Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

Arts Integration
Arts Integration

The Mini-Lesson: A Natural Scaffold for Struggling Learners

For many of our students, climbing the various learning ladders we construct for them in our classrooms on a daily basis is daunting. Some stand at the base of the ladder with sweaty palms and can't bring themselves to even to climb the first rung. Others are like me on a real ladder. They climb halfway up, look down to where they've come from, and are seized with a sudden terror of heights. 

Mini-lesson structure is a powerful tool to combat those fears. 

Now, I'm not talking about centers, guided groups, strategy groups, center schedules and rotations. Hear me out. I'm talking about the first pedagogical practice in any workshop: The mini-lesson.

A mini-lesson should not last longer than 15 minutes. If you're using a mentor text (reader's or writer's workshop), the reading aloud of that text is not part of the 15 minutes. Save that for another time. 

I choose a passage or section that serves the purpose of my teaching point. The teaching point. Notice how there's no "s" at the end of that sentence? Focus your lesson on one teaching point. 

Tell your students about the teaching point. They aren't in a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery, so they shouldn't have to be learning detectives. Write an "I can" statement in kid language. Don't copy it right out of Common Core. Common Core language is meant for teachers, not students. If you use Common Core language, you've already crippled your students. Be transparent. 

Here's an example of a teaching point and "I can" statement that I shared with my students just this past week:

Teaching Point- Readers synthesize new information with information that they already know. This changes their thinking.

I can notice new learning and think about how it changes my thinking or connects to what I already know.

The connection is the hook. Educational and brain researchers say that we learn only when we can connect the new content to our experiences. That's why building schema is so important for our students. 

In the connection part of the mini-lesson, you hook your students with a story, a video, a song, a passage read aloud, a joke...anything that engages them and makes relevant what they are about to learn.

For example, in my synthesis lesson this week, I showed my students a clip of the Swedish Chef from the Muppets. We talked about how a chef has separate ingredients (separate pieces of learning), and that when they're combined, they make something entirely new and different. That's what happens to our minds when we learn new information and think about how it connects to our previous ideas. Hopefully though, we're more organized than the Swedish Chef! 🤣

This is the meat and potatoes of the mini-lesson. In this part, you directly model the strategy you want your students to learn. 

In my synthesis lesson, I read a passage from the informational book on Native Americans I'm sharing with them. I chose this book because the text is suited for my informational text unit, and because I wanted to support our current social studies unit. It was an intentional choice. That's important. Mentor texts should be intentional. 

After I read the passage, I did a think aloud. 

"I noticed that their marriage ceremonies were different from what we usually see today. I think, though, that they show that marriage was still important in their cultures because they held ceremonies. We hold ceremonies, too."

Then, I did it again. 

"I noticed that they have ceremonies for when children grow into their teenage years. I think that's like a Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah, a Quinceanera,  or a religious ceremony in churches, like Confirmation. I think our cultures have similarities."

I asked my students what I did with both of my responses. They identified the "I noticed... and I think..." response stems.

Active engagement is my favorite part of the mini-lesson, because it really supports students. Think of it like guided practice. Before your send your students off to practice the new skill you've taught them, they practice it right in front of you.

In my synthesis lesson, my kids brought their independent reading non-fiction texts to the carpet. They turned to a passage in their books that they had already read. They reread it. They thought to themselves, "I noticed...I think..." 

Then, they turned to their talk partner and shared their responses. I was able to eavesdrop. I could tell immediately who got it and who didn't. Because of this, I was able to reteach, and we could openly discuss our errors in understanding. 

Imagine what it would've been like if I had sent them off to practice on their own with out practicing with a partner and me beforehand?  I know what it would've been like...A HOT MESS.  I've experienced it before. 

Think of the link as independent practice time. Before I send my students off to try the new skill on their own, I ask them about their "Be Sure To's." A "Be Sure To" is when a child identifies the errors in their understanding or the place in the strategy where he or she can see themselves falling off the learning ladder, and they write a reminder to themselves in their notebooks or on a post-it. For example, "Be sure to remember that thinking 'this info is cool' is not the type of thinking that I'm trying out."

I ask my students to rate their level of understanding. If they give themselves a 1 or a 2, I send them on their way. If they give themselves a 3 (a "whatchu talkin' bout' Willis?) rating, they stay with me, and I help them a bit more. Then they go off to try on their own. 

In my synthesis lesson, students returned to their seats to practice "I noticed... I think..." using their non-fiction books and post-its. I began to pull reading groups. If I still had students who couldn't do the strategy, I checked for understanding and retaught in my guided reading and strategy groups. 

The share is often overlooked, because it happens long after the mini-lesson is done. Here's a "Be Sure To" for you: Be sure to remember the share at the end of your workshop block. It's powerful, and it holds learners accountable. 

At the end of my workshop block, I call students back to the carpet for two minutes. We discuss how the strategy went. We tune up our understanding. We discuss our thinking. It gives me an opportunity to remind students of the learning goal. 

In my synthesis lesson this week, I tacked on an additional piece for my students to try. It was a sneak peek into what is coming next. I changed our response stems to this: 

I noticed...
I think...
At first I thought... now I think...

One Last Tip

As with any new pedagogical approach, you've got to practice.  As a literacy coach, I worked with many teachers who wanted to focus on developing their mini-lesson scaffolding. The strategy that worked the best for them was to use a mini-lesson planning sheet for 10 days. They chose a subject, wrote out their lessons for 10 days using the planning sheet. It seems laborious. However, at the end of the 10 days, every teacher reported that their teaching improved, and that they were not having to do as much reteaching of concepts. Why? Mini-lesson structure increases the opportunities for authentic formative assessment. 

Think of it like this. Would you rather go to the doctor with an illness or see the undertaker at your autopsy? I don't know about you, but I loathe learning autopsies that could've been avoided had I known there was a learning illness.

To hear more about mini-lesson structure, consider joining Michelle Williams and me tonight in the Teaching Tips for Struggling Learners Facebook group at 8:00 p.m. EST. 

You can grab the mini-lesson planning sheet below. Just click on the picture. It's free!

PSSSSST! By subscribing to my blog, you're guaranteed a monthly freebie! You don't want to miss this month's REALLY don't. Subscribe today for January's freebie in your email box this week. 

This month, I've teamed up with some fabulous educators. It's Teacher Talk time! Snuggle up with some hot cocoa and start reading. 


  1. You are such a creative teacher, you must be the teacher that all the students want to have. I so love your ideas and your writing just draws me in.

  2. I love your description of how to create great minilessons. Thank you for posting this.

  3. This approach makes a lot of sense. Thanks, you taught me something new!

  4. I love this! Mini-lessons are how I start off reader's & writer's workshop (although truthfully, I have set a timer to keep within time constraints!) I wish we taught together; I love how you view children & their learning!

  5. Wow! This post is a great resource for all teachers, new and experienced alike. Your approach to teaching synthesis is clear and the Swedish chef is brilliant!