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About Book Reports

Do I have to do a book report? If you've heard that question, maybe you should ask yourself another question. Do I want my student to do a book report? Sometimes we require children to do things without thinking about why we are making the assignment.

I can think of only two reasons for asking children to do book reports. First, I want them to like reading, and second, I want them to think about the author's message as they read. Children who like to read do it. Children who don't like to read don't do it. Children who read become more fluent readers. Children who write about what they read become more thoughtful readers. It seems almost too simple to be true.

I've heard these other reasons given by teachers for assigning book reports:

"I want my students to read, and book reports let me know that they did read." Do they?
"I need to keep track of how many books they are reading." Is there a better way to do that?
"It's good discipline." Spanking is discipline, but it certainly does not make a child love the paddle.

By contrast, I have visited classrooms over the past forty years where book reports were the highlight of the week rather than assignments.

At one school I watched as a dad unloaded a huge cardboard box from his pickup truck. He was delivering a "coal mine" to the fourth grade classroom where his son was going to give a book report about a story set in the coal regions of Pennsylvania. Right after that, "Willie Mays" emerged from the boy's rest room headed for the same classroom complete with baseball uniform and glove. The student in costume had read a biography of the ball player. Even the students in my classroom down the hall were asking about the book and wanting to know if they could check it out. From this memorable day I formed my first criteria for a good book report:

A good book report holds the interest of both the presenter and the audience, and it gives the listeners a desire to read the book.

A display of book reports in a library caught my attention one day. There was a wide variety of art projects: a diorama of the barn from Charlotte's Web, a line of portraits of the ladies in Little Women, a mobile of real objects used by Karana in Island of the Blue Dolphins. Beside each object was a carefully written excerpt from the book. As I looked at the barn in the diorama, I read E. B. White's words describing the barn. Each portrait from Little Women had some sentences that let me see the characters through the words of Louisa May Alcott. Each object on the mobile included the paragraph of action in which E. B. White told us how Karana used it. Now I had a second idea for my criteria list:

A good book report calls attention to the craft of the author by quoting his words.

One classroom was the scene of a mock court trial. One of the characters in Susan Walley's Best of Friends was put on trial for selfishness. Witnesses had to use incidents from the book to defend the character or testify against her. In this case the whole class had heard the book read to them, so they were doing a book report together. The court room testimony helped them think carefully about the character and the things the author had put into the book to enable the reader to understand his character. My third criteria had been defined:

A good book report helps the reader think carefully about the author's message to compare that message to biblical truth.

And sadly I visited yet another classroom. There the students were taking turns giving oral book reports which were nothing more than rambling plot summaries. Classmates were listening politely but with little genuine interest to the boring presentations. That gave me one negative criteria for the list. Although important, the plot is just the skeleton of a story, the bones that hold together the story-life with its smile and tears and movement and spirit.

A good book report should not be a plot summary.

Ideas for innovative book reports abound. Encourage children to use a wide variety of formats. A good report may be:

A dramatic activity

The child should focus on one specific small incident and might use a costume or a puppet.

Example: Make two mouse puppets and rewrite a scene from Mice of the Herringbone to reenact with a class member.

An author-related activity.

After you work with the child to formulate good questions, he could write a letter or place a telephone call to an author.

Example: Write three good questions about llamas and the author's experience with llamas. Write a letter to Jeri Massi, author of Llamas on the Loose. After reading the letter to the class, read a funny selection about llamas from the book.

A graphic presentation.

Some books lend themselves to creating time lines or picture maps.

Example: After reading The Hawk That Dare Not Hunt by Day, make an illustrated picture map of eastern Europe and the British Isles to plot the main events of Tyndale's struggles while translating the Bible. Read a selection from the book that took place at one location on the map.

An art activity.

In addition to the diorama, mobile, and picture gallery mentioned above, a child might prepare flannelgraph figures, bookmarks, or book jackets.

Example: Prepare flannelgraph characters to be used by classmates to retell The Cranky Blue Crab. Make the characters by tracing from the book to dressmakers' interfacing.

A gamelike activity.

You might have a "simile" bulletin board and let each child hunt all the similes, write them on 3 x 5 cards, and add them to the board. This type of activity can be done with any literary technique or with interesting vocabulary.

Example: As you read Men of Iron, collect the exciting vocabulary words and the sentence that contains each word on a small card. Place the cards on the "Million-Dollar Words" display.

A written activity.

A child might write a letter to someone trying to convince him to read the book, a speech to nominate the main character to the Hall of Fame, or a transcript for the trial of the villain.

Example: After writing three good questions about llamas, place a phone call to Jeri Massi to ask her about her research for Llamas on the Loose. Tell the class about the phone call and read a funny llama incident from the story.

A conversation.

At least once a year you could hold a reading conference with each child about a book (one you also have read). Make an appointment with him and ask him to bring the book. Ask questions and guide discussion. Be sure to have him read orally to answer at least one of your questions. This is your opportunity to evaluate how deeply he thinks about things and to suggest specific books you think might broaden him as a reader.

You will have to help your students get started. Select one idea from each category and make a checklist of things that need to be done for each one.

To organize your students' presentation time and to include everyone in the project, make a sign-up sheet for the coming month. Plan for about four or five reports each week. Many teachers prefer to do book reports each Friday. You will want to let your more reluctant readers sign up first so that they can take later times if they choose to do so.

If you sense a resistance because book reports in the past have been distasteful, think of something within the acceptable guidelines of your school that would make the book report time special. I've seen teachers serve popcorn or some other light refreshment as part of the book report time. Sometimes just rearranging the furniture for the event makes an occasion out of it.

If your goal is to produce students who not only know how to read but who do read, use effective book reports. You will be well on your way to meeting that goal.

by Jan Joss. Updated October 21, 2015.