We Can Work Our Workshop for Our English Learners

By Sarah Said

As a coordinator of English Learner programs who tends to frequent Twitter as much as I eat and breathe (@MrsSaid17 if you don’t follow me yet...), I’ve had many frantic calls and emails in my days in this field of English Learning regarding Reader’s Workshop.  I hear the same song and dance all the time, “Oh no! My district is moving into Reader’s Workshop and ditching our old curriculum! We can’t do this with English Learners! Our poor babies!” As I hear fellow coordinators and teachers vent, a tune begins to play in my head… and I hear the beloved Beatles singing “We can work it out.”  Yes, we can work it out and we should.  Reader’s workshop is a methodology that can support and benefit English Learners.  We just have flip our mindset when we are approaching it. Workshop model can help elevate “our babies” to be successful actively literate citizens in our society.  As the Beatles would say, “Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend…”  No, there is no time for us nor our learners to continue to push back on this model without really trying to understand its benefits. So, Try to see it my way, Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong…”

Literacy workshop is a methodology that helps students become lifelong readers and writers. If we can plant these seeds now as our students are in within their K-12 education, we can really set our students up for college and career readiness.  Workshop model really exposes students to different genres of reading . And yes, it can be done early in their language development. Students learn about types of texts and strategies to read them in an environment that is supportive. They become free to choose what to read and how to read it. Students choose high interest topics to write about supported by mentor texts and skill-based flexible grouping.

Throughout this blog post, I will discuss the benefits of workshop for English Learners as I break it down and define it structure of:  Mini-lessons, Independent Reading or Guided Reading, and Share Time for Reader’s Workshop. Parallels exist for Writer’s Workshop--Mini-lessons, Independent Writing, Shared Writing and Share Time. Some Beatles lyrics may pop-up too. But really, workshop model allows students to do more than scratch the surface with language.  “If we want students to “go deeper” with their reading, writing, speaking, and listening we must have an environment that supports it both socially and academically.” (Moses 2015) Isn’t this what we want? Don’t we want our students to gain independence as readers and strengthen their skill sets in all four language domains?

The Mini Lesson

Mini Lessons are shorter (hence the word mini) lessons that provide students with a scaffold on a particular genre or strategy.  Those of you who know me know that I am a proponent for the usage of SIOP components in a lesson… it’s just good teaching. In a mini-lesson you are introducing mentor texts to model a strategy and teach the style of a genre or author.  Anchor charts are vital in a mini-lesson and it is important to create those charts in with your group of students. Creating the chart together empowers all learners in your classroom and they as if they are taking the lead on their reading education.

So, you might be thinking, this is great but how is this going to work for the English Learners that I teach?

Always start with Content and Language Objectives...In the beginning of your lesson, make sure you communicate a clear content and language objective.

Ex: Content Objective:  I can define author’s purpose and understand its importance while reading a text.

Language Objective: I can read a text and analyze it for author’s purpose by finding evidence related to the purpose.

These objectives should be posted and communicated to your students.  During independent reading and share time, you should be able to clearly assess students on these targeted skills.

Read more about Confianza’s advice on language objectives here.

Building Background and Directly Connecting to Learners … During the Mini-Lesson, building students’ background knowledge is an important foundation in supporting their understanding of concepts.

One strategy that I have seen used effectively for building or activating background during workshop is a strategy called “Surprise Book!”  This a strategy where a teacher gift wraps a book. Then tears off the paper piece by piece to expose the cover of the book. Students then guess what the book is about as the teacher unwraps it.  It can be pretty interesting with a group of second graders. (Echevarria, Vogt, & Washman 2015)

Using realia to teach concepts in workshop.  Using “realia” means to use real life objects to represent language.  For example, back to that thing called “author’s purpose”, it’s a pretty abstract concept.  But, to explain those concepts, I could use a megaphone or gavel (persuade), a newspaper and reference books (inform), and a karaoke microphone (entertain) to symbolize what I am talking about. I can even sing a tune if the kids are up for it...

Comprehensible Input Can Make or Break Your Mini-Lesson For English Learners… When I say comprehensible input, I mean the way that we help students internalize the language. It is vital that we clearly teach concepts, genres, and steps to strategies not just to our English Learners, but to all learners.

Speak slowly.. And put on emphasis on key concepts… When you slow down with your speech, you will help your learners to begin with.  Mini-Lessons may be shorter, but it could take you longer because you need to slow down… that’s okay… no one is in your classroom with a stopwatch timing you. Also, highlight and emphasize key concepts.  Make sure to highlight them on an interactive word wall. Read my last blog about that.

If possible, anchor charts should be in both languages...If you have a bilingual classroom or you are working with a bilingual paraprofessional, it is more than appropriate to create anchor charts in the native language that matches the anchor chart in English. Yes, two anchor charts.  You also need to explicitly bridge from one language to other when you are using these types of anchor charts. Have them sit on your wall side by side where you post your charts so that kids can constantly refer to them as a resource.   Remember, you want the children to grasp the skills, they will grasp the language for it. If you cannot have bilingual sets of anchor charts, at least make sure that the terms and pictures in your charts are clear for understanding. Like a word wall, you need constant interaction with anchor charts in order for students to understand the concepts.

*** Newcomer tip- If you have a newcomer in your classroom and they have difficulty grasping the concepts of the mini-lesson, you may need to pre-teach and reteach the lesson to them in your classroom during independent or guided reading time. If you or a paraprofessional speaks the native language, use the language to support the instruction.

Independent or Guided Reading Time- What some schools refer to as independent reading time and some refer to as guided reading time is a time where students work on their own reading and strategies.  This is not “SSR” (what people back in the day call silent sustained reading), instead this is a time where students read and practice strategies while teachers circulate the room to confer and support them through these strategies.  What’s great about this time is that students really learn how to take charge of their own reading and chose what they want to read.

Again, you’re probably wondering how this time can support English Learners.  Here is how:

Read at Their Own Level and Pace… Students can read the genre that their peers are reading, but they can read at their own level and pace. As a teacher, I would support students in choosing books that are appropriate, and students can really “taste” books and develop an appetite for reading. This is a motivator for our English Learners, as well as having a “book diet” comprised of different texts--informational texts and fiction.

Teachers can work with students in a small group setting… Here, teachers can work with small, flexible groups of students to target the development of reading skills. If you are working with or in an English Program that works with co-teaching and push in models, this is best for workshop.  Pulling students out during workshop isn’t always best for students. Students (regardless of whether they are part of workshop or not.) are losing time when we pull them out of their setting. The time it takes to take the student out of class, work with them in a room, and then take them back is taking out so much time from their instructional time. (I think that is a huge topic for discussion… maybe another blog post???)  Anyway, sitting in small group with kids and helping them use strategies to support their reading comprehension will go a long way.

*** Newcomer Strategy:  Allow newcomer students to read in the native language if you have books in the genre of the native language… it’s really important to have native language books in your classroom.  If this is difficult to attain or the child is not literate in the native language, look for age appropriate books with graphics to support understanding.

Share Time

This is the time during reader’s workshop where students can really interact with each other and share regarding text and strategy. This is where they work on the listening and speaking domains more.  During share time, we want to make sure that our English Learners have structured ways of interacting with each other. We also want to make sure they get a turn in sharing their responses.

Again, here are some adjustments you can make for English Learners…

Use Kagan Structures to Generate Discussion… Using Kagan structures to develop interaction for kids in your classroom will go a long way. Certain structures like inside outside circles (kids on the inside ask the question, kids on the outside answer it…) help students develop confidence in working with others.  This is great for beginning discussions about certain topics.

Share Bear… Share Bear is a very flexible SIOP strategy where a bear is used in a group for the questioner while others answer.  This helps teachers give students a turn in the classroom because the bear is passed around. Who wouldn’t want to carry around a cool bear when they are talking during class. Share Bear is a great way to assess students informally.  (Echevarria, Vogt, & Washman 2015)

Allow Students to Sketch Their Sharing…  If students can communicate their points with each other through sketching on chart paper or a mini response board, then let them. You may get a more fruitful response out of a drawing. Some learners just thinking visually.  Pictures are universal.

Have Students Recall Language and Content Objectives From the Mini-Lesson in groups… Learners feel accomplished when they can refer to the objectives and view what they have learned.  Also, it reinforces concepts.

*** Newcomer Strategy:  Give newcomer students a key ring with sentence and question frames.  I would make these simple with picture or native language support on them. Then can hang onto the key ring so they are not put on the spot in front of everyone.

When Lucy Calkins developed Reader’s Workshop and Units of Study with her team, it was developed to support all students as learners who are developing language.  Whether you are developing your own units or working with a boxed set, know that you will not always be able to stick to the script. You have to adjust how you implement workshop in your classroom for all of the learners in there.  Know that when a boxed set is created, there is still wiggle room for you to differentiate for your students, the boxed set will not do it for you. Also know that you still need to try to work out word work for your learners along with Reader’s and Writer’s workshop. This will give your classroom a balanced literacy approach. It is attainable, you may have to flip your mindset.  Remember you can work out workshop for English Learners. Don’t try to see it your or my way...try to really focus on seeing it their way. If you were a learner of a new language, how would you want someone to support you in gain literacy skills in the language?

We can workout workshop for our English Learners… and we will.


Echevarria, Vogt,& Washam (2015). 99 More Ideas And Activities For Teaching English Learners with The SIOP Model: Lesson Planning for the Common Core.Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson

Moses, Lindsey (2015) Supporting English Learners in the Reading Workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

For Further Reading:

Article from Empowering ELLs - Serving ELLs through Reading and Writing Workshop

Book by Marsha Riddle Buly - English Language Learners in Literacy Workshops

Leave a comment