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March 1, 2019
Vol. 61
No. 3

Deepening Independence in the Reading Workshop

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Instructional Strategies
In my work providing professional development to support student-centered instruction with differentiation, I repeatedly hear the question: "What are the REST of my kids doing while I am running small groups or conferring?" This is a crucial question for elementary educators, many of whom are well-versed in different models of whole- and small-group instruction but lack the training to provide meaningful independent learning experiences for their students. Teachers commonly give students activities to keep them busy and quiet during this time.
Consider this typical agenda for a 75-minute reading workshop block:
  • 15 minutes for a mini-lesson
  • 20 minutes for small-group work with the teacher
  • 40 minutes for independent work or reading
Let that sink in. For elementary students, more than half of their literacy lives in school take place while the teacher is working with other children. This reality, and the problem it presents for teachers, led me to conduct two years of collaborative classroom research with 1st grade teacher Meridith Ogden to find ways to manage and maximize the benefit of this independent time.
One of our biggest findings was that facilitating meaningful independence took multiple steps. First, we identified what were and were not purposeful learning experiences (PLEs) for independent work. We reviewed every experience we asked students to do with the following question in mind: What purpose does this serve in my students' literacy development? If it didn't serve a valid purpose, then we threw it out!

Purposeful Learning Experiences



WorksheetsIndependent reading
Copying spelling wordsPartner reading
Looking up spelling word definitionsDiscussion groups/literature circles
Unrelated computer gamesResponses to reading that deepen/extend the reading experience
Arts and crafts Interest-based inquiry projects or research
Nonsense word practiceDemonstration and reflection of strategy use in context of independent reading
Source: From What Are the Rest of My Kids Doing? Fostering Independence in the K–2 Reading Workshop (p. 7), by L. Moses and M. Ogden, 2017, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Copyright 2017 by Lindsey Moses and Meridith Ogden. Reprinted with permission.
We used this list to prioritize what would be purposeful for literacy development, not just behavior management. Then, we remodeled instruction around PLEs and five research-based principles for fostering student independence in literacy:

1. Nurturing Environment

The Research: When students feel safe to take risks, it increases their motivation, engagement, independent literacy development, and language acquisition.
The Practice: Reading with partners, students learned to coach and support each other. Inferential discussion groups held open-ended discussions of texts. Encouraging text-based conversations and think-alouds that weren't focused on right answers created an environment where all students felt safe to take risks with their thinking.

2. Choice

The Research: Choice raises motivation and engagement.
The Practice: Students were free to select 6 to 10 books for reading each week. Students had choice in how they responded to or documented their reading for the week (some included strategy documentation, others might include a persuasive piece of writing about why they loved the book, etc.). For small-group literature discussions, students would choose their top choice from our preselected books.

3. Supported Independent Reading Time

The Research: Supported independent reading time increases fluency and comprehension and reading achievement.
The Practice: Our students had a minimum of 20 minutes every day to read self-selected books. We helped students select books that they could read and enjoy, and we introduced strategies for working with challenging words and maintaining or deepening comprehension. We also spent at least 10 minutes every day in brief, one-on-one conferences with students to document their independent reading practices and provide individualized coaching and support.

4. Talk and Interaction

The Research: Discussion supports comprehension and engagement in higher-level thinking and knowledge communication.
The Practice: We taught students strategies for interacting during partner reading and discussion groups. With the students, we brainstormed possibilities for inferential and literal talk about texts during and after reading. We used this list to create a bookmark (see box) to remind students about higher-level thinking they could use when discussing books with a partner or small group.

Partner Talk Bookmark

What was the book about? (Five-finger retell)
Did you like the book? Why?
What was your favorite part?
Did anything make you smile or laugh?
Describe the characters.
Who was your favorite character? Why?
Did you have any connections?
What was the author's message?
Did you learn something new?
Did you wonder about anything?
Did anything confuse you?

5. Assessment-Guided Instruction

The Research: Assessment that gives teachers immediate feedback on instructional needs improves the quality of teaching.
The Practice: During our conferring sessions, we noted successful strategies students used as well as an area of need and coaching. We created an observational checklist to document student behaviors during independent and partner reading. This checklist allowed us to provide immediate feedback to students about our observations and ideas for enhancing their independent time. We used an observational note-taking guide while students participated in small discussion groups. This assessment included documenting how students prepared for the conversations (written reflection, questions, or sticky notes), tallied the amount of literal versus interpretive comments, and notes on general ways of interacting. We used this information to debrief with the students after the discussion group to identify successes of the discussion group and ideas for improving. All these assessments gave us information on how to deepen students' PLEs.


We designed our instruction based on these five principles and our PLE list. We planned together, video-recorded instruction and students' independent experiences, and assessed how things were going on a weekly basis. As we refined our approach over the course of two years, we found that meaningful independence required more scaffolding and attention than simply telling children to read and respond. We needed to know what independent learning skills students brought to the table, then go through a cycle of teaching and supporting them in a range of independent learning experiences—from establishing routines and strategies to deepening response opportunities and collaborative experiences.

Figure: Independent learning experiences that introduce, establish, and deepen literacy

So, for example, we would first pre-assess how students select books and how they engage with independent reading. Based on this information, we design specific instruction for selecting appropriate, enjoyable books and setting expectations for independent reading. We follow-up with observational assessments and a checklist to identify student processes and behaviors. This approach guides us to identify specific ways to scaffold better text selection and more engaged independent reading. We continue to monitor and refine the expectations and experiences for book shopping and independent reading.


Once students are participating in these experiences without needed support or refinement, we introduce extensions to deepen their experiences. Extensions might include things like giving book reviews or talks to their peers prior to selecting texts or jotting their thoughts and connections to whole-group instruction onto sticky notes during independent reading. Finally, we continue ongoing assessment and observation to support our students' independent routines.
Once these routines are established, we repeat the process with strategies for independent reading, response opportunities, and collaborative experiences with partners or small groups.
Independent learning experiences make up more than half of elementary students' educational reading life. Providing clear, scaffolded instruction and ongoing assessment can help make these experiences purposeful and successful. The ultimate goal of all instruction is meaningful independence where students take their learning and use it in their own reading and meaning-making experiences.

Lindsey Moses is associate professor of literacy education at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University.

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