Learning Materials

The book report and term paper are standard writing genres frequently found in schools for the past 50 or more years. While these genres may be enjoyable, useful, and even enormously beneficial for some students and should always be an option, struggling students can experience a lot of failure when required to write in these ways. For example, when you ask a poor reader to read a whole book and then write a book report, the book report can feel like punishment for actually reading a whole book. Further, both of these genres lend themselves to cheating. With the internet it is all too easy to find book summaries that can be rewritten (or just copied and pasted) as a book report, without the student having actually read the book. And, there are many term papers for sale on the internet.

Traditionally, these genres have been used to get students to prove something: they have read certain books, they have researched certain materials. Yet because of difficulties in completing the assignment or simple lack of motivation (my teacher is the only one who will read this, so who cares), students turn in something that looks like proof but really isn't.

If you are going to assign a term paper or a book report, be sure to scaffold the writing experience, particularly for students who struggle. Have students do a lot of the research, reading, and writing in class so you can monitor honesty. Try to make the experience as motivating as possible by giving students a larger audience for their work.

If you want to assign something that will offer the same type of proof but that is difficult to cheat on and much more motivating, here are some alternatives. Additionally, doing a series of these assignments in a carefully thought-out sequence can help students build up the skills to do a traditional term paper. Having the skills makes cheating somewhat less desirable.

Alternatives to the Book Report

There are kids who are good readers and writers who don't particularly mind doing book reports and who may enjoy it. If this is the case, then allow these students to write book reports.

Where book reports are a significant problem is when a student struggles to read an entire book and then is essentially punished after reading the book by the necessity of writing a paper about the book. Then the book report becomes counterproductive in many ways. Kids who struggle start to cheat. They stop making the effort to read.

The book report has been a way that teachers use to make sure kids are reading the books we assign. But we have to get honest. If kids are reading the blurb (or a summary of the book on the internet) and they are not really reading, then the book report is a useless assignment. After all, you get a paper turned in by a student. If it's well-written you might give it a good grade. But it may or may not really represent the fact of a student's reading.

There are many other post-reading activities that are more engaging for students besides writing a book report.

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Alternatives to the Term Paper

When we are considering writing assignments, we have to ask ourselves what our real purpose is in making those assignments. It is valuable for students to learn how to do research and also to learn how to write persuasively, both of which are components in the research paper, but which can be taught in different ways. For example, students can do research by creating an investigation, which reports research without requiring students to support an opinion on top of the research. An I-search paper also does the same thing. Under the teaching possibilities there are persuasive songs--protest songs that were written to persuade people to take on a particular perspective.

We have to be honest in this. Are we assigning a paper because we want students to develop college-level writing skills and we are going to scaffold students into this level of writing and we are willing to get creative in the effort to find topics that inspire students? Or are we trying to find an object to grade, something that will differentiate between "A" students and "D" students, whatever that means to us? Are we going to help students get interested in doing a high level piece of work and scaffold their abilities so that all students can really succeed at this? Or are we going to get a stack of 25 really boring, mostly plaigiarized writing on a Friday afternoon so we can spend all weekend reading them?

There are good and logical reasons to assign a research paper, but we have to be willing to figure out how to make this assignment meaningful to the students, which means finding authentic reasons for putting the effort into this kind of project. A grade is not an authentic reason.

Instead of a term paper, how about writing for publication? Here's an authentic use of students' researching and writing skills:
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Discussion Post

Briefly try one of these activities for yourself to see how you like it.