, showing them some prompts to trigger a few thoughts.  Yes, students will need to learn to write to a prompt for standardized testing, and we can transfer those writing skills to prompts as review for testing season.  After all, are we teaching test-takers, or are we teaching writers?

Instruction: Beyond the What

Instruction is a vital piece to engagement.  It is an important piece for students to find value and meaning in what they are doing. When I’m talking about instruction, I’m thinking of all the instructional components of workshop (mini-lesson, conferring, small group, etc.). As a teacher, my first instinct is to teach what the students need to do.  That’s the content. Too often, we forget to teach the how, why and when. As a learner growing up, I was taught what to do as a reader and writer, but not how to do it, why to do it, and when to do it.  That caused me to be a passively engaged.  I tried, but really had no clue what I was doing because I was not taught the how, why, when.

Let’s take a look at a teaching point about monitoring for meaning while decoding that is written both ways.  The first is just the what, the second includes the why, how, and when.


Example 1:
Today I’m going to teach you that readers slow down when reading to check if what they’re reading makes sense.

Example 2:
Today I’m going to teach you that readers slow down when reading to check if what they’re reading makes sense. Readers do this to make sure they are understanding what is really going on in their books. Readers always ask themselves, “Is what I’m reading making sense?” If the answer is “No!” they go back and fix it up.


Which teaching point will be more meaningful and valuable to a student? Making sure our teaching points include the what, why, how and when can make a world of difference to our students.

Conferring for Feedback and Accountability

Feedback while conferring is good. Specific feedback is even better.  The specific feedback shows students that you value what they are approximating and their attempts to be better readers and writers. I use feedback primarily when giving a compliment to a student. I name what they are specifically doing correctly and encourage them to keep doing that work.  What a great way to open a conversation! For example, I might say, “When I read your piece, I noticed that you had a lead, focused on one small idea and had an ending to your story. That is important work to do when writing a narrative. Keep doing those!” That type of feedback tells the student exactly what they did correctly, because our students often don’t know what they did right.  By naming and complimenting what they did well, students grow with confidence and independence in the work they are doing. The fact that you noticed and valued it, helps create meaning and value for them.

One type of accountability that I use with students is the research part of my conference. When checking in with a student I may ask what they are working on as a reader/writer, how the last strategy we worked on was working, or take me on a tour of their work.  All of these help keep our kids accountable to the work they need to be doing. It shows that you are interested in what they are doing and gives the clear expectation that they need to be working on making themselves better. Regularly meeting with and checking in with students while conferring is an amazing accountability tool, and will work more successfully when you have quality conferring notes to help you remember what every student is working on.

I will totally admit that all students may not completely value and find meaning in their literacy work to be at the top level of engagement as described by Schlechty. The important thing to remember is that these levels are a progression of engagement. Students will most likely not move from the rebellion stage up to authentic engagement stage with one strategy. They will need many. We need to think of ways to move students up one level at a time to allow them to grow as an engaged reader and writer.

Please help us all grow by leaving engagement strategies with which you have been successful in the comment section below.

Make it a reading and writing –tastic week!


Twitter: @ICchiller



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