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How-To: Teach Literacy Instruction and Teacher Collaboration
How to Teach Independence: The key to teaching small groups in reading workshop
Sarah Picard

For me, reading workshop is a rigorous teaching and learning time. I (and/or my teaching partner) teach a mini-lesson to the entire class. Then the children move to nooks or tables in the room to settle in for independent reading. I meet with small groups for guided reading and/or confer with individual readers or partnerships. When I first began to teach reading in a second grade classroom, my mentors from P.S.126 in New York, AUSSIE (AUSSIE is Diane Snowball' staff development group, Australian staff developers who travel to the United States to work with teachers and schools who want to learn more about Balanced Literacy) and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, helped me understand the importance of teaching the structures for independent reading. I soon found out how hard it was to concentrate on teaching a small group when the rest of the class did not understand the structures for independent reading.

Four years later, I still begin each year with a unit of study on how to read independently. I teach children how to choose books that are at their level, how to use the classroom library, how to check out and return books, how to plan for their reading each day and how to gain stamina in their reading lives. This is time well spent. By the middle or end of September the children have gained important independence skills and I can begin small group guided reading.

This how-to article will give you some of the mini-lessons I taught this fall to help readers gain these important strategies for maintaining an independent reading life.

Part One: Setting the Stage
I begin on the first day of school by talking about my own reading life. Here is a sample of a mini-lesson I wrote for the fifth grade readers I am working with this year.

Mini-lesson on Day 1: Introduction to living a readerly life:
I am so glad to meet all of you. I know you have a lot to share about the books you have read. Reading is important to me and I want you to know that reading is going to be very important in our classroom this year.

Today I am going to teach you some of the things a good reader does. Watch me as I open my reading bag and show you a part of my reading life. Pick out two or three things I do as I good reader. Open my bag. I read for many different purposes. This morning I read the newspaper while I was eating breakfast. Before I go to bed each night, I read a book. Right now I am reading Melonhead. It was recommended to me by my friend Carole. I often get recommendations from friends and then talk with them about my reading when I am finished. I'm planning to talk about this book with Carole and some friends next week. In order to finish it on time, I carry my book with me everywhere. I make plans for my reading. I set reading goals.

I hope you noticed some of the things I do as a good reader. Mostly, I hope you noticed that I read for many purposes: I read so that I can talk with other people about books, and I make plans for my reading. I'll be expecting you to do these things in the near future.

Right now, I'd like you to take a moment to think about your reading life. Where do you read? When do you read? How do you decide on the books you do read? (Wait a few moments.) Turn and talk to a partner about your reading life.
Today we are going to get that first experience of living a readerly life in our classroom. We are going to read and then take a few moments at the end of our reading time to talk about our reading lives again.

Mini-lesson on Day 2: The first day in a string on choosing books: Identifying ourselves as a reading community. I show the kids the list I keep in my wallet of my favorite books. They speak to the kind of reader and person I am. I tell them that part of choosing a new book is knowing the kind of books I already like. They talk to their partner about their top 5 books and we begin to learn about the genres and topics we will need to put in the classroom library.

Mini-lesson on Day 3: The second day in a string on choosing books: Focus on recognizing when a books is too hard and understanding the importance of practicing a text on your level. I will teach kids to self monitor and count the number of "difficult situations" (words you can't decode or understand). Our class will use the following rule: if you have more than 5 difficult situations, the book is too hard. Besides this rule, I will be assessing the students and guiding them to a leveled basket for this unit of study.

Part Two: Making a Reading Plan
As the students begin to check out books from the classroom library and read during independent reading time, I encourage them to make a plan for themselves as readers, using the table of contents, chapter titles, or page numbers to help plan out their reading each day. Here is a sample of a reading plan from a third grade class.

Mini-lesson on Day 4: Getting ready to read and settled quickly: finding a nook and practicing getting there quickly. We establish the routine of staying in one place for the entirety of independent reading. I explain, "My job is to walk around and confer with you, teach you something about being a good reader, and your job is to do your reading work and then participate in the conference when I approach you."

Part Three: Increasing Stamina
As students gain control over the reading plan, I push them to exceed the goal they planned for themselves. In the mini-lesson below, I teach them to use a post-it note to read towards a goal.

Mini-lesson on day 5: Sticking a post-it note at the end of a section to set a goal:
Readers, we've been talking a lot about creating readerly lives for ourselves. One thing good readers do is set short term goals for them selves as readers. They do this to help themselves finish their books on schedule. Also, good readers know that if they split a book up into smaller chunks it won't seem so hard to finish.

Today I am going to teach you how readers set short term goals for themselves. After good readers choose a book that is just right for them to read, they often take a quick look through the book and set a goal for themselves for each of their reading periods. They often stick a post-it note on the page at which they want to stop and then read until they reach that goal. Watch me as I do this with a book I just started, Because of Winn Dixie. I am currently in chapter two. I know that I can read about two or three chapters during our reading workshop time today, so I'll put a post-it note on the start of chapter five. This seems like a goal I could reach by the end of workshop today.

Take out the book you are reading right now. Look at the page you are on and think about a reasonable goal you could set for yourself in one reading period. Stick a post-it note on your goal page.

Today and every day, when you go off into your independent reading, set a goal for yourself for your reading. It will help you finish your book on time.


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