Educational technology tips for teachers, librarians and schools.

Alternative Book Reports for the 21st Century

Alternative Book Reports for the 21st Century

By Janna Dougherty

reading too much? Whooos ReadingBook reports have been a staple in American English classes for decades. Students use them to prove their ability to think critically, read deeply, and express their ideas in an eloquent manner.

However, many educators argue that they’re no longer relevant in the modern classroom.

After all, most information in the digital world is now presented in other formats—television, podcasts, YouTube—and paper posters haven’t been considered the best way to present information in decades.

As teachers, our job is to prepare students to think, analyze, and present ideas in formats that they’ll most commonly experience in the world they enter into as adults.

“Our job is to prepare students to think, analyze, and present ideas in formats that they’ll most commonly experience in the world they enter into as adults.”

This isn’t to say that the book report should be abandoned—if that was the case, this blog post wouldn’t exist. Instead, English teachers need to approach book reports in a way that will engage and teach students just as much as the material the report is on.

Bring your traditional book report assignments into the 21st century, and make the format as much of a teaching moment as the content with these four ideas.

Podcasts and Audio Recording

Students who aren’t comfortable with their writing may find themselves drawn to podcasting. With fewer writing components and a more forgiving attitude towards informal language, it’s the ideal platform to allow these students to shine.

One of the best book reports I’ve ever seen was a fairly unstructured audio recording. A pair of students created an audio file of them reviewing a book (that each had read separately), based off of a pre-written list of bullet points and some notes to help jog their memory.

This relatively free format allowed them to have open, natural discussion and analysis, which helped them show off their critical thinking skills, investigate and draw conclusions in real time, and even debate with each other over the meanings of the book’s symbols.

Meanwhile, the bullet points helped them stay on track and addressed everything that their rubric required.

These types of book reports are easy to make with any audio recording software, such as GarageBand or the Sound Recorder by Windows. Most modern laptops come pre-loaded with a microphone sensitive enough for recording, and more specialized equipment is easy to obtain through any electronics store.

Apps like Notability can help students create audio files on a mobile phone, in formats that are easily saved and shared. In some cases, these files can even be made public—some schools will take their students’ best work and create a school-wide radio channel.


Most of the students I’ve known love movies—both watching them and being in them. As a result, giving a student the opportunity to make a movie book report can be a huge motivator, allowing them to get creative while displaying their understanding of the book’s source material.

Like podcasting, this type of book report provides an alternative to the traditional writing assignment. Rather than an essay, students can write a script for their movie before being approved to start filming. Encourage students to explore a variety of different video reporting styles. For example, they can:

  • Interview the book’s characters
  • Create a news report on the events in the plot
  • Film a trailer for a movie version of the book
  • Recreate parts of the book in a different setting

A great example of recreating the book in a different setting can be seen with the Lizzie Bennett Diaries on YouTube, which takes the plot of Pride and Prejudice and places it in modern America. Watch a clip below:

Students may balk at the idea of doing the whole book in this style, but one or two important scenes may be a fun alternative that lets them convey the themes of the book in a relatable context.

Most computers have easy access to video editing software, with iMovie loaded on Apple computers and Windows Movie Maker on PCs. In addition, mobile devices, such as smartphones or iPads, can be used as both recording devices and editing platforms.

These finished files can be easily compiled online into a school-wide demonstration of your students’ channels. Many schools that use video equipment allow students to post to the school’s YouTube channel, which parents can visit to watch their students’ work.

Finally, there are multiple websites that can help students create animated videos. Powtoon is currently one of our favorites, due to it’s easy-to-understand interface and fun cartoon options.

Literature Maps

Books that have a long timeline and many locations can benefit from being presented in the form of a literature map, where events are tagged to specific places in the world.

This is especially true for foreign novels, or novels that require a strong sense of the setting in order to analyze it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a great example. Much of the plot is better understood when the student has a geographic understanding of the American South.

Google Earth is a great way to tie the events of a book report to a real, physical sense of place. Students can create custom pins on a Google Earth map, fill in the pins with sections of their report, and group them together.

When presented, the student leads their peers in a tour of the book, stopping at key locations to explain events and characters in-context.

Epistolary Reports

The word ‘epistolary’ is not commonly used anymore, but it’s one of the best descriptions of this category. Epistolary book reports are created in the form of documents that exist in the world of the book.

For example, a book report about a high school student may include a college application, while a crime story could include arrest records or transcripts of the trial of a major character.

Students can include letters between characters, business or community documents relating to the events in the novel, and much more—as long as they help the student discuss the most important parts of the book. In addition, this helps familiarize students with documents that they’ll see later in life.

Thanks to the internet, it’s remarkably easy to gain access to document templates. Websites like TidyForm, DocStoc or Microsoft Office’s Templates provide realistic templates for documents and are usually editable, allowing students to customize them for the book.

If a student wants something more specific, such as the application for a specific school or a police report from a specific state, more extensive research will usually turn up a copy to use or imitate.

As you can see, there are many ways to turn the traditional essay or poster-style book report on its head—not to mention, your students will latch onto these options in droves.

As with any new type of project, it’s important to undertake these reports with the right mindset, and with the proper scaffolding in place. Consider structuring your assignment with these tips.

Include a Rubric

A book report is a book report, and thus will need to be graded by certain standards (plot, analysis, etc.). As a result, many standard rubrics for book reports may still apply, helping give students an idea of what their project should include and how their work will be graded.

Check your old rubrics for parts that no longer apply and edit them as necessary. For example, a book report done as an audio podcast should include a section on articulate speech or sound quality, while a video sketch may demand that a script be written for the actors to use.

Provide Samples

A rubric often provides students with a clear idea of what is expected in their book reports, but for many, a physical example illustrates things better. Creating a report with the format they’ve chosen can be intimidating, and a physical example of one can serve as a model and encourage hesitant students to try something new. With practice, your readers can diverge from the model to find their own voice.

This last guideline is one that gets forgotten the most, but needs to be considered if teachers want to help students become discerning readers, regardless of format.

If a student reads a book and finds that they dislike it, that’s okay!

This doesn’t mean that they’re reading it wrong, or that they didn’t get anything out of the book, even if it’s a book you think they should appreciate. Teachers should encourage their students to complete book reports on unpleasant reads, as long as they can provide intelligent and articulate the reasons why they disliked the material.

Some of the best book reports I’ve ever seen were the ones that sang the praises of books I disliked (like the newly-popular Divergent trilogy) or ripped apart books that I loved (Ender’s Game comes to mind). This is because the students who created the reports had strong opinions and could back them up with evidence that showed that they were quality readers with their own tastes.

Even if they didn’t change my mind, I could appreciate their thoughts, and reward them for thinking critically rather than blindly agreeing with their teacher.

In my opinion, these principles hold no matter what style a book report is in. Taking the time to consider them, as well as creating a structure that allows students to use technology creatively, can pull the book report out of obscurity and into the modern classroom. After all, there’s no reason to abandon a project that pushes students to read better. We just need to consider the idea that they can be learning other skills at the same time.

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