SPUNKI: A Reading Rubric

SPUNKI: A Reading Rubric That Engages Students with Course Content

PURPOSE:  College students frequently have to deal with difficult reading assignments in unfamiliar fields.  They are often unmotivated to read this kind of assignment, especially if the material or field doesn’t interest them.  They tend to avoid reading actively and mindfully and may skim the material or not read the assignment at all, waiting for the professor to tell them the content.

SPUNKI is an acronym that asks students to answer six questions, “What part or parts of the reading did you find Surprising?, Puzzling?, Useful?,  New?, Knew it already?,  Interesting?”  Applying the prompts to any reading assignment invites students to respond personally to the material and make it their own.  Also, we have found that students using SPUNKI are more enthusiastic about assignments involving reading and other media, e.g. diagrams and images.

As instructors, we were often dissatisfied with the superficiality, or even the absence of student responses to reading assignments.  We discovered that the use of SPUNKI enables students to write and talk about their assignments in a meaningful way.  They can do so, in part, because they are responding to the material while they are reading and it is fresh in their minds.  SPUNKI is a learner-centered approach to the knotty problem of engaging students in the learning of difficult course material. As such it is appropriate for use in any course that assigns challenging reading.


*SPUNKI rubric (appended)


A.     Preparing to use SPUNKI. Both students and professors need some practice using SPUNKI before applying it to course materials.

1. First, familiarize yourself with the SPUNKI rubric.  Try it yourself with a short text from your field that is unfamiliar but looks interesting.  Use the SPUNKI form to answer the question for each letter in the rubric.  Then write short explanations of your reactions,  i.e. “This was surprising because….”

 Try it a few times.  Practice will help you teach SPUNKI to your students; in the process of teaching it, you can share your own answers and experiences with students.  Practice will also make you feel more comfortable using SPUNKI with students.

 2. Next, practice with students. Choose a short and interesting reading assignment related to course content.  Let students use SPUNKI in class, responding to the text as they read.  To make this process more efficient, ask students to use SPUNKI letters to label sections that drew their attention.  Discuss their responses to the text.  During the discussion, students can easily locate labeled sections of the text where they were stimulated to use the rubric.  You can repeat the above strategy more than once to ensure that the students have enough practice before using the rubric on difficult course materials.

3. Enjoy yourselves!

B.  Tips for using SPUNKI once students are familiar with it.

1. Use the rubric to elicit and structure specific responses.  Asking for a general response often leaves the student at a loss for how to answer.

 2. Encourage students to stretch themselves by responding to all rubric prompts.  There may, however, be times when students need only respond to rubric prompts when they really have something to say.  To avoid getting only one response, you could require responses to three or four prompts that you or your students find most compelling.

3. It’s best not to overuse SPUNKI as students may tire of it.  You may want to reserve it for particularly important and challenging course material or when starting a new unit or chapter.  Note: the rubric can be used with text, video, audio, or class demonstrations such as in a lab setting.

 4. Collect but don’t grade SPUNKI responses.  Collect them when you would like to know and have a record of what your students are thinking.

 C.  Additional Tips:

1. Use SPUNKI spontaneously when you need to get a handle on how students are reacting to course material.

2. Encourage students to use SPUNKI on their own.

3. Encourage students to suggest using SPUNKI.

4. When course materials make claims or express opinions, a SPUNKIAD acronym can be created by adding “A” for agree and “D” for disagree.

5. If you use an electronic platform like Blackboard for your course, SPUNKI works as well on that as it does in the classroom.  You can post a short reading and the rubric and ask students to send responses to you and/or share responses with classmates electronically.


A.  SPUNKI benefits students and it also helps instructors.  That’s why we are so enthusiastic about it.  Through SPUNKI responses, we have been able to see how students are responding to course material.  For example, some responses to a chapter in a book on critical thinking include the following:

S (SURPRISING)  “I was also surprised to learn that professional people have just as much difficulty making a decision as an ordinary person would.  I also found it a little scary to know that a doctor or lawyer can make a wrong decision.”

P (PUZZLING) “What is puzzling is the problem of contemporary violence and aggression.  How do you get out of their minds (adults and children) that aggression and violence [are] okay?”

U (USEFUL) “Although many times unwarranted optimism can lead to bad decision making, many times emotions can be useful in decision making.  For example, if I need time off from work, I will not ask my boss on Monday, which is the most stressful and busy of days during the week.  Instead, I will pick a different day to ask.”

N (NEW) “What I found interesting was how additional alternatives can be found by seeking dis confirming evidence.  In other words, look for things not in favor of your decision for a better decision.  This information was NEW to me and useful.”

K (KNEW IT ALREADY) “After seeing theories in print you start to think about them, even though you were aware of them, [you] never actually thought them through.  This has happened to me many times while reading this book.”

I (INTERESTING) “It was also interesting to read about one’s optimism resulting in poor decisions.  I can understand how this happens, but never really thought about it until I saw it in print.”

B.  In a pilot study, we asked students to evaluate their experiences with using SPUNKI.  Students cited numerous benefits of the strategy.  The following are examples of their responses to our questions.  These responses are gratifying validations of the rubric as an educational strategy.

•“It allows me to think about what I am reading.”

•“It made reading more interesting.”

•“Recording your thoughts was better than just highlighting and trying to make sense.”

•“Once I got used to SPUNKI…I discovered I could be successful in this course.”

•“It was easier to get focused on reading what could have been some very heavy material.”

•“SPUNKI forced me to think and comprehend.”

•“I actually paid attention to the reading.”

•“It’s a nice jumping off point to begin a discussion.”

 As instructors, we benefited because we were freed from reading summaries of content when students were asked to respond to the content.  Students benefited because they could engage with the text in personally meaningful ways.

We are spreading the word about the SPUNKI strategy with the expectation that your students will be more thoughtful and enthusiastic about engaging with academic texts of all kinds.  Equally important is our conviction that students will feel that their ideas are valued.

Welcome to enjoying what your students have to say about what you are asking them to learn.  It’s all so easy once you get the hang of it.  Please pass it on!

Sharon W. Smith, Ed.D., Independent Scholar, Retired Adjunct College Professor of Rhetoric and Literature

Louise E. Loomis, Ed.D., Principal, ThinkWell Center LLC, Retired College Professor of Critical and Creative Thinking




Instructions: Using this form as a guide, answer the following: “What part or parts of the reading did you find surprising ?, puzzling ?, useful ?, new ?, knew it already ?, interesting ?” Explain your responses on the form below. Be prepared to discuss and/or hand them in.



















Knew It Already






Click link below for printable PDF version:

SPUNKI: A Reading Rubric That Engages Students with Course Content, PDF

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