Readers' workshop is a great name for our 90 minute (or so) block of reading instruction that occurs daily.
Elementary students really do have to work at reading. Even if they are already fluent, they have to work hard at drawing meaning from a variety of different genres and formats of text.
Let's review how to make our workshop time as effective as possible.
Readers' workshop format
The reading instruction block will tend to follow this schedule:
Mini-lesson (usually lasting 10 to 15 minutes)
- Read aloud
- Strategy instruction
- Modeling of assignment
Differentiated (individualized) work time (60 to 70 minutes)
- Assignment completion
- Partner work
- Small group instruction
Sharing (5 to 10 minutes)
- Summarizing to reinforce the lesson
Making readers workshop fit your needs
The order outlined above should be altered if it makes sense in your situation.
For example, when my reading block comes after lunch recess, I start with spelling partner work, then move into the independent reading portion. This drains away the recess excitement and gets the students ready to learn more effectively.
Rigor is the 1st key to reading advancement
The number one item that must be added to readers' workshop to make it effective is rigor.
Rigor comes from very effectively guiding your children at all times to be engaged in and focused upon the lesson you've taught and the texts or selections that back up that lesson.
Every lesson is focused on a specific learning objective, and the kids have to work hard to meet that objective. As noted above, that includes worksheets, journaling, and discussing.
Teacher time: the 2nd key to success
The second item for an effective readers' workshop? Teacher attention – and lots of it.
After the mini-lesson is taught and kids are applying it in groups or individually, this is when you really make your impact felt:
- Working with focused small groups
- One-on-one assessment and mentoring
The one-on-one time is particularly important during reading workshop. At the beginning of the year, I use a checklist to ensure that I have one-on-one time at least twice a week with every single child. Later on, as I get to know my students and their individual needs, this happens naturally.
Small groups vs. individual effort
The standard reading workshop model usually includes a period of small group work after presentation of your mini-lesson.
This will go against the recommendations of many different reading workshop experts, but I feel strongly that using small groups automatically can be a huge detriment to reading mastery.
Instead, small groups must be used with intention… or not at all.
So, what's wrong with small groups? A couple of things.
Labeling kids handicaps learning
All too often, teachers divide readers by ability level. The thinking is logical: Group the kids by the type of text they are able to read. So lower-level readers and higher-level readers get selections that challenge them.
Great theory, but in reality, this advantage is wiped out by the fact that ability groups label children.
On my page about leveling the playing field for kids in poverty, I advise:
Allow no distinctions between children for any reason.
Student-centered teaching means that every child in your room feels very keenly that they are not second-class citizens in any way. Not at school. Maybe they get treated that way in other areas of their lives, but not while they are under your care.
This same line of thinking applies to placing kids into a “low” group during your reading workshop. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for them.
And don't think you can solve this by sprinkling your higher readers among your lower readers. In my experience, your higher readers will end up doing much of the work for the group and ultimately get bored with their role. Meanwhile, your lower readers make little progress.
Group time often becomes play time
For years I tried to make this standard small-group model of reading workshop function for me, even as my readers did not make the progress that I hoped for.
Unfortunately, what I found over and over again was that small groups without a teacher or volunteer sitting with the children equaled “playtime.”
Think about it. What do kids normally do when they get together in groups? Have fun.
You can set all the expectations you want, but their instinctive natures will get the best of them. They will start off with the intention of working well together, but that can degrade very quickly into simply reading by themselves, followed shortly by messing around.
The result is that the group you are working with directly is moving forward, but as soon as you rotate to another group, their progress will lag.
The small group solution
I take a two step approach to solve this issue, and it's the approach I recommend you try if your readers workshop is not generating consistent skill advancement.
Step 1: “Come on back” small group
No matter how comprehensive or compelling your mini-lesson, some kids won't understand it or will lack confidence in their ability to apply it – and this includes your best readers.
Right after I finish the lesson and release kids to do the individualized application, I announce that I'll be sitting at the table in the back:
“If you have any confusion at all or any question, come to the table and we'll work through it together.”
The group that forms at the back will include all reading levels so no one is labeled as “low.”
After I address their questions or build their confidence, they rejoin the rest of the class, working as individuals.
Step 2: Individual work with individual attention
When students work individually to apply what they learned in the mini-lesson, I know for certain that the work is all theirs… which means I know precisely how they are doing in reading workshop and what they personally need help with.
So I circulate to answer questions, spot check progress and do one-one-one assessments.
Is this a bit more work?
I don't think so. And if it is, then the payoff in faster student progress makes it worth it.
We talk so much about individualizing our instruction for the benefit of students. I think applying it to reading workshop is a natural and effective technique that beats the normal approach to small groups hands down.
Try it and gauge the impact in your own classroom.
Video tips: increasing reading fluency
Supercharging with volunteers
You can really supercharge your reading instruction if you can pull small groups that can work with a volunteer or classroom aide to help them with a specific skill.
This is another form of individualized instruction. Never turn down a volunteer, even if she can only come one or two days a week. Giving a few kids the extra help in fluency, recalling details, or whatever else they need will give your program a huge boost.
But volunteers need guidance to be effective. They come to your school just wanting to “read with kids,” but they need to understand how to best impact the students with whom they are working.
- Fluency: Explain exactly how to help a child decode difficult words and passages, without simply giving them the answer.
- Recall: Describe the “Read-Cover-Remember-Retell (RCRR)” process of the student using their hand to cover up details when explaining what they just learned.
Treat your reading volunteers just like they are extra teachers. Given a little guidance they can really make a big difference for struggling students.