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.  

Structure

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.

Changing Our Thinking: Prompting Kids with “You Know This!”

Changing Our Thinking: Prompting Kids with “You Know This!”


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 using the prompt, “you know this” when a child gets stuck.

Why Do We Prompt?

We give kids several prompts in a day. I would say most of the prompts I give students throughout the day are not academic prompts. Most of my prompts are for shoelaces that are untied, pencils that are on the floor, or behaviors that need to be changed. When we prompt students we want them to recall a very specific set of information and change something. When I say, “step out of line and tie your shoe” to a child he or she knows what to do. It helps him to recall a system of steps to go through in situations like the one he is in. Eventually, I would want to see him look down and step out of line to tie his shoe all by himself. We prompt kids to help them remember and help them create an internal dialogue for situations they might encounter in future. The goal is always independence. 

Teach, Prompt, Reinforce

Many times teachers begin prompts with the phrase “remember…” This assumes that students have already been taught the prompt. Before I can expect a student to step out of line and tie his shoe I have to show him what I mean. It might seem simple but we must explicitly teach what we mean by a prompt before it can be used by a student. During the first week of school when a child’s shoes are untied, I prompt them and show them what to do. After they catch on I can simply prompt. After a while, my words become the voice in their head. Now, when they notice a shoe is untied they simply step out of line and tie it. First I teach the prompt, then I can prompt, then I reinforce if needed. I do, we do, you do.

Using “You Know This”

If we prompt a child by saying, “come on, you know this” or “we just did this yesterday” or even “think back and remember” when they don’t know we aren’t helping them recall any information. All we are telling them is that they should know. Guess what, if they knew they would do it. If they remembered from yesterday you wouldn’t need to give the prompt today. They would just do it. This prompt doesn’t help them it only frustrates them and it frustrates you. When we prompt with our classroom we want it to guide students to the right choice and help create an internal dialogue for them.

Do This Instead

Instead of prompting with you know this, go through the steps: teach, prompt, reinforce. If a student gets stuck on a word, saying “we read that word yesterday” isn’t helpful. Instead, try this:

Teach:

The first few times teach the child the prompt. I have just selected a simple prompt and a simple situation to see what it might look like.

When I see a word I don’t know I look at the first letter and get my mouth ready to say the sound. I notice this word starts with a d. I know a d makes the sound d. Here I told the child the situation they might find themselves in- I see a word I don’t know. I next told them what to do- I look at the first letter and get my mouth ready to say the sound. Then I showed them what I meant and said the d sound. Prompts need to be short and they need to be direct. First name the situation then tell what to do.

Prompt:

Once you have gone through the teach a few times, prompt the child to have them go through the steps on their own. “When you see a word you don’t know, look at the first letter and get your mouth ready to say the sound.” This reminds the child of what they can do at an unknown word and sets them up for success. This prompts should also have the child recall all the times that you showed him how to do this as a reader. Again the prompt is short it names the situation and it tells what to do. Soon this prompt will become the voice inside their head when they approach an unknown word.

Reinforce:

After a while, the student won’t need this prompt anymore. Your prompting voice will now be the internal voice inside guiding them in this situation. They should now be able to notice what situation they are in and recall what to do. Every once in a while you will need to go back and reinforce their knowledge but they should be able to do it on their own the majority of the time. Independence is always the goal.

Changing Our Thinking

I hope this small shift in thinking is helpful in your classroom tomorrow. Try it out. Just select a certain situation it doesn’t even have to be academic and try out the teach, prompt, reinforce method.

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