I've recently had a few people ask me, in rather accusing tones, something along the lines of, "How do you know that your kids are learning anything in reading workshop? I mean, all they're doing is reading books. How are you teaching them any skills?"
Oh ye of little faith. How you doubt the power of giving kids permission to choose their own reading material rather than having the teacher mandate and suck any sort of pleasure or life out of the act of reading.
So let me enlighten you doubting Thomases.
A few days ago, I was reading one my 5th grader's literature journals. She wrote me a letter (a frequent required assignment in my class) about a book I had just finished reading aloud and to my shock and awe, I noticed that this quiet, shy, diminutive 5th grader used the word anti-climactic to describe the ending of said book. Since when do 5th graders go around using the word anti-climactic? I think I had a difficult time with the concept of climax until I was in college! (I was slow to grasp abstract thought, what can I say?)
Then, I also had a group of 6th graders who were meeting in a literature circle (which was one of the few teacher-mandated reading experiences they've had this year) and one of them asked what genre the book was. They discussed and debated whether it was a mystery or a science fiction because yes, there was something that needed to be solved, but it also had "elements of dystopia." (The book they were referring to was The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart).
I was both blown away and swelling with pride over these observations because these were not terms they learned in a textbook. This is just the way well-read students speak. And when you give them the opportunity to read voluminously, they pick up the vernacular of an educated reader.
So you want to know how I know my kids are learning? I listen to them.