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!