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.


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