What is Readers' Workshop?

Instructor: David Raudenbush
Readers' Workshop allows students to learn skills and strategies while reading books they have picked themselves. The workshop method emphasizes teacher-student conferences and peer conversations about books.

The Dining Room Table

Picture sitting down at the dining room table with a few friends and family members as each person takes a turn discussing a book they recently read. Proponents of Readers' Workshop will often use the dining room table discussion as an analog for how a classroom should look. The table image comes from Nancie Atwell, an educator and author, who has been one of the workshop's strongest advocates since the publication of her first book, In the Middle.

Readers' Workshop is an instructional method that emphasizes student growth through large amounts of independent reading, along with whole-class and small-group discussions. Rather than reading assigned selections from a basal textbook or literature anthology, students choose from authentic children's and young adult literature written at their interest and reading level. Building lifetime readers is the long-term goal of Readers' Workshop.

Creating lifelong readers is a workshop goal


A Readers' Workshop lesson will usually begin with a teacher reading aloud, modeling the sounds of fluent reading. A mini-lesson usually follows the modeling. For students in the primary grades, a mini-lesson might focus on word attack skills aimed at teaching students how to decode words and assemble them into coherent sentences. For students from later elementary grades through high school, mini-lessons deal with strategies for building comprehension, which help students learn to make sense of what they are reading, or with how to respond to the reading, either orally or in writing.

After the mini-lesson, students have time to read independently from their chosen books while practicing the skill learned during the mini-lesson. One of the principles at the heart of Reading Workshop is that students need large amounts of time to practice with texts that they can read fluently and comprehend with a 98 percent or greater accuracy. That concept gets its support from Richard Allington, Professor of Education at the University of Tennessee. Allington argues students need to spend extensive time with texts that they can read with ease so that applying learned skills and strategies becomes automatic for them.

Reading Conferences

The reading conference is another central component of Readers' Workshop. Most of the time, these conferences are one-on-one conversations between the teacher and the student. The conference can serve two purposes: one, it's an opportunity for the teacher to assess how well each student can apply the skill or strategy taught in the mini-lesson; and two, it provides time for the teacher to help struggling readers.

In her book, So What Do They Really Know, Denver-based literacy consultant Cris Tovani describes what Readers' Workshop looks like in her classroom. Following the mini-lesson, she checks in with three or four students. A check-in is a brief conference between the teacher and her students. The teacher visits the students she suspects may need a few more directions before they start to read. Next, she brings students who require additional help back to a table or location in the room where they can meet and talk quietly. Usually, the students she meets with have been pre-selected based on their struggles with previous lessons.

Small-Group Practice

The Readers' Workshop format also offers opportunities for small-group work. Allington points out that students need the chance to talk to each other about what they are reading. According to Allington, the most productive small-group sessions center around students sharing what they read during authentic conversations, like those heard around Atwell's dining room table model. The teacher's role is to ignite student conversations by providing engaging prompts for discussion. The teacher visits groups, assesses the quality and depth of the conversations, and moves the discussion forward with additional questions or comments.

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