Read any professional book on the workshop model, or listen to any literacy consultant, and they will tell you: Students should have 30 minutes to read independently while the teacher is meeting with small groups and holding one-on-one conferences. The teacher should be able to meet with two small groups a day. The teacher should meet with each student for a one-on-one reading conference at least once every two weeks.
Shoulda coulda woulda.
That’s just not how it always goes in our reading workshop. On a good day, sure, students have 30 beautiful minutes to read. In those 30 minutes I meet with two small groups and confer one-on-one with three kids. That’s on a good day. On an average day, students get only 20 minutes to read, and I manage to meet with one small group during that time. And on a bad day? The kids read for seven minutes, and I spend the entire time redirecting behavior and finding lost reading notebooks.
I know that not every day is perfect when it comes to meeting with small groups and having one-on-one conferences. I know I won’t always have time for both, so rather than simply hoping for the best, I make intentional decisions when I create my weekly lesson plans. Sometimes I plan for lots and lots of reading conferences with individual students, and other times I plan for several targeted strategy groups. Here are some of the factors I consider when creating my weekly lesson plans.
Timeline of the Unit
First I consider where we are in our reading unit. Chances are if we are just beginning a new unit or a new genre, I’m planning for one-on-one reading conferences. I want to see how individual students are approaching this genre. Do they like it? Do they have much experience with it? I want to see the kinds of books they are choosing. So for the first several days of a unit, I might not meet with any small groups at all. Instead I will plan for five reading conferences a day, writing the students’ names in my lesson planner for each day.
Similarly if we are nearing the end of a unit, I am likely to lean more toward conferences than small groups. I want to see how students are integrating all the strategies we’ve learned throughout the unit. I want to see how the culmination of our work transferred to their independent reading, so for the final days of a unit, I’ll confer with as many kids as possible.
Another factor to consider when planning for the week is the amount of student work I’ve had a chance to look through. If I have taken their reading notebooks home over the weekend, I probably have loads of information for small-group instruction. I probably have students who need reteaching and students who need to be challenged even more. In that case, I’ll plan to meet with those students in small groups throughout the week. Or if we have recently administered a formative assessment, I’ll form small groups based on those assessment results. When I have a lot of student work at my fingertips, I know the best way to address student needs is to form small groups. I’ll plan to meet with at least one of those small groups each day as I create my weekly plans.
The Intensity of the Minilesson
A third consideration is the intensity of the minilesson I plan to teach that day. If I know the strategy presented in the minilesson is brand-new or slightly complex, I plan to confer with individual students as they read, in order to support them. For example, I recently taught a minilesson on supporting multiple main ideas in a nonfiction text. I knew this was a leap from the main-idea work the kids had done in the previous grade, so I refrained from meeting with small groups that day. I planned to confer with as many kids as possible that day to support them in this complex work.
Finally, I consider the overall needs of my class. I have one group of students reading significantly below grade level. These students were placed in a guided reading group at the beginning of the year, and we’ve continued to work our way through increasingly complex texts together all year. I will make sure I meet with them at least once each week, no matter what. I have another student who just needs the accountability of checking in with me each week, so I will be sure to schedule a conference with him at least once during the week. I know we have book checkout scheduled in our school library on Friday and our reading time will be cut short, so I will plan accordingly.
As I sit down to create my weekly lesson plans, I think through each of these four factors. The result might look something like this:
J. T., Sheryl, Jennifer, Roger, Thomas
|Small Group (Supporting Main Idea):
Andy, Sheryl, Donald, Jenny
Betsy, T. J.
|Small Group (Supporting Main Idea): Andy, Sheryl, Donald, Jenny
Small Group (Identifying Text Structure):
Betsy, Samuel, Lisa
|Small Group (Guided Reading K): Andy, Donald
My weekly lesson plans are flexible and may change as each day unfolds. I might find myself with extra time and pull Wednesday’s group on Tuesday. I might squeeze in seven conferences instead of just five.
Most importantly, my weekly plans are realistic. As a reading teacher, I have to make hard decisions. I have to balance my small-group instruction with my individual conferences, because I don’t have endless amounts of time. There are days—a lot of days—when I can’t do both. No shoulda-coulda-woulda thinking for me. Just intentional and thoughtful planning.