Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

Arts Integration
Arts Integration

The Building Blocks: Reader's Workshop 101

Teach the reader, not the book.
                                                                                       -Wild Child 

I was one of the lucky ones. I didn't struggle in reading class. I was in the "bluebird group." The worst reading experience I had was when the volunteer librarian wouldn't let me check out Nancy Drew chapter books when I was in second grade. My teacher mom marched herself into school, in her best teacher pantsuit, to talk to the librarian. The next week, I immersed myself in Nancy, Beth and George's detective antics. I was lucky. Reading wasn't an opaque wilderness.

As a teacher, I was lucky, too.  I learned about the workshop model very early in my career. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time at the University of Arizona. I finished my master's degree within the Language, Reading and Culture department. The entire program was workshop-based. I had died and gone to heaven. 

Why is the workshop model heaven? Let me count the ways...

  1. It allows the teacher to differentiate for each student.
  2. Student choice is honored and welcomed.
  3. It teaches the reader and not the book.
  4. It's strategy-based.
  5. It makes the reading process transparent for students.
Like all great teaching methods, it's not without its challenges, but it's worth doing. If you weren't exposed to the reader's workshop model early on, it can feel really overwhelming. But listen, I didn't say that I had all the blocks in place at the very beginning. No way! Like any rigorous and student-centered method, implementation takes time. Teaching is an art form that develops with practice. So what is reader's workshop?

The reader's workshop consists of 5 parts: An interactive read aloud, a mini-lesson, independent reading with conferring and small group instruction, a mid-workshop teaching point, and finally the share. 

Juggling these parts at first can make a teacher crazy. I like to think about it like marathon training. When I decided to train for a marathon (26.2 miles), I didn't walk out my front door and go for a 20 mile run. I began with a 3 miler, and then upped the distance gradually. That's how you start implementing reader's workshop... you gradually master the components. 


In reader's workshop, you begin your block of time by sharing a read aloud. This is not just a book you liked in the Scholastic book order. Read aloud texts act as mentor texts. That means, they serve an instructional purpose. What you choose to read is determined by what your students need, and what you need to teach them. You're using the text to explicitly teach reading strategies. 

During this part of the workshop, you read your mentor text aloud to students, stopping to discuss and model your comprehension thinking out loud. You might ask students to share their thinking. This is not a passive-I'm-gonna-read-this-book-after-lunch-to-calm-them-down reading. Students should be actively engaged. Sometimes, they doodle, draw or record their thinking in their reader's journals. Other times, I've asked them to listen for something, or I've reviewed our thinking from the previous session and by doing so, I've given them a purpose for listening. 

I have the ONE COPY of the book. This is not a whole-class read.  I typically write our thinking on chart paper. This serves as a record from chapter to chapter. 


After the interactive read aloud is done, the mini-lesson is next. The purpose of the mini-lesson is to teach one reading strategy to the whole group. During the mini-lesson, you introduce one teaching point, you will probably use excerpts from the interactive read aloud to help you do so. You model the strategy for students. 

Then, you have them practice with you or a partner. This is called guided practice. Finally, they try it on their own. Before sending students off to read independently, remind them of what the teaching point was, and that you expect them to try it while they read. Sometimes, you might ask for them to provide evidence of this by way of an entry in their reader's notebooks or on a sticky note that they'll share later. 

Remember, it's a MINI-lesson. It's 15 minutes long. That's it.


During independent reading, students read to themselves. As an upper elementary teacher, I don't do a lot of center work during this time. There are two reasons why: 
  1. Upper elementary students need to develop reading least 50 minutes at the fifth grade level, 40 minutes for 4th grade, and 30 minutes for 3rd grade. This is research-based! Look up any reading guru. He or she will tell you. Honest.
  2. Sometimes, center work is often "busy work." Teachers are afraid their students won't read for the expected duration. Stamina and refocusing strategies must be taught. Why waste valuable reading time with busy work tasks? The way students become readers is by READING!
During the independent reading time, I'm not eating bon-bons. I'm teaching.

I teach guided reading or strategy groups at this time. These are small-instruction groups that I've formed to support learners who are either reading at a similar instructional reading level, or who are reading at different levels but have similar reading strategy needs. 

I form these groups using Fountas & Pinnell reading assessment data or NWEA data. They are not static. They change as my readers change and grow. This is a change from the "once a bluebird, always a bluebird" reading group mentality.  During small group instruction, we discuss vocabulary, word study, read short texts or portions of longer texts together, and tackle specific strategies they have shown that they need during assessments. 

Each group member has a copy of the text. I meet with about 3 reading groups a day. Every group doesn't meet every day. My high-need group will see me every day. My other groups will see me 2-4 times a week. Each reading group takes no longer than 15 minutes. I tend to be wordy, so I set a visual timer to keep me on track.

In between groups, I might touch base with a couple of students who are reading independently. I'll have a 5 minute reading conference where I'll check in with them and quickly discuss their thinking. These are called reading conferences. I jot down notes and move on. 

Is every child in a reading group? No. Instructional equity doesn't mean equality. My job as a reading teacher is to give each student what he or she needs. My level Z 5th grade reader doesn't need a reading group. That would just slow her down, so I confer with her instead...or she might engage in a student-formed literature circle or reading partnership. 

At some point, I stand in the middle of the room or back in the instructional area, and I check in with my readers. It might look like this, "Readers, look this way. What details are you noticing that your author used to show the character's internal actions?" Students respond. Sometimes, if I know it's going well with the mini-lesson teaching point, I might add more rigor to it during this check-in. 

That might sound like this, "Readers, we've been practicing noticing when the author uses specific details to show the character's internal action, but now I'm wondering if you agree with the choices the author has made. From now until the end of our workshop time, find a few minutes and use a sticky to jot your thinking down about the choices the author has made. Be ready to share!"

This part lasts no longer than 5 minutes, and it's often shorter than that!

The last thing I do during the independent block is to facilitate a share. The temptation to leave this out is sometimes overwhelming. In fact, it's still the part I haven't mastered to my liking. I call my reader's together in the instructional area again, I reiterate the teaching point, and I ask students to share what they learned while practicing it during independent reading. Sometimes, they just raise their hands and share aloud, and other times, we pair-share and I eavesdrop while they talk with their partners. If we've used sticky notes, they put these up on chart paper that I've prepared, and we go over them together. This takes about 5 minutes.

That's a 90 minute reader's workshop block, in a nutshell. When I began teaching with the workshop approach, I focused my efforts on the interactive read aloud and reading groups. Later, when I felt like I had some teaching fluency with those, I turned my attention to my mini-lessons. This was hard. I had to edit myself because my mini-lessons were actually maxi-lessons. I worked with a literacy coach for a while. This helped me tremendously. 

Then, I tackled the mid-workshop teaching point. It wasn't until I became a literacy coach myself, that I realized that I needed to work on the Share component of my workshop. 

My point is that as teachers, we are always learning. It's the very nature of our jobs. So if you're always learning, why not try an approach that is student-centered, makes reading strategies transparent for readers, and turns non-readers into readers? 

If you're interested in more detailed information about reader's workshop, follow this blog! Over the next two months, I'll be writing about each of the 5 workshop parts in more detail.

In the meantime,  check out the reader's workshop planning pages below. They'll make your start up easier! 

Pssssst! In case you haven't heard, you can chat with me about reader's workshop on FaceBook! Visit at

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