According to Serafini (2001), the reading workshop is a “single block of time dedicated to the exploration of literature and the development of children’s reading processes” (p. 4). Although several authors have advanced their own version of the reading workshop (Atwell 1987/1998; Calkins; 2001; Keene & Zimmermann, 1997; Rief, 1992; Serafini, 2001), there are several components that are common: read aloud, mini-lesson, workshop time, and sharing time. Each component will be discussed further.
Many authors advocate for reading aloud to students, even at the secondary level. One of the most well-known advocates has been Jim Trelease with his The Read-Aloud Handbook published in 1982. As a general practice in any literacy classroom, it has been supported by research to build success in reading (Allen, 2000; Anderson, Hiebert, Scott & Wilkinson, 1985; Harvey & Goudvis, 2005), Atwell observed, “Everyone is enthralled by a good read-aloud. Hearing language brings it to life and fills the classroom with an author's language. The teachers' voice become a bridge for kids, taking them into territories they might never have explored” (1998, p. 144). Besides bring the words to life, a good read aloud will provide a model of fluent reading, a shared reading experience and text, an opportunity to model literate thinking, and build background knowledge (Allen, 2000; Atwell, 1998; Beers & Samuels, 1998; Combs, 1996; Rief, 1992). Although referring to read alouds between parents and their children, the findings from Becoming a Nation of Readers (Anderson et al, 1985) state, “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children (p. 23)” and “It is a practice that should continue throughout the grades” (p. 51). Since that report was published, research continues to show that effective read alouds promote vocabulary acquisition and comprehension skills (Beck & McKeown, 2001; Brabham & Lynch-Brown, 2002).
A mini-lesson is a short (5-10 minutes), focused lesson on a skill, strategy, or routine that will help students become better readers and work within the format of a workshop that will be immediately applicable to the students' individual work (Angelillo, 2008; Calkins, & Tolan, 2010; Combs, 1996). Calkins stated that “minilessons are the best forum teachers have for pulling the classroom community together to take on a problem” (2001, p. 82). The topic for mini-lessons could be a routine for the workshop such as how to select a book, or a specific skill or strategy in reading such as figuring out a work from context or how to visualize a scene. Generally, in the beginning of the year, the topics of the mini-lessons focus on structures and routines of the workshop. As students settle into the structure, the mini-lesson topics tend to become more responsive to the specific needs of the group of students.
Many authors and teachers (Angelillo, 2008; Atwell, 1987; Calkins, 1986; Orehovec & Alley, 2003) have written about the components of a mini-lesson, but they tend to have a similar structure. In synthesizing the a fore mentioned authors, the typical mini-lesson would include most of the following components:
- Invitation - The teacher draws the students together to focus introduce the topic or concept.
- Connection – The teacher locates the topic within the group's current work through reviewing previous lessons and setting a purpose for learning the topic of concept.
- Teaching – The teacher demonstrates the routine, skill or strategy through the use of a think aloud while reading or modeling the skill or strategy through the teacher's own reading and response.
- Practice – The students practices the routine, skill or strategy, through active involvement, often with a partner, as the teacher assesses for understanding.
- Revisit – The teacher reinforces or reteaches the concept through sharing of what student practiced or what the teacher observed.
- Charge to the class – The teacher reminds students what they should be doing during workshop time and links the mini-lesson concept to their own work.
Once the mini-lesson is completed, the students are sent off to work independently. When Atwell (1987) originally wrote about the mini-lesson, she emphasized the brevity of the mini-lesson, 10-15 minutes. However, since that time, she has revised her opinion on the length of the mini-lesson. After having relied on individual conferences to move students forward in their thinking and reading, Atwell (1998) realized that through thoughtful, interactive mini-lessons, students would be able to share their thinking and work and expand their perspectives. She felt that the extra time needed to provide students with opportunities to talk and share during the mini-lesson was worth an additional ten minutes - it reduced the pressure she felt to confer with every student, every day during workshop time. Robb agreed, referring to the the mini-lessons she models in her book Teaching Reading in the Middle School, “Many of the mini-lessons, which I call Strategy Lessons . . . will last 15-25 minutes, especially when you reserve time for students' questions and exchange of ideas” (2000, p. 67). Whether the mini-lesson is five minutes, or twenty five, the point is to allow students the opportunity to see and experience the concept in practice, before applying it to their independent work – which should happen within the same class period.
The topics of the mini-lessons can focus on a variety of issues. Although there are numerous texts giving suggestions for mini-lessons, Calkins states, “the minilesson is not a free-standing structure. Instead, the topic of the minilesson weaves its way into much of the community's reading work” (2001, p. 83). Atwell organized the topics she uses into four broad categories: procedural aspects of the workshop, the crafting of literature, the conventions of language, and strategies of good readers. According to Reutzel & Cooter (1991) mini-lesson topics can be drawn from the needs of the students found during individual conferences, teacher-selected skills taken from the mandated curriculum or preparation for new books or genres.
The largest block of time in the reading workshop is devoted to students' independent reading. During this time, students read authentic literature of their own choice and may respond to their reading in a variety of methods such as reading response logs or placing sticky notes in the book. In addition, during workshop time, the teacher can conference with students individually or pull small groups together to work on specific skills or strategies the group needs.
Independent, student-selected reading is a fundamental of the workshop approach, which contrasts sharply with the traditional whole-class model of reading. According to Anderson et al. “independent reading, whether in school or out of school, is associated with gains in reading achievement” (1985, p. 119). In addition, student self-selection of texts promotes positive attitudes toward reading and motivation to read (Palmer, Codling & Gambrell, 1994;Wood & Jones, 1997; Worthy,1998). According to Atwell, "If we want our adolescent students to grow to appreciate literature, another first step is allowing them to exert ownership and choose the literature they will read" (1987, p. 161). Some teachers may ask students to respond to their independent reading through reading logs, a daily reading record, or independent projects.
Small groups, in the reading workshop, can be flexible in both purpose, length and structure. Groups of students may be brought together to work on skills together. In the elementary years, this small group work may resemble Guided Reading (Fountas & Pinnell, 1991) though Calkins (2010) recommends developing “a more expensive repertoire of ways of working with small groups” (p. 73) because, according to Calkins “the whole point is to be personal, to be intimate, and to be responsive” (p. 72). In many ways, the small group instruction preparation and structure resembles the mini-lesson, just with a targeted, small group of students. The teacher begins with a topic of instruction, provides a model and time for practice, revisits the topic and sends the students off to work independently (Calkins, 2010). Literature discussion groups may also be scheduled during workshop time to give students the opportunity to respond to their reading with others. There are various formats for discussions such as Grand Conversations (Eeds & Well, 1989), Book Clubs (Raphael & McMahon, 1994), and Literature Circles (Daniels, 1994) which all model how to have conversations about books.
Individualized feedback is the keystone of conferencing with students during their workshop time (Allen, 2009). In Atwell's (1987) workshop, much of the individual feedback occurs through reading response letters exchanged between the teacher and student. Acknowledging the tremendous paper load this created, she has also supported exchanging response letters between students, under her supervision (1998), and more recently, she has incorporated reading conferences rooted in her experiences with writing conferences (2007). This bears out Allen's (2009) observation that “teachers were talking to children about their writing, but not always taking the time to have the short, meaningful types of reading conferences” which he feels is “one of the most important and beneficial instructional moves I make with my students” (p. 8). He goes on to elaborate the multiple purposes for his conferences with students which include getting to know them as readers, strategy instruction, building rapport, assessment of student strategy use, goal setting, highlighting progress, and challenging students to move forward in their reading. In an individual conference, Calkins (2010) believes the teacher should act as a coach, drawing on the assessment of the student in previous conferences and small groups, recognition of the demands of the particular genre and level of text, and an understanding of the student as a person and a reader.
Having a predictable structure to the conference can help the conference be more effective, efficient and enjoyable (Allen, 2009; Calkins, 2001; Miller, 2005). RIP is the memorable acronym Allen (2009) suggests which stands for: R – review, read aloud, record; I – instruction, insights, intrigue; P – plan, progress, purpose. Research-Decide-Teach is Calkins (2010) architecture for a conference which includes researching the child's needs before the conference, deciding on a helpful lesson for the child, build on the child's strengths and teaching the child something new. Whatever the structure of the conference, “your primary purpose is to listen to what students can teach you about the way they think and make meaning. You may focus the talk or probe for more information, but you cannot learn from them unless you listen” (Combs, 1996, p. 42).
Quite often the reading workshop time will end with a sharing time in which students can share what they accomplished and learned. Building on Vygotsky's notion of social development, “Share time provides a social context for students to share their work with their teachers and peers” (Dorn & Soffos, 2005, p. 67). In addition, this is an opportunity for the teacher to revisit the mini-lesson concept and assess students' understanding and application (Calkins, 2010). By setting a purpose during the mini-lesson such as “Bring an example of … to share time”, students who need more direction will have a focus during independent reading (Orehovec & Alley, 2003). It may also be an opportunity for small groups to present projects on their book club books or individual students to give book talks about completed reading.