Balanced Literacy: Planning for Teaching During Independent Work Time

Balanced Literacy: Planning for Teaching During Independent Work Time

Welcome back to our balanced literacy series! Today the focus is on planning for teaching during independent work time. What happens after you’ve sent the kids off the carpet? You know, when they’re all reading different books and writing different stories?  Let’s talk about different options you have and how to know when to choose what. 

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

Off You Go!

You just taught a fabulous 7-12 minute mini-lesson and ended with those three magical and inspiring words. Your readers or writers leap off the carpet ready for action but… you linger in the chair. What now? What is your off you go? There are so many variables that could happen next for you and there is no coach in your classroom everyday to guide your choices. Let’s talk about them and ease your mind a bit so that the next time you say off you go you can go off with just as much confidence as your students! 

Reading: Now What?

First things first before you can work with your readers you need to know where they are. Perhaps your school uses F&P BAS to assess readers throughout the year. Maybe your school uses DRA. Hopefully your school has some sort of system in place to assess readers. If not, it’s your lucky day because now you can become the advocate for your school. Research the systems available and determine which one would work best for your students. I advocated to switch from DRA to BAS at my current school and it took two whole years to do the convincing but now we switched and wouldn’t look back! 

So before you can begin teaching readers you need to assess readers. You need to know exactly where they are. What is your baseline? What do they know and can do independently? What do they partially know but still need teaching on? What do they not yet know at all? You need to be able to answer these three questions for each reader in your class and the class as a whole. Then you need to determine what is the critical next step in teaching that they can work to take on independently and how you’re going to teach them. Let’s go! 

One on One Instruction

Conferring is the primary mode of one on one instruction in reading. There are many different types of conferences you can have with your students. I usually begin my year or my unit with compliment only conferences. This reinforces the skills that students know while I jot down everything they’re going to need to work on within the unit. Then I choose what students I will confer with to meet goals and what students I would prefer to use a small group for.

Some years I have conferred with all readers and done no groups. Some years I have conferred with a limited amount. It all depends on your readers and you. 

Group Instruction

Small group instruction in reading can come in two different forms. Guided reading groups or strategy groups each have their own purposes and structures. It is up to you to decide which is best for your readers. If your readers are grade 2 or above you might also consider book clubs. We won’t talk about book clubs today and instead focus on the other methods. I am going to say this right now so that we’re all clear. Ready to listen? THERE IS NO ROUND ROBIN READING IN ANY OF THESE GROUPS. None. Don’t even think about it. Don’t. Ok, now that you know, let’s talk about each one. 

Guided Reading

During a guided group all students will be at the same level and will all read the same book. Guided reading lessons last for 15-20 minutes. During the lesson the teacher will introduce a new text, students will read the text at their own pace and the teacher will listen in, afterwards the teacher will lead the students in a comprehension conversation. Sometimes a guided reading group also includes word work.

Strategy Group

During a strategy group all students might be at different levels and reading different books. They will be practicing the same strategy or skill. Strategy groups don’t last very long maybe only a week or two, sometimes less. The teacher will teach the skill or strategy and each child will practice in their own text at their own level. Sometimes the teacher will provide the text sometimes students choose what text to bring. Strategy groups will last 10-15 minutes. 


Conferring is one-on-one with just a student and the teacher. The teacher typically follows the Research, Decide, Compliment, Teach method. First the teacher will observe and research the skills the reader has and does not have yet. The teacher will decide what teaching is best for this student next. Then the teacher will compliment the reader to reinforce a skill they have. Next the teacher will teach a new skill and practice it a few times with the reader before the reader is left on their own. This lasts about 5-7 minutes. 

Writing: Now What?

One on One Instruction

I would have to say that this is the form of student & teacher work that I engage in most often in writing. I do small group instruction from time to time but have found that writers need more one on one instruction. This is just my personal experience. Take it with a grain of salt because you know your writers better than I do… I don’t even know them at all. Conferring is the name of the game. 

Group Instruction

Sometimes there is a need to pull a strategy group together. When I taught grade 3, I pulled a strategy group on using paragraphs once. Last week I pulled a strategy group on putting spaces between our words when we write. Group instruction should be between 10-15 minutes and should be short term. 

What Now?

Create a document that shows what your readers know and what sort of know and what they don’t yet know. Similar to this one I’ve created below. Please know that these are made up children and are in no way based on actual students in my class currently or in my class previously. I believe it is really important to keep all student data private. The example listed is just for reading. 


In looking at this data I might want to do a whole class mini-lesson on 1:1 matching. I realize that we don’t all have a class size of 10… I don’t have a class size of 10! 

Depending on the students I could pull Amari, Ania, Filip, and Oscar into a strategy group on fluency. Since these are just made up children we don’t really know much else about their fluency. As the teacher of your class you would know more details. 

Michael and Rick might get pulled into a guided reading group together. They can work to build high frequency words and work on their 1:1 matching skills. 

Kuba and Piotr might work well in a guided reading group. Kuba might do more of the work during a text introduction while Piotr might do a little more of the work during the conversation that follows reading. Victor could also fall into this group if his needs were similar. Victor could also be a candidate for conferring. 

Randy would be a good candidate for conferring because he needs to work on skills that don’t necessarily match the other readers. 

Knowing your students is the key to responsive teaching. Try to make a chart like this for your class. You might want to add columns to reflect the zone of proximal development. One column could be for known skills, one for skills within the zone of proximal development, and one for unknown skills. This will help you start to look at your class. You might notice that you need to add in a whole class mini-lesson on something. Knowing your readers and writers is essential to teaching. Take the week and get to know your kids! 

What's Next?

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 conferring during independent reading or writing time.

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

How do you look at student data? How do your observations guide your instruction? What questions do you have about planning for instruction? 

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.

Zone of Proximal Development in Balanced Literacy

Zone of Proximal Development in Balanced Literacy

Welcome back to our balanced literacy series! Today the focus is on the zone of proximal development and using that within the gradual release model that balanced literacy follows. This post is meant to build a collective understanding of the ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development) and gradual release model so that you know what’s what when we get into later details of the framework. 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.

Zone of Proximal Development

I can remember sitting in my Ed Psych course my freshman year of college and first hearing about Lev Vygotsky. At the time I was 18 and eager to be an educator but I wasn’t the best of students. Of course, I learned about ZPD back then but cast it off as irrelevant information as I jumped through hoops to earn my degree. Now, while everything I learned in college isn’t relevant in the classroom, Vygotsky is one of the most important people I learned about! So, in case you also cast aside important information let’s talk Vygotsky and ZPD.

Lev Vygotsky created an idea about learning towards the end of his life. He argued that when children learn, they first watch adults carefully before they act. As they do this, they slowly begin to take more and more on until they can complete the task independently without an adult. If you think about a child learning to walk this holds true. First, they observe adults walking. Young children have a sharp focus on new skills. Then they begin to slowly scoot around. Next, they pull themselves up and after many more steps (assisted by adults who love them), they are walking on their own.  Children work within something referred to as their zone of proximal development (ZPD) to develop these skills. As children learn, concepts slowly shift from their unknown, through the ZPD, to their known. Learning follows a can’t do, can do with help, can do by myself pattern.

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is the area in between known skills and unknown skills. That moment in time when learners can do something with help but can’t yet do it independently. This is the sweet spot we want to target as teachers. In a balanced literacy framework, we focus on this zone for most of our teaching.

If we take Vygotsky’s ZPD and combine the idea with the four stages of competence we see similar ideas. I like to pair these two theories together because I believe they go hand in hand and each one solidifies the other.

In the unknown, we have unconsciously incompetent. Students who fall here don’t know what they don’t know. They are unaware. They may be misinterpreting information. They may not see the value in what is being learned. They are unaware or unconsciously incompetent. In order for skills to shift into a child’s zone of proximal development, they must be aware of what they don’t know or consciously incompetent. Think about a child learning to write his name. At a young age, there is no real knowledge of a need to write your name. There is no knowledge about letters and there is no real desire.

The stage after unconsciously incompetent is consciously incompetent. You can see that this phase straddles both the unknown and the ZPD. Within this phase, students know that they don’t know or aren’t able to do something yet and they see the value of the skillset or knowledge. Here is where mistakes make a world of difference to the learning process. If students make mistakes within the first stage, it doesn’t matter because they are unaware of the skill or even the need for the skill. Once they become consciously incompetent their mistakes are helpful teaching moments on the path to becoming consciously competent. A child beginning to write their name might be trying to match their writing to an adult’s but can’t quite get the letters right. Mistakes are so valuable because their taking in what went wrong and trying to fix it.

The third phase is consciously competent. This sees students transitioning from the ZPD into the known. This is where students know or can do the skill but still must focus on it. They know all of the letters in their name perhaps but still have to write it very slowly in order to get it right. When they write they focus letter by letter or in small chunks. They aren’t yet to the point where they can write their name without thinking- that stage comes next.

The final stage is unconsciously competent and this exists entirely in the known portion. This stage is reached when skills and knowledge are automatic. The student does not even need to think about what they are doing it is just natural to them. Now kids get a piece of paper and put their name at the top without thinking.

What is the gradual release model?

Balanced literacy is based upon the gradual release of responsibility model. You’ll notice that this model is shaped by the work of Vygotsky. Students work left to right across the continuum quite similar to the previous images about the ZPD as teacher slowly release the responsibility of work from themselves to the student. You’ll notice there is a component of the balanced literacy framework for each step along the way. As teachers use a balanced literacy framework they begin teaching skills with high levels of support and slowly take away support as a skill transfers from the unknown, to the zone of proximal development, to mastery.

The highest level of support offered in a balanced literacy framework is I do, You watch. Here teachers are modeling skills and strategies they want to see their students take on. This exists in Read Aloud and Modeled Writing. In read aloud I preview skills that my students will need in the near future. I am showing them entirely on my own. After winter holiday we will transition into nonfiction reading. Right now in my read alouds, I am modeling the strategies I am going to want my students to use in the future. In modeled writing the teacher is doing all the thinking and working as well. This is the highest level of support.

The next tier of support is I do, You help. Here the teacher carefully masterminds (I’ve used this word before and I just feel like it fits this stage beautifully.) Here the teacher must be aware of all students in the class and each child’s ZPD. Shared reading and shared writing come into play here. This is where the teacher is still doing much of the heavy lifting but students are taking a turn at trying new ideas out with a high level of teacher support.

As we begin to lower our teacher support, the following phase is You do, I help. This is another phase where the teacher is masterminding the learning similar to the previous phase. Each child is still working within their ZPD but they are doing most of the heavy lifting while the teacher is there to guide. This is where we find interactive writing and guided reading. Here the teacher acts as more of a coach than a model.

The final stage is completely independent and, as you can see, a reverse of the first stage. This last phase is You do, I watch. Here we find independent reading and independent writing. The teacher isn’t doing the heavy lifting anymore and is barely supporting the child in the skills and strategies they have learned. Students here have mastery of the skills and strategies they were taught.

A word of warning! Just because one skill or strategy is mastered doesn’t mean that the teaching is done! These skills need reinforcement and there will be new skills and strategies to learn. The process literally goes back to the beginning and new learning takes place building off of the known. We’re going to talk more about the teacher role in the learning in the next section.

How do these two come together?

The balanced literacy framework uses the zone of proximal development as well as the gradual release of responsibility. I know the graphic above might seem like a bit much but I really love it to death. This lines right up with the gradual release model and all of the information above. Instead of showing the triangles of the gradual release model above it simply shows the teacher’s role.

When students are working in the unknown they are working with new information. Here the teacher’s role is to model skills and strategies for the student. As knowledge begins to shift from the unknown to the ZPD the teacher’s role shifts to explicit teaching. Concepts that are taught in a balanced literacy framework are not new. I’m going to repeat that! CONCEPTS, SKILLS, OR STRATEGIES THAT ARE TAUGHT IN A BALANCED LITERACY FRAMEWORK ARE NOT NEW TO STUDENTS. THE TEACHER HAS MODELED THEM SEVERAL TIMES PRIOR TO EXPLICIT TEACHING. Ok, sorry. I almost want to write it again in a bigger font because this is so important. A lot of times modeling is missing from teaching… ok just… I can’t help myself.


Alright, not sorry. We’ll talk about this a lot. My very first literacy coach said over and over “If you aren’t modeling, then you aren’t teaching.” So true. Anyways, back to explicit teaching. The concepts, skills or strategies you’re teaching aren’t new. The student has seen them before. They might have even begun to dabble in the work needed to take them on.

As students almost have these skills under control, your role as the teacher shifts from explicit teaching to prompting. For more information on prompting, PLEASE read this post about how we phrase our prompts.  Here the skills and strategies we’re teaching should be almost under control. Maybe there are still some lapses from time to time but they are mostly under control with some corrections.

Finally, the skills and strategies transfer from the ZPD to the known. The role of a teacher shifts to reinforcement instead of prompting. Soon these skills become natural and students no longer even have to focus on them, they are just innate.

What’s Next?

First of all, tonight’s post was a lot of information. A lot of heavy-duty information. I would bookmark this post and come back to it from time to time throughout the series. I know that you are still just building your knowledge upon a limited understanding of the framework. Don’t worry, we’ll get there.

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 readers and writers workshop. The main focus will be the workshop format and what you need to have in place before beginning.

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.