5 Ways Workshop is Different Than Traditional Literacy Teaching

This post is part of the Workshop 101 series, designed to teach the nuts and bolts of Reading and Writing Workshop. You can view the entire series here.

When you walk into a Workshop classroom, it’s fairly obvious that things are done quite differently than the traditional literacy education that most of us grew up with. Here are five major differences between workshop teaching and traditional ELA instruction:

1. The teacher spends a minimal amount of time addressing the whole group.

A workshop lesson begins with a portion called the “minilesson,” where the students are gathered as a whole group and the teacher presents a strategy that the students might try that day. Within the minilesson, the teacher begins by activating the students’ prior knowledge, then  delivers a succinct teaching point for the day’s strategy (“Today I want to teach you…”). Next, the teacher demonstrates using the strategy as the students observe, and then the students try it themselves. The teacher finishes the lesson by reminding the students of the teaching point. The important (and somewhat awe-inspiring) thing about the minilesson is that it really is mini! It only takes ten minutes to deliver from beginning to end. There are two main reasons for this: first, because the students don’t have the attention span to sustain focus in a whole group for longer than ten minutes; and second, because Workshop teaching is about giving the students as much time as possible to engage in authentic, meaningful reading and writing work. The longer a teacher lectures, the fewer precious minutes the students will have to flex their literacy muscles.

2. There are no textbooks or worksheets.

While traditional literacy education relies on basal readers and workbooks, Workshop teaching  eschews these in favor of high-quality, high-interest texts. Basal readers rely on a one-size-fits-all mentality, where every reader in a grade is presented with the same text at the same time. In reality, all students are different, and a textbook can never meet their individual needs. For some students, the basal story will be much too hard, for others, much too easy, and for most, of little interest. The workshop approach puts within-reach books of a student’s choice in her hands, and asks that student to apply the strategies learned in the minilesson to whichever text she is reading. Similarly, students in Writing Workshop do not practice “language arts” by filling in worksheets, but by interacting with their own writing. As a teacher I know once said: you don’t learn to ride a bike by reading a textbook. You learn by getting on the bike and pushing the pedals. The same is true of reading and writing in the Workshop classroom.

3. There are no whole-class novel studies.

For reasons nearly identical to #2, you will not find a whole-class novel study in a Workshop classroom. This can be a difficult adjustment for teachers who have spent their careers honing finely crafted units around classics like Number the Stars or To Kill a Mockingbird, complete with vocabulary packets and culminating projects. However, it does a disservice to students to require them to read and think in unison when no single book can meet each child’s instructional needs, no matter how beloved. The good news is that these classic and much-loved texts don’t have to be completely thrown out the window. The backbone of workshop minilesson comes from analyzing a mentor text, which is read aloud to the class. For example, a Reading Workshop unit that centers around historical fiction might feature Bud, Not Buddy as a read aloud. During the read aloud portion of the day, the teacher reads the book aloud, thinks aloud about the text, and has short discussions with the class. The students then dip back into the text during minilessons to practice new strategies. In this way, workshop teaching still supports a shared experience of quality literature.

4. Students are given the power of choice.

As I stated above, one of the biggest differences between workshop teaching and traditional literacy instruction is that students are not assigned to read certain books or passages, and they are not required to write based on specific prompts. Choice is a cornerstone of the Workshop classroom, and research has shown again and again that the ability to choose books and writing topics is vital to student achievement. In Reading Workshop, students are taught explicit strategies for selecting reading material that is not too easy and not too hard, but “just right.” At times the students will be guided to choose texts within a certain genre (say, during a unit on historical fiction or fantasy) so that they may more easily apply the minilesson strategies to their reading, but within that genre the students are still permitted to choose which books to read. In Writing Workshop, students are not given specific writing prompts (“Write a paragraph about what you want for Christmas”), but are guided to write a piece within a certain genre (“Write a personal narrative” or “Write a literary essay”). Students have free reign over their writing topic within the genre. So if a class is studying personal narrative writing, one student might write about the time she got her puppy, and another student might write about attending his grandfather’s funeral. Allowing students choice in the work says, “Yes, you are a reader. Yes, you are a writer. Your interests are valued. Your stories have merit.”

5. Workshop teaching is not assignment-based.

I saved the biggest (and most challenging) difference for last: unlike traditional literacy instruction, workshop teaching is not assignment-based. This idea tends to be one of the most difficult adjustments to Workshop teaching, but it is also incredibly important. Traditional literacy instruction tends to be based on assignments given by the teacher, and mastery of those assignments. For example, a teacher in a traditional classroom might teach students what a theme is, and then assign students to determine the theme of Bridge to Terabithia. All students are then assessed on their ability to determine a theme. If a satisfactory percentage of students have not mastered “theme,” then the teacher will reteach until the class reaches mastery. This is very different from the Workshop approach. In Workshop teaching, the students are seen as being on a continuum of literacy learning, which is made up of a complex number of individual skills that a reader accesses simultaneously in order to read and write. While it’s true that a teacher delivers a teaching point each day for a specific strategy, the teacher is NOT assigning all students to go off and practice that specific strategy. Some students may practice determining theme in their independent work, but others will be working on different skills and strategies. Some students may working on word solving. Others may be seeking symbols in their texts, or noticing character change, or making predictions. Workshop encourages students to be critical self-assessors, and to self-select which strategies to practice each day.

As you can see, workshop teaching is quite different from traditional approaches to literacy instruction! The bottom line is that Workshop is founded on the principles of meeting students’ individual needs, allowing students choice, and giving students extended amounts of time to practice authentic reading and writing.

Have questions about Workshop? Write a comment below!

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  1. I absolutely love your post! I currently teach writers workshop using Licy Caulkins resroicrs but am beginning to implement reader’s workshop next year. I was wondering how you ensure each student masters a certain skill or standard if they are never given an assignment? What options do I have?

    1. Hi, Taylor! Great question. While students are independently reading and writing, the teacher is busily assessing and responding to students through individual conferences and small group work. I think of this time as the “heart” of the workshop. It’s when the teacher is doing the hardest-hitting work of meeting students’ individual needs. During this time, the teacher is on the look-out for student mastery and documents it. Evidence of mastery might come from conversations with the student, their writing in their notebook, jots on post-its, performance assessments, and a whole plethora of other sources. Absolutely the teach will have his/her grade level standards in mind when gathering evidence of mastery, and whichever unit I’m teaching at the time tends to guide which standards I’m looking to assess. For example, during a Reading Workshop unit on non-fiction reading, I will be gathering evidence of student mastery of our information reading standards.

      The most important thing to note is that a teacher is not looking for every student in the class to master a standard on the same day, and then delaying further instruction until that standard is mastered. That tends to be the mindset of traditional lit instruction. Workshop has a more spiral mentality, where students are continually taught new strategies to approach the same standard. We eventually do want our students to reach the grade level standards, but it’s okay if it takes time for students to marinate and practice before it clicks!

      I’ll be writing a blog post specifically on this topic soon, so be on the look-out! Thanks again for your question!

  2. I am so glad that you are blogging about this! I am this next year going rogue…I teach 4th grade Writing, Reading, and Social Studies. I have struggled the last couple of years trying to conform to the basal… teaching and learning wasn’t fun. My only concern and I have seen it come up a ton on Instagram and Facebook is how to grade. My districts report card has gone back to percentages. We as teachers are required to have 2 grades per subject per week. I am looking for ways to get those required grades! I know next year is going to have growing pains and am okay with that because I am excited to teach again

    1. Hi, Annie! I am so excited for you! I began my workshop journey by “going rogue” in 4th grade, too! Your students’ engagement and work are going to knock the socks off anyone who sees it, so get ready for your colleagues to become very interested in workshop teaching, too!

      Grading can certainly be a challenge when using a workshop model, especially if your district is still using percentages and letter grades (like mine). I know tons of teachers who have all gone about grading in slightly different ways. Personally, I identify priority standards that I want to assess for the unit, and then gather evidence of mastery for those standards from sources like anecdotal records from conversations with the student, their writing in their notebook, jots on post-its, performance assessments, running records, and lots of other places.

      I plan to do a blog post devoted to grading systems in the workshop classroom, so be on the look-out for that! Thanks for your comment and best of luck next year!

      1. Thank you, Annie for asking this question and thank you, Megan for your reply. This was exactly my concern as I am just diving into the workshop model next year in 5th grade. I did workshop when I taught first, but we were on a standards based report card, so grades were not an issue. I look forward to reading your post about grading soon! Thanks!!

  3. I am a first-year teacher in the Fall and love the workshop model and would love to use it as the basis of my literature lessons as possible. I have a few questions:
    1. Is there an “easy” way or go-to way to break down the standards into necessary mini-lessons for a grade level?
    2. (Whether better or worse) we are a nation obsessed with assessments and data. How do you best “prove” students are mastering the standards, particularly in reading?
    3. Other resources for getting started without a workshop-style curriculum? I want to buy my own grade level of Lucy, but I obviously can’t do that quite yet.
    4. (Sorry last one) How do you go about word study, vocabulary, spelling, etc.?

    Thank you so much! As I am going into my first year, I want to adapt as much of a workshop-style curriculum as I will be allowed by my administration but am trying to anticipate some of the questions I will be asked and get that feedback from others.

    1. Hi, Bailey! I’m going to try to keep my answers to your awesome questions short and sweet!

      1. Your minilessons will be used to teach strategies. Think of standards as the goalpost and strategies as the different ways your students can reach the goalpost. So in a unit, you will want to identify which standards you want to help your kids reach, but what you’re teaching in the minilesson is different strategies to master the standards. A day’s teaching point might sound something like this: “Today I want to teach you that strong readers don’t let tricky words trip them up. One strategy readers use to figure out tricky words is to first read around the word, and then read inside the word to figure out its meaning.” In that example, the standard I want my student to master is foundational phonics and word recognition, and I’m teaching them one possible strategy to work on that standard. I hope that makes sense!

      2. I want to direct you to the reply I made to Taylor’s comment above. I’ll be making a post solely on this topic soon.

      3. I highly encourage you to get your hands on the Units of Study, but I understand that purchasing it out of your own pocket is a huge investment. Maybe consider creating a DonorsChoose project for it? I spent my first year trying to design and implement my own workshop units from scratch, and while it is 100% possible, getting the Units of Study made a world of difference for me as a teacher! That being said, if you want to forge ahead independently, I recommend getting The Reading Strategies Book and The Writing Strategies Book from Jennifer Serravallo to help design your minilessons and aid you in conferring. I would also recommend purchased The Guide to the Reading Workshop and the Guide to the Writing Workshop, which are now available to purchase as stand-alone texts, and are hugely informative.

      4. Word Study takes place at a time outside of the Workshop. Different teachers use different word study programs/approaches, depending on what works for them and what their district may have adopted. I currently use Words Their Way. I will be making a blog post about word study in the future!

      Thanks again for your questions! Best of luck to you on your workshop journey!

  4. Hi! I love your posts! I am in my 5th year of workshop and still learning so much! Two quick questions for you:)

    1. With your groups, are you running strategy groups? Or are you using more of a guided reading approach?

    2. Are students or you documenting/posting what strategy they are working on in anyway?

    1. Hi, Emily! There is no “right way” to do your questions. Different teachers do it different ways, so I’ll respond with what I do personally.

      1. My school has time set aside for Guided Reading separate from Reading Workshop. During my students’ independent work time, I mostly do one-on-one conferences, and will also pull a quick small group together if I see multiple students with the same need. The frequency at which I meet with students depends on their level of need.

      2. No, my students don’t have a visible sign of what strategy they’re working on. They are able to tell me during a conference what their reading goals are and which strategies they are trying out to reach their goal. They also discuss their reading work with other students and sometimes write about it in their notebooks. I’ve seen other teachers use items like bookmarks that show which goals/strategies the students are using.

  5. Hi there! I have always used the balanced literacy/workshop model of teaching, but struggled this last year to implement it when I went from having two classes of 25 students to 3 classes, thus a shorter amount of time to teach reading, writing and grammar and still be able to get the required number of grades for each subject. I end up with only about an hour and 15 mins or so of teaching time with each class, and often that chunk is interrupted by lunch, recess, PE, etc. Any guidance or tips would be appreciated!!!

    1. Hi, Christina! Thanks for your comment. May I ask first what grade level you teach? That will help me hone my answer. 🙂

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