Wednesday, July 27, 2011


So What Do They Really Know?: Assessment That Informs Teaching and LearningSO WHAT DO THEY REALLY KNOW? by Cris Tovani is being marketed to teachers in grades 6-12, but if you are familiar of Cris's other books (I READ IT BUT I DON'T GET IT and DO I REALLY HAVE TO TEACH READING?) you know that all of her work is grounded in authentic learning experiences and it is all applicable to grades K-12.

I remember the first time I heard Cris speak. She was talking about her struggling high school readers.  As I was listening to her tell their stories, it felt like she could have been telling the stories of the struggling students in my fourth grade classrooms--students who could read fluently but did not understand what they were reading.  This feeling is similar to the feeling that I got when I read her newest book--although she is talking about high school students and issues specific to secondary, the big issues of assessment, testing, using assessment to inform instruction, student ownership, grading, etc. are all very universal.

Cris uses this book to talk honestly about the kinds of assessment that inform her instruction and those that do not.  She understands that the reality of school today is that high stakes testing is part of things but she also knows that our kids can only do well on those if we give formative assessments that let us know what they know and where their confusions are.  She reminds us that no one assessment tells us everything we need to know about a student and that we need multiple ways to assess and to get the information we need in order to determine where to go next with a child.

Cris weaves in stories about kids who are just playing the game of school and not really working hard or learning, yet they are doing well--getting As.  She asks hard questions about the assessments we give and the messages we give to our students with those assessments.  And we hear from her students--their comments and writing woven through the book.

Cris has a consistent belief and respect for her students and learners and as people. She emphasizes the need to know them well and that the only way to teach well is to know our students.

She also reminds us of the importance of a reading workshop in order to teach to the needs to each student.  A large part of the book is dedicated to annotations as an assessment.  The book is filled with practical ideas and student examples of work done in a workshop setting.  She also shares insights she has about content area reading and writing. Cris shares her lessons, her thinking and her students with us as she reflects on her own beliefs about assessment.

At the end of each chapter, Cris summarizes the main points and then she gives us a challenge. This "Are You Up for a Challenge" section of each chapter invites readers to try some of the main ideas in their own teaching and learning.  Each of these provides a way for readers to step outside of the book and think specifically about work with their own students. It is a great way to end each chapter.

Two of my favorite quotes from the book:

"Teachers don't need any more numerical 'data'.  What they need is validation to use the data that matters student work and student talk---to help figure out next steps for learner in their educational care."

"Students do learn what is emphasized. Unfortunately, what is emphasized is often knowledge that is easy to grade. In many grading and testing cases, what is easy to measure is not necessarily important to know. Understanding is difficult to measure in qualitative terms."

To learn more about this book, you can watch a video with Samantha Bennett (author of THAT WORKSHOP BOOK) interviewing Cris Tovani about the new book.

This is a book that I read from cover to cover and one that I plan to go back to again and again as I struggle with the place of assessment in literacy instruction.  Cris takes us back to the most important reasons classroom teachers assess students--in order to make decisions on where to go use assessments to inform our instruction.  No matter what level you teach, Cris gives us something important to think about when it comes to assessment. It is a book that will reground readers.

If you are interested in previewing the book, Stenhouse has the book available to browse online.  Take a look!

Also, if you live in the Central Ohio area, Cris will be The Literacy Connection's yearlong study group speaker this year.  She will be in Columbus on April 27 and 28 to work with teachers.  Registration will be available soon on the Literacy Connection's website.


  1. I just read this book last week and I agree it is one I will be revisiting again as I continue to think about assessment in literacy. I teach third grade but I found so many of her ideas and beliefs that aligned with elementary!

  2. I went to go put this book on my "to-read" list on Goodreads and realized it was already there! LOL! Great review!

  3. My mentor at my second teaching position gave me one of Tovani's books, and I instantly loved it. I can't wait to read her newest. I enjoyed hearing more about it from you.

  4. Good review. In the coming weeks I several teachers and I will be doing a book study on it. I have created a storify to introduce the book to them.

    I am excited to dig deep into this book with the teachers.


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