This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: Jen Bengel explains the workshop model, how to create mini-lessons, and how to get students excited about books.
My guest today is my good friend Jen Bengel, the owner and creator of Out of This World Literacy™. She spent 10 years in public schools as an elementary teacher and a literacy coach and has spent the last 7 years as a full-time curriculum developer and professional developer.
Jen knows her stuff when it comes to the workshop model: She trained under Irene Fountas at Lesley University and specializes in creating literacy curriculum and provides online professional development for teachers.
So in this episode, we’re talking about the workshop model. It has four basic parts: an opening, mini-lesson, work time, and debriefing. You can use the workshop model with ANY age of students and ANY subject area.
Jen’s going to do a deep dive into an ELA or reading workshop model. This is most commonly done in grades 1-5 but kindergarten can also follow the model and it works well at the secondary level. A lot of what we discuss should be helpful no matter what subject you’re using it for, like: how to keep a mini-lesson mini, what are the other kids doing while you’re conferencing with students or teaching small groups, how to assess and take grades on what students are doing during the workshop model, and so on.
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ANGELA: Can you share what’s involved with the workshop model so we’re all on the same page with terminology?
JEN: This teaching style is near and dear to my heart because it’s been a strategy I’ve used for years as a classroom teacher, a literacy coach, and a professional developer. The four steps I use in a daily reading workshop are:
- A book talk, which only takes about one to two minutes.
- A mini-lesson, which is about 10 to 12 minutes.
- The independent work or reading time, which can include many different things. Oftentimes, there are small groups like guided reading or strategy groups happening. There might be some literature circles and I’m usually hosting reading conferences at that time, as well. It’s the biggest chunk of the time and usually lasts about 25 to 30 minutes.
- The share. This is about 5 to 10 minutes, and it’s absolutely critical for helping assess if the students were successful in trying out the reading skill taught in the mini-lesson and could apply it to their own reading during independent reading time. It’s also a great way to hold kids accountable for their new learning.
That sounds like a lot to fit into a 45 to 60-minute block. I’m sure you have experienced that time crunch before! That’s probably why one of the most common questions that I hear from teachers is about how we fit all of that in and how to stay on schedule. So I’m wondering if you can give us some of your best tips for making each of those steps of the workshop really valuable, even in those short periods of time that you outlined.
Yes, absolutely. The biggest thing that I always recommend for teachers is to take the time at the beginning of the year to do management lessons and create a set of routines and expectations. This will lead to smooth transitions between all four steps because students know the expectations and they’ve been given opportunities to practice. So don’t be too hard on yourself if things don’t run as smoothly as you’d like them to, especially at the beginning and if your kids have never done reading workshops before.
I always say teaching is a constant recalculation. It’s like a GPS machine. You can be okay with making adjustments. The more you practice the steps together, the smoother they’ll become and the easier it will be to fit everything actually in.
I think that one of the things that teachers sometimes get caught up in is they want to have the whole reading workshop ready to go by like the second week of school. And I’ve even heard of some principals who require that. I don’t know how that’s possible, Jen, because it took weeks for my class to really ease into that. I modeled and practiced every single step first before expecting the kids to go off and do it by themselves.
Absolutely, and that’s kind of the whole philosophy behind the reading workshop and every mini-lesson — you’re modeling before you’re asking the kids to try something independently. It kind of counteracts the purpose of a reading workshop.
I actually spend an entire month the first month of school setting up the reading workshop routines and expectations, and I’m also benchmarking my students then, too. I need to know where they’re at as readers to be able to work with them instructionally during independent time. I’m doing all of that during the first month of school.
So yes … teachers, if you’re trying to do all of this in one week and expect your routine to be mastered and ready to go at week two, it really is unrealistic, I think.
I’m glad you’re giving teachers permission to take their time with this and ease in. You’re going to get better results in the long run than if you try to jump right into it and then you’re going to spend the whole rest of the year trying to fix those routines that weren’t established.
Exactly. I want to talk really quickly about the book talk because we’re going to kind of break down the four steps in the reading workshop.
Book talks are like a commercial for books. They’re only one or two minutes and they’re a great way to get students excited about books that they may want to read independently. You can pull books from your classroom library or your school library. I usually look for books that I know my students would enjoy, but they don’t seem to know are even available to them.
I also make a separate bin in my library for my classroom library labeled Book Talk Bin, and after I finish sharing a book, I’ll put this book in the bin so students have easy access if they choose to read that book next.
The goal of a book talk is to quickly entice readers to try out books that they would never choose on their own or that they didn’t even know were an option. You’re basically telling a summary of the book and getting them excited to read more. It’s like a movie trailer for books.
What’s really fun is to have students do book talks for their classmates. I always required them to be finished with the book before signing up to host a book talk. I had a sign-up sheet where students could put their name and book title next to the date. If they signed up, it meant it was their turn to share a book they enjoyed with the other readers in the class.
Book talks are so powerful to get kids excited about books. I think they really like reading a book that they know either their teacher recommended or their classmate recommended because every book is more fun to read when someone else you like is also reading it.
Absolutely, and it really creates that sense of community of readers, too. I love it!
Another question that I hear a lot from teachers is about how to keep mini-lessons mini. How do you structure the material when you’re teaching it so that it doesn’t turn into a full half-hour lesson?
This is such a good question, and if you are a teacher who’s wondered this, you are so not alone. I lost count of how many times I went into a mini-lesson thinking I could finish it in 10 to 12 minutes and the next thing I knew, 20 minutes went by and I wasn’t even done. When I realized how long my mini-lessons were actually taking, I went out on a mission to find a way to keep them mini, so my students had more time to practice reading and writing independently each day.
I came up with six tips to eliminate all kinds of unnecessary time and also keep my mini-lessons super, super focused and intentional:
- Create a mini-lesson statement that has a narrow focus. Think about it. If your focus area is summarizing and you go straight into your mini-lesson with this focus, you’re going to be all over the place because summarizing is a giant comprehension skill. What are you going to focus on? Summarizing in sequence, writing the main idea, the details, adding opinions in summaries, knowing what should be included in and what should be left out? You see how quickly this big topic can become overwhelming and the complete opposite of a narrowed down or “mini”. So we must narrow our focus. Find just one angle that we want to focus on that day. Not only will this keep your mini-lesson mini, but it will also be much simpler for your students to understand and immediately apply that learning to their own independent time.
- Set up your anchor chart in advance. This will save you an easy five minutes in your mini-lesson. Students don’t need to see you writing the mini-lesson statement or the first example on the chart. Do this in advance and simply cover up the first example until you’re ready to begin modeling the skill.
- Have special bins for reading notebooks. It never failed that there was always the one or two students digging through their desk or out by their locker because they couldn’t find their notebook. Create a special place for the notebooks to be stored outside the workshop time, whether it’s in magazine files along the back wall of your classroom or in file slots along the counter. This way when it’s time to begin the workshop, students can quickly grab the materials they need. At the end of the workshop, they put them away and we never have to wait for students to find their notebooks again.
- Create your student questions in advance and write them down. Sometimes we can get distracted by teachable moments and lose the focus of our narrowed down mini-lesson statement. Not only can this confuse our readers, but it can also make the mini-lesson last too long. By having a specific question planned in advance, you can stay on topic and within your time frame.
- Have all your mentor texts readily available. A mentor text is any book or passage you’ve already read to the class that you plan to use as an example to teach the targeted reading skill. Mentor texts can be picture books, a section from a chapter book, a basal reader, a passage, really anything that the students have already heard or read themselves.
- Take the time for management and routine lessons at the beginning of the year. You’re going to hear me say this a few times — I can’t stress this enough. Practice your workshop routine until all the students understand the expectations. This will make the rest of the year run smoothly and reduce transition times.
I think one of the most powerful components of the workshop is conferencing with students individually. Can you tell us about what you actually do in a reading conference and the questions that you ask students?
Yes, and I absolutely love reading conferences. I’ve done them for years because they’re a great way to quickly check in on my readers, help them set goals, measure their progress, and hold them accountable. If you’ve ever had that student that’s been reading the same chapter book for three months and they’re never finishing or they’re constantly abandoning books, reading conferences are the perfect way to help those students.
I’ve actually created a guide to help me stay focused on the questions I’d like to ask them. I am including this in the free download where you can get this, but the form has space to take notes as students share their thinking, too. This is great for me to write down ideas that I may want to work on with my students in the future.
Basically, it’s a half sheet of paper and I write the title/genre of the book the student’s reading and then I just ask them a few questions. I say, “Why did you choose this book? Is it hard, easy or just right? How do you know?”
And I just write their responses down and then I say, “Tell me what the book is about so far,” and then they’ll tell me a little bit about what they’re reading and then I have them read just for one minute out loud to me, wherever they’re at and then I write down one strength I notice that they’re doing as a reader and something they’re struggling with.
After they’re finished reading, I’ll ask them, “Tell me what you just read.” So I’m asking them an open-ended question here because I want to find out what their thinking is. I’m not going to ask them a specific comprehension question; I want to see what they’re thinking immediately after reading.
And then after they tell me what they just read, I talk about something that was a strength that I noticed and something that they struggled with that we set a goal to do better as a reader on. And the accountability comes right here.
I’ll say, “How long do you think it will take you to finish this book?” And oftentimes, those kids who are reluctant readers will say, “Well, I don’t know.” And I’ll say, “Well, how many pages do you think you can read in a day?” And then maybe they’ll say five. We do a little math and we figure out how many days it will take if you read five pages a day to finish the book. Then we actually write that date down, and I have that on my teacher page so I know when that date comes, I’m going to go visit that student and find out how they’re doing.
I also then ask them, “What do you plan on reading next?” This really helps them anticipate and visualize what they’re going to read when they actually finish this book, so they have to have a plan for what they’re going to read next.
Conferences are not the time, though, for a complete lesson. Try not to spend more than five minutes with a reader or you’ll interrupt the student’s thinking of the text as a whole. The goal really is to get a snapshot into what the reader is thinking and oftentimes what they are not thinking.
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One of the biggest challenges with conferencing for most teachers is making time to meet with every student. How does that work?
One of the great things about reading conferences is that they can be done any time students are reading independently. It doesn’t necessarily need to be done during the reading workshop time. If you are in a self-contained classroom, for example, and students have 15 minutes at the beginning or at the end of the day for independent reading, you can conference with them at that time (during the independent time in the reading workshop is great, too).
What I often did was leave the small group guided reading or strategy group as they were working on a task and head over to conference with one or two students. I’d go to the student at his or her desk as to not interrupt their thinking and have an awkward transition. I actually used a mechanic’s chair I bought for $30 on Amazon, which I could wheel around the room with my clipboard. I didn’t interrupt any of the kids working, and it has a lip on the bottom to store any books I planned to use as mentor texts.
Since the conferences only take a few minutes, I can quickly check in with a few students. My goal was always to see three students a day. That way with a class of 30 students, I was conferencing with each student about every two weeks. This was so powerful for me because I knew every reader was reading, I could connect readers who shared the same interests, recommend books I knew they’d enjoy, and hold them accountable for completing their reading goals.
In the free download found at FreeFromJen.com, I’ve included my reading conference form that has all of my guiding questions along with scheduling and data collection pages too. These helped me stay super focused and organized. I kept a record of conferences and made a plan of when I would visit each student. Having that plan really kept me organized and kept me accountable.
So a lot of the conferencing is happening then when the rest of the class is doing independent reading, is that right?
That’s correct, yes.
What are some other things that kids might be working on while you’re conferencing or if you’re teaching a small group?
I think it can vary depending on the class, the grade level, the schedule, and the needs of the students. What I always tried to do was keep the focus on actual reading. All the research points to the idea that spending time reading books that the reader has chosen and enjoys is one of the greatest ways to become a stronger reader. So my students were either spending time reading books they chose to read independently, reading with a partner, listening to reading in an audio MP3 format, working in a literature circle talking about their reading, or writing about their reading.
If, for example, we had 25 minutes for our independent reading time, the students may spend 15 to 20 minutes of that time reading in some format, whether it’s individually with a partner or listening. Then in the last five minutes, they may stop and respond to their reading in a written format. They may complete a graphic organizer or a think mark or write a response in our reader’s notebook. These responses were a great way for me to monitor if students were able to apply this skill we worked on in the mini-lesson into their own independent reading practice.
For example, if the mini-lesson was “Readers identify the traits of the main character so they can make personal connections to that character,” they may be completing a T chart organizer that asked them to list the traits of the main character in the book they’re reading independently and then list some personal connections to that character.
Then during the share times, students would share their written responses with a partner. After one or two minutes, I’d call on a few students to share with the entire class. By having them share with a partner, everyone is actively involved and expected to participate. It’s not just those few kids who are always raising their hands. I also monitor how the partners are sharing and look for anyone who may need some reteaching support.
I love that, this idea of focusing more on the reading instead of activities about reading. That’s so much better for kids and it’s a lot less work for the teacher, too. You’re not constantly trying to create all of these different activities for kids to do. They’re actually getting time to engage with the text.
Absolutely, and it’s so powerful like this workshop format because in your mini-lesson, you’re teaching a grade-level appropriate standards-based skill, but then in the independent time, the kids are reading at their instructional levels and they’re applying that grade level skill to something they actually can read and understand, so it’s like differentiating inside of your standards whole group. It’s really powerful.
Any management tips to keep everyone else on task while you’re teaching a small group, or if you’re conferencing?
I think one of the biggest things is to really build that sense of expectations and routines at the beginning of the year. I’m also a big believer in telling students why we are asking them to do the things that they are doing as readers. That’s why in every mini-lesson statement there are two parts: the objective and the reason why.
I’ve noticed from my teaching experience that by telling kids the “why”, they are often more on task. Their motivation for completing the task also changes. It’s no longer I need to do this because Mrs. Bengel told me to. It’s now I need to do this because, and then whatever my reason was in the lesson.
For example, I might say to the class, “Hey, we’re going to make connections to the characters we’re reading about because we can actually learn from their mistakes. We can prevent lots of problems in our own lives when we think about what kind of consequences they had to deal with. As you’re reading today, I want you to notice the mistakes the characters are making. Then I want you to make a connection to the character and explain how these mistakes have helped you in your own life.”
I say this to stress the point that if students understand the why behind what we’re asking them to do, the behavior issues tend to go away. They have a new sense of purpose and motivation. It also doesn’t hurt that they know we’re going to be sharing our responses with partners, so that expectation is there as well. Kids don’t want to look silly in front of their peers, so the share is usually a powerful enough motivational tool on its own for them to bring their A-game.
I like this idea of giving them the why and I think that’s something that you can use throughout the year. Because maybe a teacher is listening to this and thinking, “Uh-oh, I didn’t do what I probably should’ve done at the beginning of the year. I didn’t know that I needed to spend time on these kinds of things.” And I can tell you from experience that even after having spent weeks setting up these expectations, October comes, November comes … let’s not even talk about spring … and suddenly everybody’s forgotten everything.
That’s super normal for kids to need to practice these routines and have reminders of them all throughout the year. I remember doing mini-lessons even in the spring, like, “I’m noticing that this part of our workshop is not going well anymore. This is what I’m seeing. Is it hard for you to concentrate when this is happening? What should we be doing instead?” And going back to that why.
Exactly. I oftentimes did that when I was teaching in January when we came back. We would often spend a little bit of time just reviewing what our expectations and routines are and why. Why do we have these routines and expectations? We want to respect the readers in our classroom. We want everyone to have a fair chance to learn at their highest level. You know, all those reasons why we hold each other so highly accountable for what we’re doing in the class.
So if that’s you and you’re listening to this and thinking it’s just your kids or maybe you did something wrong, no. All students are going to need to be practicing this, especially when you get new kids mid-year and they weren’t there for some of that beginning stuff. So expect to keep revisiting these things and coming back to that ‘why’ a lot.
Let’s talk about the assessment piece because I know that’s another major pain point. How much of the work students are doing during reading, writing workshop, or just reading workshop is graded? I would love to hear more about what you’re assessing and how you’re doing that.
I typically collect two reading grades a week. Most of the grading came from their written responses on those graphic organizers, think marks, or in their reading notebooks.
I also take anecdotal notes during the share portion of the reading workshop. After the kids share their work with a partner, I call in a few to share with the entire class. As they share, I’m writing their thinking down on actual Avery sticky labels.
This does not take me any extra time because I’m listening to them share anyways. I tell the students, “I care so much about your thinking, I want to write it down so I never forget it, so you’ll see me taking notes as you share. I’m excited to hear your thinking and I bet you’ll even teach me something new, as well.”
And when I do this, the students perk up. Their faces are like, “Whoa, Mrs. Bengel is taking notes on what I’m saying. I better say something good,” and they usually go much deeper with their thinking because they know I’m writing it down.
I use these Avery sticky shipping labels (size 2 x 4) which is what I’ve found works best. There are 10 labels on each page and at the beginning of the week, I write each student’s name in the top corner of each of the labels and put the paper on my clipboard. Then during the share, I’ll call on a few students each day.
As they share, I’ll write down their response on the label. At the end of the week, I’ll have a response from each student. I peel the labels off and transfer them into my anecdotal binder. In the binder, I have a tab for each student and just a piece of card stock. I stick each label onto the card stock for that student. After a month, I can turn to any student’s page and start noticing patterns and how he or she is responding to reading.
This binder is gold when going to an IEP or data team meeting. I also use it for parent-teacher conferences as well, and of course to drive all of my future instruction.
So for grading, I’m looking at those graphic organizers and written responses, but I’m also paying attention to what they’re saying during the share and in those anecdotal notes.
Jen, this is a ton of really good information, and I know because I’ve seen the huge variety of resources that you have created to support teachers in this. This is just scratching the surface of everything that you have to tell teachers about the workshop. I mean, this is like not even 0.1% of the information and the resources that you have.
You’ve really condensed the main ideas here, but there is a ton more, some of which you have in a free download to support a lot of the things that we talked about. Can you tell listeners where to go to get more information and tell them also about your membership and your other resources that you have for purchase?
Yes, you can get the free download from today’s topic if you go to freefromjen.com, but I do actually have an actual membership for teachers. I’ve been writing curriculum since 2012 so I have full yearlong units for the reading and writing workshops, vocabulary, spelling, reading interventions, benchmark assessments, guided reading, and really a lot more.
With the Out of This World Literacy™ membership, teachers gain instant access to over 650 literacy resources without having to spend thousands of dollars purchasing them separately. I created the membership because I really wanted teachers to be able to have access to everything they needed without having to wait to be able to afford it all. I really wanted students to be able to have the materials they need, too.
It’s become so much more than providing instant access to all the materials though. It’s a community of teachers who share ideas inside our members-only Facebook group. Since they are all using the same materials, it’s like a family. We ask questions, share ideas, and celebrate students’ successes.
Platinum members also have access to 14 online professional development webinars that they can watch over and over any time that works for them. These trainings offer amazing opportunities to apply best practices with the curriculum they have access to. I also send out a weekly members-only email that includes 5 to 10 minutes of really easy to digest reading and an exclusive principle resource that they can use that week.
It’s basically like getting a free gift every week, but one of my favorite parts though is the teacher takeover. Every year for teacher appreciation week, I surprise one member by flying to their school and taking over their classroom for the entire day. I stream all of the teaching live in our Facebook group and it’s so fun. Last year, I flew to Casey Gum’s fourth-grade class in Indiana and it was the best. Her principal and I completely made this plan to surprise her. It was awesome.
So this is actual curriculum and actual professional development, which means that schools can pay for this. You accept purchase orders and teachers can go to their admin to get funding for this, correct?
Yes, absolutely. It’s all research-based curriculum. I actually have a postgraduate degree training with Irene Fountas at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I actually was trained to teach teachers and write curriculum, so I really spend a lot of time making sure that what I put out there is the best that I can because my motto has always been “Every student who uses a resource that I create is my student, too”, and I take that very seriously.
What I’ve heard the most from teachers who are inside of your membership and the teachers who use your resources is that they love how you make everything super actionable and practical. I think a lot of times the workshop model can feel very vague and teachers are expected to figure out these pieces and put them all together on their own, and you’ve made it into a replicable system that’s easy for teachers, but at the same time it’s not so formulaic that it’s not student-centered where it’s like there’s only one right way to do it. I think you’ve taken a lot of the mystery out of how to put all of these components together in a way that’s actually manageable for teachers.
Thank you for saying that and in the second edition to the units that we just finished publishing, everything is on one page for the teacher. All the steps in your mini-lesson, I even included teacher suggested language that you can use completely or make it your own. I wanted it to feel like I was holding your hand when you were teaching that mini-lesson with your class, and it is still so adaptable to your students. The mentor texts you choose are going to be what your kids are really interested in. If they’re into Bigfoot that year, pick books about Bigfoot. You’re going to be able to make it your own, but you have the entire guide there for you and it’s not so overwhelming. It’s literally just one page.
That’s my vocabulary, as well. Everything is on one page, so it’s not feeling like you have to read through all of this content to understand how to apply what you’re doing. With the platinum membership, you have all of my professional development trainings so you can watch them whenever you want and you can really understand the theory, the reasons why we’re doing the things that we’re doing, and the moves that we’re making as teachers throughout the year.
I would have loved to have one page ready for me as a teacher. Planning reading was the worst for me because the teacher’s guide was like 25 pages long, and half of it didn’t apply to my kids. It was so much work trying to condense all the things that needed to happen in a 60-minute time block, and having no idea what to do first and what was the most important and how to tie this back to what kids were actually reading.
And I feel like your system is really the only thing that I’ve seen that makes it super simple for teachers, and also still goes according to best practices in literacy. It’s not taking an easy way out or a shortcut, it’s just the structure that teachers really need. That’s such a hard line to balance and you’ve done that, and that’s why I support and recommend your program so highly.
Thank you. I’m really excited about all of these things, and of course, they’re all tied to standards. We even have the new Texas TEKS standards attached to all the lessons, as well. It’s really exciting. I want teachers to feel confident and not so overwhelmed and feel like they’re not piecing things together throughout the year, and that they’ve got everything they need in one spot to really have this flow of learning and teaching going on all year long. I’m excited.
Let’s close out the show with a takeaway truth. What is something that you wish every teacher understood about making the workshop model work?
I’d say the biggest thing is to not be too hard on yourself if the lesson or the four steps don’t go as you wanted them to go that day. The big thing is to just keep trying and to make the tweaks that you need to fit your class. There’s no one size fits all and teachers are the best resource for their students in the classroom — not a textbook or a scripted program. You are your best resource.
And remember, with the workshop framework, you are creating a community of learners that all work together to help each other grow in their thinking and reading abilities. It’s an active learning environment where everyone is held accountable and respected. No longer is the teacher the one who knows all the answers and the students’ job to learn how to respond to a set of directions, but the students are expected to think critically, listen, and share.
These are skills that extend beyond your 45 or 60 minutes of reading time. They are life skills. So when you’re using the reading workshop format, you’re teaching so very much more than just reading. You are preparing your students to think critically in all aspects of their lives.
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