Getting Students to THINK About Their Reading: Incorporating Reading Ladders into My Classroom

Independent reading is a large part of my classroom, but at the beginning of my 2013-2014 school year, I was searching for a way to hold my 9th grade students accountable for their reading, as well as allow them the opportunity to reflect on their reading lives. During my search, I found out about reading ladders from Erica Beaton’s blog post. After reading her post, and then reading Teri Lesesne‘s Reading Ladders: Leading Students from Where They Are to Where We’d like Them to Be and Penny Kittle’s Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent ReadersI knew I had found my answer.

What is a reading ladder?

Literally, a reading ladder is a piece of expository writing where students rank their books (according to their difficulty), reflect on their reading lives, and discuss where growth is needed. According to Lesesne, reading ladders should help students make connections between texts, and also help them move toward independently self-selecting their own books to read. That move toward independence is extremely important to me, for if students cannot self-select text, they probably won’t be readers after they leave my class.

Why have students create a reading ladder?

When it comes to reading, I am a firm believer in student choice. My students don’t do reading logs or take Accelerated Reader tests to show their comprehension. Instead, they have “mini-conferences” with me throughout the school year, usually when they finish reading a book. They also do a few “projects” (i.e. book trailers, book talks) per year that are done solely to encourage their fellow classmates to read their favorite books. Reading ladders are not considered one of those projects. Instead, they are a way to get students thinking about their books, their reading abilities, and their reading lives. From the very beginning of the school year, my students are asked to think about the question, “Why read?” I ask them to do this, since over 75% of the students entering 9th grade each year are labeled “struggling readers,” and thus have a strong dislike for reading. We embark on a research project, of sorts, all year long to discover the benefits of reading.


Students reflect on what they have discovered about their own reading during their conferences with me, and then further explore it (in more detail) in their two reading ladders (mid-year and end of the school year). Having students make connections, evaluate books, reflect, and self-assess are high-level skills that they will use throughout the rest of high school, and beyond. No AR test can do that.

How do students create their reading ladders?

Students cannot just be given an assignment called “reading ladders” and then create their own. Brainstorming and modeling must be done first. I start by going over the purpose of a reading ladder, and then explain what they will be writing about.

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They must then gather the required information. My students use Goodreads to keep track of the books they read, so they begin by writing a list of the titles down. Then we create a class list of qualities that can make a book more difficult. Below are just some of the qualities that my students noticed.

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At this point, I then took students through my thought process by ranking some of the books I had read. I typed up what you see below right in front of them, explaining my thought process the whole time.

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I modeled each section of the reading ladder, and since I typed my samples, students could reference them online, if need be. By using Google Classroom, students could share their first drafts with me and get timely feedback.

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How do I know that my students were successful?

After reading my students’ reading ladders, I could tell they were definitely two of the most important pieces they wrote with me. They made connections, figured out strategies they used to “get through” a tough book, evaluated books, reflected on what they learned about the importance of reading, and SO much more. Take a look at the excerpts below from some of my 2014-2015 students. (The excerpts are from students with IEPs, as well as students from my Honors class.) ALL of them learned a lot about themselves as readers.


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7 thoughts on “Getting Students to THINK About Their Reading: Incorporating Reading Ladders into My Classroom

  1. Thanks for sharing this timely and important post. I am moving up to 9th grade and will be teaching on the block schedule, so I will only teach my students for one semester vs an entire school year. It is expected that I teach approximately four novels during this time. I am struggling with how to do that and also encourage students to read for pleasure? Most students will be hard-pressed to keep up with the in-class reading! I have always been a strong supporter of independent reading and I won’t abandon it now, just not sure what it will look like in the high school setting.

    • I also have been told I should teach 3-4 novels, but I only do 2 because of my independent reading. I have an administrator that supports independent reading though. I teach 4 out of 6 days in our 6-day block schedule and I can barely fit the two with all the writing instruction they need. Is that number flexible? If not, that would be something I would speak to administration about. 4 is a lot, even without the block. I’d have a tough time teaching 4 novels even without the IR!

      • I believe I’m only “required” to teach TKAM, but the teachers within my PLT all teach 3-4 novels. So it seems the expectation is I will follow suit. My principal is supportive of independent reading (I worked for him at my former school) so I’m guessing he would be supportive but I’m not sure since this seems to go against the tide in HS English. Seems so weird to me that in our district we have moved away from novels/longer texts in MS, encouraging independent reading and then when students get to HS we revert to assigned texts?!? I do see the value in a shared text experience, but I foresee major challenges with teaching whole class novels with the diversity of readers I will be teaching. I would hate to see students lose their love of reading because they don’t have time to read for pleasure due to assigned texts. I ran into a former student the other day and she told me she did practically no pleasure reading during her freshman year. She was thrilled to be on summer break so she could read the books on her TBR list. I definitely want my students to read books of interest to them so I guess I will need to find a way.

      • I think you just answered your own question! 🙂 I agree with you that HS seem to revert back to old, traditional ways. That’s why it’s SO important we do IR. I’m the only one in my high school that does it, and I used to get a lot of flack for it, but thankfully not anymore. IR is the most important part of my curriculum, and I refuse to give it up. As you already said, HS students need choice too so they don’t come to hate reading.

  2. Thank you for sharing this! I hadn’t heard of reading ladders before and now I think it’s something I definitely want to try. I will have to read the blog and books you suggested. I start the school year with a reading timeline project and I think the reading ladders would be a wonderful follow through to keep reflecting on their reading lives.

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