A critical book review makes a great independent reading assessment because it directs your students to think more deeply about what they read, and is a great venue for persuasive writing that also incorporates higher-order thinking.
Check out this great resource that will make assigning and assessing post-reading projects a snap!
What is a critical book review?
While the word critical can have a negative connotation, the goal is not to have your students tear apart the book, but rather to analyze the book. You’re asking them to evaluate the author’s choices and the effects those choices had on the work, as well as the resulting effect on the reader.
Students can start their review by giving a very brief, distilled summary of the work to serve as a frame of reference for their commentary. They will need to craft a thesis statement covering 2-3 arguments stating what the author did and/ or did not do well, or why the author made certain choices. Throughout their book review, they will elaborate on each of their points using cited quotations from the work to support their opinions. An effective conclusion of the paper might include the student’s overall impression of the work and whether or not he or she would recommend the book.
Some tips for teaching and assigning a critical book review:
1. Make sure the students understand that this paper is far more than a summary or a re-telling of the story. This is why when I assign a book review, I require students to largely confine their summary to the introductory paragraph(s), and to keep further summaries at a minimum throughout the remainder of their paper. Giving them a designated place to summarize as well as giving them an approximate length to shoot for provides clear-cut boundaries to guide their writing.
2. Encourage students to ask themselves questions. On the assignment handout that I give, I include a brief list of some guiding questions that students can ask themselves to get started. Younger students and those who are not widely read often struggle with evaluating something that they’ve read and forming qualitative opinions about it beyond “It was a good book,” or, “It was a boring book.” Provide your kiddos with a framework to form their opinions around by encouraging questions that can progress from general to specific.
Here’s a quick example of how to use questioning to lead students to a foundation for their composition:
Q: Did you enjoy the book?
Q: What did you like about it?
A: I was interested to find out what happens next.
Q: Did you want to know what happens next because you could relate to the main character, and you wanted to know how things ended up for him?
A: I think so.
Suggestion: Then maybe one of your main points could be that the author crafted realistic, relatable characters.
Of course you wouldn’t drag each of your students through this process individually- then you would practically have written their papers for them! But give a couple examples like this to get their wheels turning.
3. Speaking of examples… Provide a quality example paper. You may want to take the time to write a sample critical book review of a book that you recently read. Maybe just do an abbreviated version- just enough for the students to understand the basic format and feel of the assignment.
4. Similar to Point 2., help your students learn how to brainstorm. This can be done either before or after they question, maybe even both! There are countless brainstorming methods (one day I’ll write a whole post on them because I looove brainstorming!), but these are a couple of my go-to’s:
Freewriting- set a timer for 2-3 min. (maybe longer for older students or bigger assignments). Students simply write everything that pops into their head during that time. Their goal is to write about the topic they’re brainstorming, but teach them to write everything down, even if it’s off-track. Sometimes even our off-topic thoughts can lead us to something that was hiding under the jumble of our seemingly unrelated thoughts.
Listing- very similar to freewriting; just have the students make lists of their ideas, not stopping to consider whether they’re good or not- just jot down all the ideas. Sometimes this can be done with a partner or small group.
5. Be sure to require at least one rough draft. Allowing students to turn in a rough draft for you to peruse and comment on gives them confidence and increases their opportunity for success. For assignments that are out of the ordinary, brand new, worth an important grade, or very lengthy, I always require at least one rough draft. (When we do research papers I require three drafts!) Take the draft as a completion or homework grade, but do not grade it for content or correctness. This is just an opportunity for you to let students know whether or not they’re on the right track. I tell my kids, “I’m not editing your paper for you- I’m looking for major issues that would hurt your grade.” Quickly skim each rough draft and mark recurring grammatical or mechanical issues (for recurring issues, I only mark occurrences on the first paragraph/ page, and just label them something like, “find and fix throughout’), and check to see if the student understood the assignment requirements. Conference with individual students briefly, as necessary. If you can, try to have some SSR or independent work planned for the day that students turn in their rough drafts so you can check them right then and return at the end of the class period.
If you’d like some support and ideas about teaching writing, check out my discussion on using the writing process in your classroom.
Have you ever assigned a critical book review? Share how it went in the comments below!
Don’t forget to check out the book report rubric & handouts bundle– it will save you tons of time prepping and grading (plus it’s editable to fit your needs)!
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