Published Online: March 13, 2013

9 Ways to Add Spark and Simplicity to Readers' Workshop

Lately, I have taken some time to reflect on my practices as a reading teacher. I’ve been flitting in and out of the classroom for the past three years in various roles and, the truth is, I’m rusty. But luckily, with support from colleagues and lots of late-night professional reading, I’ve found you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Here are a few pointers I've gleaned from my colleagues as I begin to relearn the craft of being an effective elementary reading teacher.

1. Make student schedules. I had a packed class schedule to keep my little learners in line, but I noticed my teacher-neighbor next door always had fewer speed bumps in her transitions during Reader's Workshop. Her secret? Student schedules. Individual ones. Taped to desks and reading journals. So my students know every day, every minute, what they should be doing. It adds an element of tranquility to my three-ring circus—students hold themselves and one another accountable as they scurry to the library, head on over to guided reading, or dive into a book on the Kindle. They know right where they should be at 9:25 a.m. And another result? They keep me in line as I refine my pacing as an educator.

2. Post a visible timer. Speaking of pacing, a result of being out of the classroom for several years is that my timing is off. Way off. Where I used to be able to knock out three guided-reading groups and two reading conferences while juggling and spinning plates and still be on time down to the minute, I find that I now struggle to "feel" length of time in my classroom. I keep an online timer on the Smartboard, or an old-school one around my neck. It's like my timing training wheels. But it's also great for the students to be able to keep track of time as well.

3. Create book nooks. Lots of them. Where do we read as adults? Rarely ever sitting at the table. Our students deserve to fall in love with books in comfy places. Carefully planned-out book nooks (enough for every child) fill the room. Pillows. Lounge chairs. A blue blanket we call "the beach." And to use the book nooks? Very explicit expectations. We can't just assume students know how to read lying down on a pillow. What does this look like? Sound like?

4. Set norms. I ask the students to create agreements: What do they think we need to agree to as learners to have a successful guided-reading group? How should we share in conversation? And I have to say, I forgot how cool it is to sit back and let your students take charge of their own expectations. They seem to hold one another accountable in a much stricter manner than we might as adults.

5. Craft nonverbal cues for discussions. I was lucky enough to teach across the hall from the best reading teacher I've ever seen, hands down. She and her students used nonverbal cues to indicate their thoughts in discussion. Thanks to Mrs. Sparks, I have my students create hand signals every year. For example, a thumbs-up equates to, "I have a new idea to share." Making the letter "P" in sign language means, "I want to piggyback off what someone said."

6. Know that ownership matters. Ask your readers what they want to learn about. Have a wall or poster in your room for sticky notes where students can collect lingering questions, topics of interest, and other ideas. Use these to direct the topics you pick to read about in interactive read-alouds, shared reading, and guided-reading groups. Research shows that your students will be much more motivated if they have ownership. Plus, isn’t this how we choose books as adults?

7. Set class goals. Three weeks ago, I was noticing a decline in the number of books finished by my readers. We discussed this in a classroom "family meeting," and we landed on a motivator. They wanted a class goal. As a team, they're working to read 70 books in nine weeks (and pass tests on Accelerated Reader on those books). We are collecting their results on a class chart. And these pint-sized readers chose their reward as well: They will dress me for one full week. So how is this working? They're almost there. Looks like I have a week of running around as a baby, a chimpanzee, a giant banana, Pikachu, and a hip-hop star in my future. But it'll be worth every embarrassing moment (check my blog for pictures!).

8. Ask for student feedback. I found myself sitting with one guided-reading group last week when a student asked: "Don't you want to know what we'd suggest for you to do to help us?" My, oh my. From the mouths of babes. Their suggestions were that they wanted a day a week to read a song or poem, and they wanted more of a celebration when they finished a chapter book. I braced myself after hearing the last suggestion, thinking that the students were referring to candy and treats. The reality? Their idea of a celebration was a Jeopardy game with higher-order questions relating to the text. Never assume, right?

9. Encourage self-reflection. We have a posted "scale of understanding," with a spectrum from 0 to 5 written on it. The students can write on a sticky note or give me a "fist to five" of their self-reflection, showing me where they think they are with understanding the lesson's objective. This quick check helps me see which students might be struggling (or even which students don't realize that they are struggling).

Is this action finished? By no means. But it's added pep to my readers' steps, a sparkle in their eyes when it's time to dive into reading, and an air of placid serenity and focus to our Readers' Workshops. I'm planning on letting go a lot more and particularly working on step number 8 to make these changes happen. I'll let you know what my readers decide on next. Until then, here's to helping kids fall in love with reading.

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