Mini-Lesson Essentials

Mini-Lesson Essentials

Welcome back to our balanced literacy series! I know we’ve taken a bit of a break but the end of the school year was a crazy one! Welcome back! Now that we’re in the back to school spirit weekly posts will resume again!

Today the focus is on the essentials of teaching using a mini-lesson.  This post is meant to build an understanding of the format of a mini-lesson and help you to plan your own mini-lesson. 

Please take time to refer to other posts in this series for more information. 

A Balanced Literacy Framework– This post discusses the ideology and principles of using a balanced literacy framework. This would be a good place to start your learning journey.

Components of a Balanced Literacy Framework– Here you can find a brief overview containing all the components of a balanced literacy model. There are a lot of pieces to the frameworks so refer back to see how the whole puzzle fits together. 

Zone of Proximal Development in Balanced Literacy– Balanced literacy is focused on responsive teaching. In order to be a responsive teacher, you need to be well versed in the zone of proximal development and how it relates to each component of the framework. 

Workshop Essentials– This post breaks down the format of workshop, either reading or writing and helps prepare you to teach using a workshop model framework. 

All Posts Literacy– This link takes you to all the literacy posts that can be found on this blog. You can also find these by clicking on Literacy Instruction at the top of the page.

Don’t forget to stop by every Tuesday (for real now!)  to gain a better insight into using a balanced literacy framework within your classroom!

Structure of A Mini-Lesson

As you know, workshop begins with a ten minute mini-lesson. These are ten minutes where the teacher address the whole class. We teach readers and writers we don’t teach books and pieces. 

Planning a Mini-Lesson

Mini-lessons must be intentionally planned and each piece must be known before you begin teaching.

This past year I had a surprise meeting right before school started (the other grade 1 teacher had left to return to the US and I was currently the only grade 1 teacher… ahhh! panic!) I usually took the first few minutes before the kids came in to review my mini-lesson and talk it through out loud. Yup! I’ve been teaching mini-lessons for 7 years and I still talk them through out loud. I didn’t have time for it that morning, not to mention I was so stressed and the gossip that the grade 1 teacher quit rippled through the school with everyone stopping by my room to check in. The mini-lesson I did that morning was an absolute disaster. I should have just sent them right to read without a mini-lesson. Lesson learned, make sure your mini-lesson is well planned and if you’re like me, rehearsed. 


The connection is the first part of a mini-lesson. It should last about one minute.

As you can see the connection is an essential piece of the mini-lesson. Here you engage the students and pull them into the learning and weave together the lesson in a beautiful way. I really love listening to different teachers connections. Here is where teacher personality shines and so does teacher/student relationships.

One time I heard a teacher give this connection in a grade 3 reading lesson, I was at the beach over the summer and I went to get ice cream. I like to get ice cream on a hot summer’s day. Can you imagine a hot day on the beach eating cold ice cream? Anyway, there was a boy in front of me. He got mint chocolate chip ice cream and he was so excited about it. He got his ice cream and walked away and as he walked away his scoop of ice cream fell off the cone. Now here you might be thinking, where is she going with this? How does this tie into reading instruction? Here is where she beautifully wove the story together and brought it home with the kids at full attention, His ice cream fell off the cone and instead of getting upset or crying about it, like I’m sure a lot of kids would have done, he just shrugged and said, ‘I better get back in line.’ He laughed about it with his mom! Can you believe that?! That moment showed me a lot about who he is as a person. His actions told me a lot. He’s the kind of kid who doesn’t let little things get him down. Her teaching point: Character actions help readers understand what traits that character has.

Did you see how she created this vivid story and drew in the kids’ attention? Connections are beautiful lead-ins to teaching points!


If you are going to tell a story in your connection you need to make sure your relationship with your kids is solid. Here is where having relationships with your students is really important. When you tell a story at the beginning of a mini-lesson it has to be believable. If you haven’t told your students anything about yourself and suddenly you’re telling a story about you and your sister. They’ll be more distracted by the fact you have a sister or that you are sharing your life with them. Think ahead, does this story lead them to my teaching point? Will they become distracted by the story along the way? Once I made up a story in my connection. It was a bit of a stretch and my kids called me out on it. When I sat down to confer with a reader later she said, “I know that story you told was a lie. That never happened to you.” Kids will know. They always know!  

Don’t ask rhetorical questions. Just don’t. So often teachers want to ask, “what did we learn yesterday?” at the beginning of a mini-lesson. They want to use the mini-lesson connection as a quick assessment to see who remembers the mini-lesson from the day before. Mini-lesson time isn’t quiz time and playing this game wastes time. If you’re wondering about students use of the previous day’s mini-lesson, check in during independent time. LOOK! Take a peek around your classroom. Are your kids applying what you taught the other day? That way you can not only see if they recall the mini-lesson you can monitor how well they are applying it and coach in, if necessary. 


I’m going to break down two mini-lessons that I taught this past year. I teach first grade but these mini-lessons could be applicable for other grade levels as well. 

The Reader’s Workshop example will be a strategy lesson that I am trying to teach kids. My kids got to a point this school year where they all started appealing when they came to tricky words instead of trying something first. Like getting up with their book and coming to me. What?! This isn’t what readers do! They had tons of strategies for solving words. We had to have a series of lessons to problem solve this behavior and ensure the kids felt they had the power to solve words. This lesson was reminding them that they had many tools to solve tricky words but when they realize they don’t know a word, the first thing to do is to try SOMETHING! Please, try anything!

The Writer’s Workshop example will be a routine/procedure that we had forgotten. The stapler. I have my firsties write on paper and staple stories together instead of writing in a notebook. Notebooks are tricky and I have found more success using paper… anyways! My kids were stapling all the time! ALL THE TIME! So we had to sit down and have a mini-lesson to review our stapler rules. Now, this could have been done in a share or perhaps even a mid-workshop interruption but I knew my kids. They needed it as an entire mini-lesson. Don’t forget that you know your kids best. I can assure you there is no mini-lesson about using a stapler in our curriculum. My principal even made fun of me for this mini-lesson but it was entirely necessary. After this mini-lesson, we just needed a few reminders for two kids throughout the remainder of the year. Do what is best for your kids, no matter what! Ok, sorry, I’ll step off of that soapbox. Back to the mini-lesson!

Reader's Workshop Connection

Remember that time Tatiana’s tooth fell out and it got lost on the playground? I was thinking about that this and I remember that Tatiana didn’t give up looking for it. She kept searching and searching until she found it. We can learn a lot from this as readers.


* A student in my class lost a tooth as she was running back into the school. The whole class search and search and searched for the tooth but we couldn’t find it on the ground. The student found it with her mom and sister after school. I am still so impressed that it was found! Our class knew and LOVED this story. 

Writer's Workshop Connection

Writers, yesterday I saw so many friends that were going a little staple crazy. I saw some writers with five staples to hold two pieces of paper together. I thought to myself, we have to review our staple rules. 

Teaching Point

Naming the teaching point comes immediately after the connection. It is short and sweet. 

The teaching point should be explicitly stated. When I teach my class the flow of a mini-lesson I teach them to focus in when they hear the words, “today I want to teach you.” It is so important to have the teaching point memorized in the exact way you’re going to say it. If you stumble through this part of the mini-lesson the teaching point can get muddled. 


Plan everything around your teaching point. The teaching point is the reason you’ve gathered all of your students at the carpet. After planning a mini-lesson make sure that every piece of the mini-lesson is focused in on the teaching point. If even the smallest detail doesn’t align, change it. 

Stick to one teaching point. Please. I know that we as teachers have a lot of teaching points throughout the school year. We have what seems to be too many teaching points for one year. If you add in more than one teaching point to your mini-lesson then it becomes confusing and the kids won’t know what the lesson was as they leave the carpet. Use just one teaching point for each lesson. Trust me, it is going to work out.


Reader's Workshop teaching Point

So, readers, today I want to teach you that just like Tatiana, when we come to a tricky part in a story we don’t just give up. Oh, no! Readers stop at the first sign of trouble and do something to get themselves unstuck.

Writer's Workshop Teaching Point

Today, I want to teach you that writers only use the stapler when they have finished writing and they only use two staples.


Teach comes right after the teaching point. Now that the teaching point has been stated the teacher will walk the students through the teaching point breaking it down step by step. This should take 4-5 minutes.

Here the teacher takes what could be a difficult or abstract teaching point and shows the reader or writer just what to do. It makes the teaching point manageable. It shows the kids that, of course, they can accomplish today’s teaching point. Here teachers again use very precise language to show exactly how to accomplish the teaching point. 


Plan out the steps beforehand. Are you noticing a pattern here? There’s no winging mini-lessons. Plan out the exact steps you take to accomplish the teaching point. Sometimes to figure these out I observe myself as a reader or writer and break down what I do. Watch kids who are proficient in this skill. What are they doing that the other kids are missing? What are the kids who are so close to mastering this not getting. Compare and learn. There is one little golden nugget for every teaching point. Your job is to search, study, and analyze to find it. 

Don’t stray from your teaching point. All the parts of your mini-lesson should align with your teaching point. As you plan make sure all of the steps and the words you are planning to use make sure that they align! If they don’t align you need a new teaching point or a new teach. Everything must align with the teaching point. 


Reader's Workshop Teach

Now readers watch me as I get stuck and do something to get myself unstuck. When I come to a tricky part I’m not just going to give up. Oh no! That isn’t what readers do. I am going to do something to get unstuck. *The teacher reads a line or two from a story and stumbles upon a tricky word* Readers, I’m just not sure about this. I could just give up but I want to try something. Hm… I know, I’ll look at the whole word and stretch out the sounds.* The teacher then models this.* Did you see how I got stuck and I knew I had to try something but did you also notice I looked back at our anchor chart and picked something to try? 

Writer's Workshop Teach

Now watch me as I show you how to use two staples to connect my pages after I finish my story. Here I am with my finished story about the time I fell in Target. I am all finished so now I get the stapler. Here I put one staple near the top and then slide the stapler down and put one staple near the bottom. Did you see how I stapled my story? I waited until I was finished. Then I put two staples one near the top and one near the bottom. 

Active Engagment

This is where the kids get to try out the mini-lesson. They finally get to talk! The Active Engagement should last about 2-3 minutes. 

The kids finally get to talk! By now the energy has been building and the kids will want to try out what you have taught them. Here you need to keep your eyes and ears focused on the students. Who is getting it? Who isn’t? Are they getting the lesson? Learn to watch for the sweet spot where most kids have finished up trying it out and are ready to move on. Once you see that happen, move on. Wrap up the mini-lesson. They’re ready to go try it out in their independent practice. 


-Don’t wait for all the kids to finish talking. This might seem mean and it isn’t. Once I saw a teacher who waited for all the kids to finish and it pushed the mini-lesson so long. As the teacher observing the lesson, I got bored! I was ready to move on. The point of the active engagement is to give the students a space to try out the lesson where the teacher can coach in if needed. Make sure they have a chance to try it out. It is a high support environment. Remember the purpose of using a workshop model is giving students time for independent practice. If they demonstrate understanding at the carpet, they don’t need to try another one- they need to go try it in the wild. Move into the Link and release them to practice independently. 

-Sit on your materials. This one is something I started when I was teaching third and have used it in multiple grade levels. Sometimes in a mini-lesson kids need to bring something to the carpet. In writer’s workshop my kids always bring their writing folder and they put the story they are working on on top of the folder and then they sit on it. My kids always sit on their materials. This is just a solution I have found as a teacher. When you’re sitting on your folder you can’t play with it and read stories during the mini-lesson. You have what you need close but it isn’t going to get in the way of your learning. Everyone has different strategies but this works for me.


Reader's Workshop

Ok friends. Now it is your turn to try. When you get to that tricky word in the story you need to try something. Don’t forget to take a look at the anchor chart to help you decide what strategy you are going to try at this tricky word. Turn and talk with your partner. You just got stuck! *The teacher presents the students with a sentence strip with a tricky word. 


-Listen in and observe. Take as many mental notes as possible. Who is totally ready to fly free? Who might you want to confer with or pull a small group with? Who might need just a bit of coaching right now and they will be able to use this independently. 

Writer's Workshop

I now want you to turn to your writing partner to review how we use a stapler. Get out that story that you’re sitting on and pretend you just finished writing this story.  Don’t forget to tell them when to staple and show them where your two staples should go.


-Listen in and observe. Take as many mental notes as possible. Who is totally ready to fly free? Who might you want to confer with or pull a small group with? Who might need just a bit of coaching right now and they will be able to use this independently. 


The link is the final bit of the mini-lesson. Here you send your students off with a purpose and a plan for the day. It should last about 1 minute. 

Here it is- the final component of a mini-lesson! Your readers should now be energized and amped up to try something. Now you need to take the energy from the Active Engagement, give a quick last minute check in and send them off ready to take on the world of reading or writing. 


-Teach them how to transition. Transitioning from Active Engagement to Link can be tricky. A lot of the time it is necessary to cut kids off during the active engagement. It isn’t to be mean but it is preserve their independent work time. When I say turn back my students know that there is no one last word to a partner or a complaint of, I didn’t get to finish. They know that turning back means I have one more quick thing to share before sending them on their way. I also teach any other adults that are in my classroom how to transition as well. Usually when there are adults at the carpet they’re the one who have trouble turning back from a turn and talk. It might seem harsh but we have ten minutes here! I want to optimize all the time I have with my kids. Anything you notice during the Active Engagement that needs a longer discussion can be done after the mini-lesson. 

-The Mini-Lesson is NOT an assignment. That’s right. It is a suggestion. What does that mean? Well, it means that not all of your students will take on your mini-lesson that day. For some students the mini-lesson might not be in their zone of proximal development. Some students might not encounter the situation you’ve described today. It all just depends. Does that mean that we don’t want students to be held accountable for the mini-lesson? No, but they are held accountable in different ways depending on what their zone of proximal development is. 


Reader's Workshop

Readers turn back please. Wow! I saw so many of you getting stuck on that tricky word and then using a strategy you know to solve it. I didn’t hear anyone just giving up right away or asking their partner to tell me! tell me! This is wonderful. I even saw Tatiana showing her partner what she was going to try using our anchor chart. Remember readers today and everyday, when we get stuck we don’t sit around we try something to get us unstuck! Off you go! 

Writer's Workshop

Writers turn back please. I heard so many of you explaining that we ony staple after we’re finished writing. I saw you showing your partner where to staple. I also heard Tatiana share a story about the one time she stapled before she was finished and then ske kept having to add more pages and it made a real mess with all those stapels! Remember writers today and everyday, we staple at the end of a story and we only use two staples. Off you go! 

Getting Started

Remember in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when Hagrid hands Harry his ticket to Hogwarts? He says, “Stick to your ticket Harry, that’s very important.” Harry wasn’t sure what his ticket meant and getting to Hogwarts seemed impossible. I mean, Platform 9 3/4? That doesn’t exist! He sticks to his ticket even with huge doubts that it is going to work.

Your ticket is a ten-minute mini-lesson. You might feel like Harry, confused, nervous, and facing a seemingly impossible task. I want you to stick to this format and stick with ten minutes. See where it takes you, don’t give up. Soon enough you’ll be on the platform to Hogwarts and your teaching will be changed! Stick to your ticket!

What's Next?

We’re going to stay with workshop a while so we can really get into all of the pieces together. Hopefully you’re starting to feel like taking on workshop and balanced literacy won’t be such a large task. We’re going to break it down into manageable chunks. Start to shift around things in your classroom to prepare for workshop. Let me know all of your questions too so I can help you out.  

Each Tuesday a new post will appear giving you more insight into the life of a balanced literacy teacher! Next week our post will focus on mini-lesson frequently asked questions and tips. Please comment below so that I can address your questions in next week’s blog! 

Use the comments section to ask any lingering questions or leave any comments so I can better help you on this journey to implementing a balanced literacy framework within your classroom.

Changing Our Thinking: Using Pictures While Reading

Changing Our Thinking: Using Pictures While Reading

There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing young readers using pictures in stories as they read.

What We Used to Think

Checking the pictures in stories used to be seen as almost cheating when reading the stories. I remember as a child thinking that looking at the pictures was meant for after reading the words. Recently a parent was in my classroom reading a story but refused to show students the pictures saying they would only pay attention to the pictures and not the words. Not only were the kids disappointed they missed an opportunity to use the pictures to help them build an understanding of the text as the story was read aloud. 

Pictures are in texts for a reason. They support the reader to make meaning as they work through a text. To not allow a student access to pictures is to inhibit their understanding of the text. Let’s explore this shift in thinking even further.

Text Levels and Pictures

When a child begins to read at lower levels the entire story is in the picture. If the line of print says The car is blue, on the page is a picture of a blue car. The next page says the car is orange and a picture of an orange car is on the page. This is because children at this level need the illustration to support them as readers. To not have the illustration would mean that they can’t decode the text. 

As children move up in levels the picture support within text gradually fades away. As students know more and more words they use the pictures for decoding less and less. Sometimes authors may use the illustrations to add in bits of the stories that aren’t being told through the words. Here are a few examples of texts at different levels and a description of the picture support at that level. 

Level A

At a level A kids are just beginning to develop their reading skills. They are learning that books are read from left to right. They are learning that there is a relationship between sounds and letters. You’ll notice that text in a level A is limited. It consists of one line of print that a student would read using the support of their finger moving from word to word. These books often follow a pattern. In the book above the text follows the “Here is the ____” pattern as the students read about making this rabbit craft. You’ll notice that the words on the page match the picture exactly. Level A provides simple text and the narrative is completely told within the pictures. It is at this beginning level that readers are prompted to check the picture when they get stuck. All information included in the text is included in the illustrations. 

Level D

At a level D kids are finding more lines on a page than they were in previous levels. These readers use the pictures to attach meaning to the story and the picture still provides a high level of support to the story. You’ll notice that possible unknown words such as beach or water can be determined using support from the picture and perhaps initial letter sound. Students read a level D at the end of Kindergarten/beginning of first grade.

Level H

Notice how the demand of the reader has shifted from an D to a H. We expect kids to exit grade 1 around a level I/J. Within that first grade year the demands within the text levels change quite drastically. After level E the high level of picture support for a text begins to shift. In a level H there is moderate picture support. The story is mostly told through the text but the pictures help support readers and they decode a text. If a reader at a level H isn’t sure about the word climbed in the last line they can still use the picture to help their understanding. If they aren’t sure about the word stick, there isn’t much picture support to help in the decoding of that word. 

Level K

In a level K the use of pictures begins to shift. Now readers have many decoding strategies and are able to decode a high number of words with high accuracy. In a level K the text will sometimes demand that the reader search for information in the pictures or graphics. Readers who are still relying heavily on picture clues to decode words often get stuck at a level K because of the limited picture support. Prior to this level many other decoding strategies need to be taught to gradually release the reader from relying solely on picture support. A typical student will approach a level K text about half way through second grade. Notice how the pictures are still important and still provide support however the type of support provided has shifted. 

Level N

At approximately a level N the use of pictures in stories shifts again. Now there is little to no picture support for readers as they work through the text. This picture provides a bit of context. I see two people on a beach. I can tell that it is probably cold out and they are looking at something dirty. If you read the text on this page you will find out a lot more details. The pictures don’t provide support for decoding anymore and they don’t provide additional information to add on to the text. Readers at this level are now reliant on the text and the illustrations are there for enjoyment. Readers reach a level N at the beginning of grade 3. 

As you can see, pictures in stories help the reader build meaning or make sense of a story. If we don’t allow students access to pictures then we are taking away an essential coding system that helps readers work through a text. If students aren’t using the pictures as they read this should be a teaching point that is worked on. Text levels gradually release responsibility to the reader similar to the entire balanced literacy framework. We don’t need and shouldn’t cover up pictures as students work to read texts. 

Three Coding Systems- M, S, V

As readers work through text they use three coding systems: meaning, structure, and visual.

Meaning- Does this make sense?

Structure- Does this sound right? 

Visual- Does this look right?

Using Meaning

We want readers to be cross-checking and using all systems of coding but today we’re focused on meaning. When students are using meaning they are connecting the words in the text, noticing relationships and putting the story together. Illustrations in a text are a source of meaning as a reader decodes the text.

When a child makes meaning of a text they are not only using the words and the illustrations, they also draw upon other sources such as background knowledge and life experiences, sense of how a story works, experiences with books and language.

These meaning cues help readers to make sense of the text as they work through it. Students can use meaning to notice errors in a story when the plot no longer makes sense. They can make connections to their life and what they know using meaning. It helps them to hold the sense of story as they work through page after page of text. Meaning helps readers understand the main ideas in a text and the ideas that support those ideas. It helps them to read with fluency and expression. It even helps them swap out words for words that still make sense (mom for mother). Meaning is essential for a reader.


Please check out this post all about using prompts with children. 

As readers we constantly ask ourselves does this make sense? as we move through stories. We want our students to do the same. To do so we prompt our students for these missing skills. This is, of course, after we have already taught and modeled the prompt for them. To learn more about prompting please check out this post. Some prompts for meaning could be

-Did that make sense?

-Look at the pictures.

-What happened in the story when ______?

-What do you think it might be

-Can you reread this?

Additional Professional Reading

The Fountas and Pinnell Literacy Continuum has been my guide for all things literacy for the past 7 years. This year I finally got the new updated version and I could not love it more. 

I know that it may seem costly but you will get your money’s worth out of it. Included in the text are sections about the various components of a balanced literacy framework, the expectations at each grade level, as well as a detailed description of each guided reading text level. These descriptions help me determine how to problem solve points of error amongst students, predict possible areas of struggle and extend the learning within each level. It is worth the investment! There isn’t a single day of teaching that I don’t reference it at least once. 

A preview can be found at the Heinemann link below.

Click here to view on Heinemann, Amazon US, and Amazon UK. None of these links are affiliate links. 

Changing Our Thinking

I hope this small shift in thinking is helpful in your classroom!

Leave a comment below about your shift in thinking, any questions you might have, and how this is working for you within the classroom.

There’s No Such Thing as a Baby Book

There’s No Such Thing as a Baby Book

*Please read the title in Uncle Vernon’s voice if you didn’t the first time. Just imagine how he’s feeling as he screams to Harry that there is NO SUCH THING as magic!*

The Unfortunate Event

Let me paint this picture for you. It was the day of the elementary book fair. Our kids had their zloty ready to go. Their parents had sent them with money that was burning holes in their pockets all day long. It was finally time! We walked down to our library and we listened to directions. If you didn’t have money you could get a sheet of paper and create a wishlist. If you did have money the cost was listed in pounds on the back of the book and you had to come and look at the sign to see what it would be in zloty. You know, a real easy task for first grade. When you were ready to check out you could find the lady and she would check you out. Any questions? Nope! My kids take off with such excitement to peruse some new books.

All around I hear calls of joy. “Oh my gosh look at this!” “Woah! Come here!” “Ms. Natasha! Ms. Natasha!” Suddenly the whole class is summoning me over to a little corner with shouts of, “look what we found!” I walk as fast as I can over to where the kids are standing to see that they have stumbled upon a book series we know and love. One of my favorite animals is an otter and we have a little, stuffed otter named Ruby. When I was in London I went into a bookstore (if you live in a non-English speaking country and visit an English speaking country you must stop in a bookstore) saw this story about otters and bought it immediately.

The kids were so excited when I shared it with them and because a lot of my kids started the year far below grade level they could read the words of this book! It was so amazing to share this story together- no matter how simple the text was. So, here we are at the book fair and they see this!

They were all so excited! They knew we had to tell the other first-grade teacher about the squirrel one because she had a squirrel named Pearl. The kids who had wishlists hustled over and started writing them down. The excitement of the book fair was at an all-time high! I walked away to allow the kids more room in that area. The librarian asked me a question when suddenly I heard, “GET AWAY FROM THE BABY BOOKS! You’re in grade 1! Look at the real books.” The book fair lady had stacked up this entire series and banned my kids from going back to that table. ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?!!!

Their little spirits were crushed. They felt insulted and betrayed. Hurt little ones came walking over. I reminded them that they brought their money and they could look at any book they wanted. Something that seemed like a fair rule to me but not to the lady selling the books. (Later when kids tried to buy books she denied it to several and told them to pick new books or picked new books for them because she didn’t deem them appropriate. We went head to head but I wasn’t the one selling books and my class had to play by her rules.)


You know what? Every time I pick up a book to read I don’t choose one that is my instructional level. For example, I love reading Buzzfeed articles. Do you think those are written at my reading level? Are the fashion blogs I read at my reading level? Are the young adult literature books I love so much at my level? NO! They are far below it. That doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter what I read it should matter that I read and I love reading. I love reading so much that I am always sharing what I read, no matter what it is, with my friends.

We need to stop trying to tell kids what to read and start encouraging all forms of reading! Stop it! So what a kid wants to read a book that is deemed too easy for them. So what that this kid only wants to read Elephant and Piggie but you have decided they are too easy for them. Don’t extinguish a burning love of reading by shaming what a child is reading. If a kid wants to read a graphic novel but you decide graphic novels aren’t books it sounds like you’re the one with the problem, not the kid!

There is no such thing as a baby book. It just doesn’t exist. If you are a reader you can read any book. ANY BOOK!

Truths About Reading

Different books in different cultures

I know that part of this is cultural. Children’s books in Polish aren’t written as children’s books in English are. Right now my kids are reading heavy chapter books with no pictures in Polish. It isn’t because they don’t need the picture support when they read it is because in those books pictures are an “extra” They weren’t added to help the reader gain an understanding of the text. When we talk about picture support that entire skill doesn’t exist in their native language texts. So, yeah it can be tricky to understand why the books they’re reading in English look more childish the books are just designed differently in each language.

Our school has a lot of work to do to explain this to teachers and parents and guests and administrators and children but this struggle doesn’t just happen at my school. Our librarian frequently denies books to children because she thinks they shouldn’t read them. Assistant teachers frequently rip books out of kids hands and tell them not to read them. Parents tell their kids to stop looking at the pictures and “read the book.” I know this might be happening at your school too.

Tell me your stories in the comments below and let’s band together to shift a damaging mindset about reading to a more inclusive and positive one!

The (Reading or Writing) Workshop Essentials

The (Reading or Writing) Workshop Essentials

Welcome back to our balanced literacy series! Today the focus is on the essentials of workshop model teaching.  This post is meant to build a collective understanding of the workshop model used for readers and writers workshop. If you haven’t read the first two posts of the series, take a minute right now to read about the framework and the components. Don’t forget to stop by every Tuesday to gain a better insight on using a balanced literacy framework within your classroom!

Workshop Shifts In Understandings

One of the major shifts in moving to a balanced literacy framework is the role the teacher plays and the role the student plays. The role of the teacher used to be to have all the knowledge and dispense that knowledge to students. The teacher was the expert in the room and the students trained to catch as much of that expert knowledge as they could. This is style of teaching is often referred to as a sage on the stage. If you were to peek into a classroom often we would see students sitting around a teacher probably at their desks and the teacher standing in front of the classroom for the majority of class time. The focus was on the teacher giving information to the students. This teaching style doesn’t match best practices anymore and it doesn’t work for developing 21st century learners.

In a workshop model the teacher is often seen sitting one on one with kids thinking about all that this child knows and pushing their thinking slightly further in one area or another. Think back to the zone of proximal development post. A teacher knows where each child is in the continuum of learning to read or write. She can then analyze student errors, miscues or self corrects (in reading) and then guide the child with teaching directly targeting a skill in their zone of proximal development. A teacher in this model is a guide on the side. Instead of having children spend the majority of their time listening to the teacher dispense knowledge they spend the majority of the time practicing skills that their teacher had taught them. In a workshop model the teacher only gives whole class direct instruction for 10 minutes. Then the role of the teacher shifts to coach as she walks around and guides each student individually or in small groups. 

This shift in how time is spent in the classroom allows students time to practice their craft. What good does it do if one day I teach you all the ways to decode multisyllabic words and then I give you 5 minutes to practice it at the end of class through a worksheet? It doesn’t help you at all. What if I teach you two ways to decode multisyllabic words and then give you 35 minutes to read a book and try it there? Not only letting you try it on your own but I spend a few minutes with you listening in and then coaching your specific need. That sounds like it is extremely beneficial for students. I can tell you from experience that it is. The workshop model allows students more time to practice skills through authentic situations. 

As I’m sure you’ve gathered differentiating using this model of teaching is extremely easy. First of all, each child will be reading or writing on their own at their own level. Then the teacher is pushing in and coaching 1:1 or in small groups to target the ZPD of each student. Each student is getting exactly what they need. It doesn’t matter if in your third grade class you have a child reading at a fourth grade level and one at a first. Both students are receiving the instruction they need to move forward as a reader.

The workshop model also promotes independent problem solving in students. The role of the teacher is not to provide right answers but to guide students to right answers.  Through workshop I teach my students many independent life skills. My little gems are taught how to staple in writer’s workshop. What do I do if my pencil breaks? What if I finish reading all of my books? These are situations where students traditionally might come and ask a teacher what they should do or sometimes as for permission to do things. In a balanced literacy framework a lot of responsibility falls on the students. This is a good thing! It helps to create independent thinkers. Kids in your class don’t need to ask you for permission to do everything. Supplies should be accessible to them. They should know how to problem solve on their own! We want our students to be independent thinkers and doers. Workshop helps to foster those skills.  


The workshop model is designed to use one hour of instructional time. This means that if you are teaching reading and writing workshop you would need two hours of time. Now, I don’t have this amount of time in my classroom and I only ever have had it once. At one school they had enough time in the schedule carved out to implement workshop with fidelity. I’m going to explain the ideal circumstances here and then let’s talk real world. 

Workshop begins with all students called to the gathering area for a mini-lesson. This means that you’ll want to create a gathering area in your classroom if you don’t have one there already. At my first grade gathering area kids sit at the carpet. When I taught third grade kids were allowed to drag chairs with them but they had to be sitting at the same level as their reading/writing partner. Teachers do this in different ways to meet the different needs of their students. I will say that kids should be gathered close and in one area. Kids sitting around the room at desks doesn’t create the atmosphere desired for workshop. 

Once the class has gathered the teacher begins a 10 minute mini-lesson. Here she goes through a format that is predictable to both the teacher and the students. During the mini-lesson a teacher has one teaching point. Only one! She models how to do the teaching point, she has students try out the methods on their own and then she says the magic words, “off you go!” Once these words are said all students get up off of the carpet and go off to work. There aren’t a million questions asked. The teacher doesn’t start giving a million reminders. It is quiet and calm as readers and writers go off to try new things and grow into even better readers and writers. 

After the words off you go,  I currently go off to read or write for the first three minutes myself. I started this practice when I was teaching third grade in the States.  I began one day sitting next to a reader who typically would try his best to avoid books during workshop. I say next to him for 5 minutes reading before going off to confer. In those five minutes he didn’t pick up a book but he watched me as a reader. He said things like, your face is smiling right now or why do you look confused? He started picking up on my facial expressions. When he tried to interrupt I simply stated, “I’m working on my reading right now and you should be too.” I started doing this again in my grade 1 writing classroom. I have some students who can come up with a million questions they want to ask right after I send them off. Now I get my writing folder and find a spot to write. During the three minutes I might move around the room, calming kids with my presence and encouraging that they write. If someone attempts to interrupt I calmly state, “I am working on my writing right now and you should be too.” Then once I go off to start conferring the kids are already working independently. 

After the magic words off you go, a teacher gets to work on meeting with students one on one or in small groups depending on student need. During this time the students are working independently. While conferring the teacher is studying the student and watching to find what they can do, what they are almost doing and what they can’t do yet. The teacher then makes a powerful choice and teaches the reader/writer one skill or strategy that fits within their zone of proximal development. The students continue working even if the teacher doesn’t meet with them. If they encounter a problem, they solve it on their own.  The students are trying out all of the various strategies that the teacher has taught. The teacher continues the important task of coaching in and guiding each student forward on their journey. 

After about 40-45 minutes work time it is time for share. Share is sometimes the most neglected piece of the workshop model but it is very important. The students gather again in the gathering area of the classroom. Sometimes they bring something with them as prompted by the teacher. The students then share out what they are trying, what they are succeeding in, and what they are struggling with. The community of readers or writers comes together to give advice, compliments and ask questions. The share is carefully planned by the teacher. Sometimes share might be a quick turn and talk. Share ties the lesson together and brings it to a close. During share the teacher will reference the teaching point again and now ask for student voices to share what happened when they tried things out. 

What do I need to Get Started?

Here’s a list of things you may want before diving into the workshop model. 

  • A gathering area within your classroom
  • An easel to hang things on
  • An organizational system for tracking student notes and records
  • Assessments of your students as readers and writers. Do you have a general idea of where kids are in your classroom? 
  • Books for kids to read during reader’s workshop and paper for them to write on during writer’s workshop
  • Start to look at your schedule and your language arts time blocks. Do you have 1 hour to carve out for reading and 1 hour for writing? If you don’t, do not panic. Next week we’ll be talking about scheduling and what to do if you don’t have the perfect amounts of time. 
  • Write all of your questions, comments, concerns in the comments of this post so I can help you out along this journey. 

What's Next?

We’re going to stay with workshop a while so we can really get into all of the pieces together. Hopefully you’re starting to feel like taking on workshop and balanced literacy won’t be such a large task. We’re going to break it down into manageable chunks. Start to shift around things in your classroom to prepare for workshop. Let me know all of your questions too so I can help you out.  

Each Tuesday a new post will appear giving you more insight into the life of a balanced literacy teacher! Next week our post will center around scheduling. Maybe you’re realizing that you don’t have enough time in the day for this, neither do I. We’ll talk all about what to do about this next week. 


Use the comments section to ask any lingering questions or leave any comments so I can better help you on this journey to implementing a balanced literacy framework within your classroom.

Why Do We Log Our Reading Anyway?

Why Do We Log Our Reading Anyway?

Because I said so! -Not the best answer. Seriously. Why do we do it?

This has been the question that I always dreaded as a teacher. Why in the world were we logging our reading? How was this piece of paper helpful at all? In my classroom it wasn’t. It wasn’t helpful because I wasn’t using it for anything. Kids were writing down that they read. I was checking to make sure they read at home (even though it was the same 12 kids that always read and the same 6 that never read). We were logging our reading during school and collecting so much data but WHY? I considered telling students to just stop their logging but then I figured there had to be a reason why we have students log their reading. Why would Lucy Calkins want kids to log their reading? There had to be a reason. Now I don’t know if this is the reason Lucy Calkins would give (let’s be real she is MUCH more knowledgable then I am) but I have come up with a reason and logging has changed in my classroom for the better!

Logging our reading gives us so much insight to the work of readers. This year I set up a little inquiry project for myself to figure out why logging student reading is helpful.  I began by logging my own reading. It was a journey that wasn’t always pretty but it was helpful. I noticed so much about myself as a reader. I noticed that I have a really hard time getting into books and I read slowly in small chunks of time. I noticed that I read more pages at home and less pages at school (I wonder why!). I noticed that at times I rush through parts of stories and then have to go back and reread because I wasn’t paying attention to what I was reading. I have the same problems my students have!

At the start of the school year I started logging the books we read for read aloud. Read aloud is a time to model skills for students that you want them to do on their own. Check out my post about Read Aloud Essentials to learn more about read aloud. If I wanted students to log their reading shouldn’t I be logging the books we read during that time? The answer is yes!  I was almost embarrassed when I realized how obvious this was. If you aren’t modeling it- you aren’t teaching it!

So we started to log our reading as a class. On Thursdays (because we had more time for read aloud that day) we started to look at our read aloud log. I would stick it under the document camera and ask, “What do you notice?” Then I would wait. I would stare at the screen and nod saying “Oh interesting!” Students would look closer. I would say, “Wow if you haven’t looked yet, look at the minutes” or “Oh my, look at the number of pages” directing student attention to areas I wanted to talk about. Then I would have them turn and talk with their reading partner. What do you notice?

After observations we started to have conversations where students could share what they noticed and things we could work on. These were a wide range of things. Please note at the start of our school year I had a high behavior class and fights would break out every few hours (literally) so our class time was really chopped up. Read aloud was also right after recess so there was a lot of drama but these were their real observations…

  • Some days we only read for 5 minutes when we have 20 minutes of reading time (due to behaviors)
  • Some days we read really fast and we read more than a page a minute.
  • Some days we read really slow and read way less than a page per minute.
  • One day we didn’t get to have read aloud. (This was due to student behavior. Our class had to evacuate and I was suddenly holding read aloud in a conference room and I had ran out of the room without the book! So I just decided we would sit in a circle and tell stories) Why did this happen? Could it have been prevented? Kids who were involved in the problems noticed. One of them apologized to the class for starting the fight and started to realize his behavior was hurting our class!

Slowly behavior during read aloud started to change. We were able to read without interruptions and read aloud became the saving grace of my classroom! A few months later when we analyzed our reading log we noticed some different things. This time I decided to jot down our noticing on a T-chart. Trying out a little tool for looking critically at ourselves as readers.


First we jotted down everything that we noticed about our reading log. These are also things that students might notice in their own reading log.


Then we looked at those two behaviors. We noticed that two were probably connected. We were reading really fast and we weren’t stopping and jotting. After that realization we knew we could set a goal.

Our goal was to stop and jot as we read. During my read aloud time I started modeling stop and jots. Guess what skill my students weren’t doing as they read- stop and jots! We learned so much from analyzing our reading log. After this I didn’t push students to analyze their own reading log- the kids wanted to. Could we do this with our reading partners? Yes! We absolutely could. Making a T-chart is so easy for students that some of them had a conference with their reading partner during reading that day to determine what they could work on based on our own analysis.

What are some things you could notice in a student reading log? Once we notice we come up with a possible reason this is happening. Maybe…

  • Student are starting a million books and they aren’t finishing anything. (We highlight books on our reading log when we finish and put a red dot by books we are abandoning.) Maybe they are choosing books that are too hard. Maybe they are choosing books they aren’t interested in. Maybe they don’t understand how to sit down with a book and truly engage.
  • Students are not reading at home. Research shows that reading 20 minutes at home each night helps students become better readers. Reading at home is the only homework I assign because I believe it is that important. Maybe they aren’t reading at home because they aren’t bringing books home. Maybe they aren’t reading at home because they have to babysit their siblings. Maybe they aren’t reading at home because they are playing video games.
  • Students are flying through books. Maybe they are way too easy. Maybe they aren’t doing any thinking work as they read. There might not be any post-its or reading notebook entries. Maybe students don’t understand how to do the thinking work of a reader.
  • Students are taking forever to finish a book. Maybe this text is too difficult. Maybe they are spending too much time writing down jots and not enough time reading. Maybe decoding is difficult and it is holding them up. Maybe they are talking to their friends during reading time.
  • Students don’t even have a reading log. This happens quite frequently in my classroom. If students don’t have a reading log maybe they don’t see the point of logging their reading. Maybe they are at a level where it doesn’t make sense to log their reading. Maybe they need a different kind of log that works for their level. Maybe they just need to be told again that they need to log their reading.
  • Students are starting and finishing each book they read. Hooray! They are doing what we want to see them doing.
  • Students are reading faster than a page per minute but have stop and jots. Maybe this student is ready to switch levels because this level is getting too easy. Maybe all of their jots are surface level and their thinking needs to go deeper.
  • Students are reading at home and at school. Yippee! Let’s celebrate this. Maybe this student has parents that make sure they do their homework each night. Maybe this student was really engaged in the book they were reading and they didn’t want to put it down.

After analyzing reading logs students want to log their reading even more. Now they see the value in logging their reading. Every once in a while we will hit a slump where kids aren’t logging their reading and that is the point to show them the value once again.

Why is it so important for students to log their reading? It gives us valuable data about who students are as readers. It helps us see strengths and it helps us see weaknesses. We can see things to praise readers for on their logs. We can see what we need to teach readers based on their logs. Logging reading helps students self-reflect on their reading habits and set goals to improve as readers.