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Reader’s Notebooks in Secondary ELA

Considering diving into reader’s notebooks with middle and high school students? You’ll have some decisions to make! Reader’s notebooks are not a new concept, but recently, I’ve had several discussions with teachers who are curious. I want to begin using reader’s notebooks, but I don’t know where to start. 

I first started using notebooks with high school students when I taught sophomores. At that time, I just used them for responses to reading. Then, I dabbled with writing notebooks after reading Mechanically Inclined. Most recently, I’ve experimented with interactive notebooks with freshmen, but the time spent cutting and pasting didn’t seem efficient. All of these trials have helped to shape my understanding of using a notebook in the secondary classroom.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about using reader’s notebooks is that they really can be whatever you want to make them. As with classroom libraries, people sometimes think there is one “right way” to do them…but there isn’t. The “right way” to do reader’s notebooks is to make them fit your students’ needs. With every approach, there are pros and cons.

Let’s explore a few common questions and possible answers when it comes to implementing reader’s notebooks with older students.


What’s the best way to format the notebooks?

Surprisingly, a reader’s notebook doesn’t have to be an actual notebook. Students can also use binders. Digital versions are an option as well.

Physical Notebooks

Physical notebooks are handy because students can personalize them, they feel like a notebook (so sometimes students have more ownership), and the pages are secure. Composition books are a popular choice. You’ve probably seen images of beautifully decorated reader’s notebooks, but realistically, they don’t all turn out that way. A benefit of composition books is that they still allow you the ability to incorporate some interactive elements.

Another option is a 5-Star, which already has tabs and mini folders built in. However, the spiral notebooks are more difficult to stack and often get stuck together.

One of the drawbacks of a physical notebook is that they have limited space. If you want students to be able to refer back to class notes from the beginning of the year, but they are on their second notebook, they might not always have the first notebook handy. Suggestion: Store full notebooks in the classroom so that students always have them if needed.


If you want students to have a physical notebook but want more flexibility, a binder might be a better way to go. With binders, it’s easy to insert dividers and tabs. Plus, as long as students have a three-whole-punched paper, they can slip pretty much anything you want them to in their notebooks as they go along. Binders are more flexible, and you’ll never run out of paper.

Also, the covers can still be personalized. A tip I learned from a friend? Grab some large blank mailing label stickers to put on the front, back, and inside covers if you’d like.

The downside? Because they are loose, some pages may go into hiding if they aren’t handled with care.

Digital Notebooks

If you don’t want the hassle of lugging around physical notebooks, or if you’re afraid students will lose them, a digital version might be helpful. You can easily create a digital notebook for your students in Google Slides. With digital notebooks, it’s always possible to add more slides or rearrange contents. However, some teachers feel without the physical notebook to keep on your person, students don’t have as much of a connection with their notebooks.


What different categories should the notebooks have?

It’s really up to you! Some teachers choose to include reading, writing, and language all in one location so that students don’t have to carry around multiple notebooks. In this case, your students might only have three tabs.

If you’re only using your notebook for reading, you might consider including tabs for…

Anchor Charts

Why not? Photocopy anchor charts, or have students re-create class anchor charts in their notebooks. It will help them remember the concepts better.

Mini Lesson Notes

Do you like to use one-page notes or practice graphic organizers for reading mini lessons? Maybe your mini lesson includes Post-Its or color coding? Whatever your approach, mini lesson notes make a great category in a reader’s notebook because students can easily find them to look back at them later.

Academic Vocabulary

Are there certain terms or visuals you want students to remember? Plot diagrams? Types of characterization? Text structures? Figurative language? Many reader’s notebooks contain glossaries or vocabulary sections, which can be teacher-created or student-created.

Responses to Literature

Ask students to respond to reading in their notebooks. Students can write about whole-class texts, but often, reader’s notebooks are used as a layer of accountability for independent reading. Give students journal prompts, ask them to identify sign posts, or just have them write a letter to you about what they are reading.

Reading Goals

If you are conferring with students about their independent reading, ask them to write down their goal and a strategy or tip related to it in their notebooks. Let’s say a student’s goal is to work on identifying theme. A strategy they might use is asking themselves How does this idea relate to people outside the book? What advice would I give others about this idea? As students read independently, they can add to their thinking about their reading in the notebook. This way, the next time you meet with students, they will have notes to discuss.

Tips for getting started with reader's notebooks in middle school and high school #ReadersNotebooks #HighSchoolELA


Reader’s notebooks are most effective when students know exactly how, when, and why they will be used. Make sure to take time to discuss expected classroom routines and uses with students at the beginning of school.

For instance, will you want students to get them out before the bell rings every day? Practice that. Will you want them to avoid drawing unrelated images or ripping out pages to complete other assignments? Discuss “Dos and Don’ts for Notebooks,” and consider creating an anchor chart to leave up in the classroom. Do you want them to add color? Write in pen, pencil, or both? How will they know when to expect feedback? What should it look and sound like when students are working in their notebooks? Should they do it unprompted, or will they always be guided?

Think about all of the ways you imagine using these notebooks, and then picture what might go wrong. What might confuse students? Then, plan. What discussions will you need to have with students to maximize their success?


What’s the best way to store the notebooks?

Before experimenting with notebooks, have a plan for how you want students to store them if you choose the physical route. Are your students responsible? Can they remember to take them home and bring them back to class in one piece? If not, you may consider housing them in your classroom. A couple options…

Storage Cabinets

If you have open file cabinet drawers or double-door storage units, they can be a great place to keep notebooks. Make sure to label the drawers or shelves so that each class remembers which stack is theirs. (It can be frustrating when a notebook goes missing and a student has to use class time to dig through all the piles!) I like this approach because if the stacks aren’t perfect, you can just shut the door and close off the mess.


Do you have a little room for color-coded baskets? If so, get a basket or two for each class, and assign each class a color. If you decide to use baskets, it might be helpful to have students stack their notebooks back to back, vertically. This makes them easier to find and also protects the tabs if you have them on the top of the notebook.


How do you grade them?

Notebooks can be one of the best forms of accountability for independent reading. They allow teachers to see the depth of students’ thinking about a text. Yet, grading an entire stack of notebooks can be overwhelming. Trust me. I used to sit down with notebooks and grade every entry. It was exhausting and time consuming. But! As I’ve learned, that’s not necessary. Here are some suggestions to consider…

Pick One

As you skim through student’s entries, choose one compliment to give each student about just one of their responses. Also, give them just one piece of specific feedback or a thought-provoking question to challenge their thinking.

If you’re not sure students will complete the required entries if they know you will only be grading one of them, do a spot check. Give students a completion point for each part of their notebook they should have added, but that doesn’t mean you have to read every word of the entry.

Use a Rubric

How does the feedback translate into a grade? Use a simple rubric. Determine which standard or target skill you want to assess. (It helps to think about what whole-class mini lessons you conducted that week.) Then, determine what students would need to show you in their response in order to be meeting, approaching, developing, or needing support in that area.

Double Up

Do some double dipping. If you are using binders or asking students to insert assignments into their reader’s notebooks, some of the work will already be assessed beforehand. Let’s say you assign a reading response prompt or a reading comprehension task for students to complete with their independent reading. Maybe they submit it to you for feedback and then add it to their notebooks or binders afterward.


As you confer with students, ask them to self assess regarding one of their reader’s notebook entries. As they reflect on their work, offer your feedback. Grading student work this way increases ownership, although it also lengthens the amount of time you spend in conferences.


I recommend trying to grade the notebooks once a week so that students are getting frequent enough feedback (and you are able to see their learning needs on a regular basis).

Some teachers choose to cart the notebooks home every weekend. Others decide to grade them at school. I have found it helpful to dedicate each day of the week to a different class. At the secondary level, the last thing I want to do is sit down with 150 notebooks to grade at once, even if I’m only grading one entry. Monday, try getting through 1st hour. Tuesday, do 2nd, and so on.

Final Thoughts…

No matter what approach I’ve tried, reader’s notebooks have always been both powerful and frustrating for me at the same time. I love their flexibility, the ownership students take over them, the way they help develop students’ thinking about reading, and the opportunities for discussion when conferring with students. Yet, management and grading are persistently tricky with older students.

My advice? Start small. What is the one way you want to begin using notebooks that you feel you can manage? Avoid the overwhelm of needing to do it how someone else is doing it. Choose a method that works for you, and once you feel confident about that initial step, build on it.

Of course, don’t forget to share your learning! What tips or experiences can you share about using reader’s notebooks in middle or high school?


  1. I love this article, definitely saving this one for the upcoming year:) thanks!

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Michelle! I’m glad it’s helpful.

  2. Thanks!! Great advice! Now to just find a basic “do this as you read independently” when I don’t have a specific prompt etc…. I look forward to reading more of your posts 🙂 thanks!

    1. Hi, Janley. Are you saying you are looking for information about what students should be doing as they are reading on their own? Thanks for clarifying so that I can better help.

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