December 2, 2013

Is It Mini Enough? Effects of Maxing Out Your Minilessons

Teaching in a middle school with a modified block schedule which allows 90 minutes of instruction for language arts, I feel lucky that we have this much time with students each day.  However, this is reading and writing instruction combined, so this time in generally sectioned off into time for Word Study, Reading Workshop, and Writing Workshop.  Try to throw in spelling, poetry, and interactive read aloud into the mix every now and then, and we're looking at a definite time crunch.  It is essential that time is used to the highest efficiency.  For Reading Workshop and Writing Workshop, the general format is:

Book Talk (RW), Author Talk (WW): 2-3 minutes
Minilesson (Statement, Model, Have-a-go): 10 minutes
Application of the Minilesson/Independent Reading and Writing Time (this is also when I meet with guided reading/guided writing groups and/or independently confer with individual students about their reading and writing): 20-30 minutes
Share: 5 minutes

So what happens when the minilesson part of Reader's or Writer's Workshop becomes a "maxi" lesson?  Well, unfortunately that means that something else has to give.  The effects of minilessons becoming way too long mean that you're only going to get to one workshop in a day, or it means that independent  and guided reading/writing time is going to be cut short.  No big deal, right?  Wrong!  Many teachers feel that when they're standing in front of the class "teaching" that this is when most students are learning.  How could they possibly learn when you're not in control telling them what to learn?  What if they "goof off" during independent reading and writing time?  I NEED to fill up their time with instruction to maximize learning.  I'm going to argue that this type of thinking is completely backwards. First of all, if you never give students the time to apply skills that you're teaching them during minilessons during independent reading and writing, how are they supposed to learn them?  Secondly, the highest level of instruction where you are going to see the most effect from your teaching is going to come during small group and individual work.  Being able to provide specific, differentiated instruction to students in an organized, efficient way is the key to moving learners forward and making them more confident as readers and writers.

So, you agree with all that's above but still can't seem to keep your minilessons to ten minutes or less?  Here are a few tips that I hope will help:

1.  Think small.  After you do, think smaller.  It's called a minilesson for a reason, folks.  I made this mistake over and over and over again when I switched to a Reading and Writing Workshop format of trying to fit this huge concept into a minilesson.  Take a concept such as teaching symbolism to 8th grade language arts students.  You are not going to fit this into a one day minilesson.  Instead, consider a logical way to break this concept down into sequential minilessons that will build on each other until you teach the full concept.

Day One: Readers notice important characters, objects, and ideas from the text so that they can identify the author's emphasis.

Day Two:  Readers provide textual evidence of important characters, objects, and ideas from the text so that they can analyze the author's meaning.

Day Three:  Readers make inferences to connect important characters, objects, and ideas to a deeper meaning so that they can identify symbolism within the text.

By breaking the idea of teaching symbolism down into three days instead of trying to fit it into one, I have now scaffolded the idea to students and taught them the concept in manageable chunks that build off of one another.

2.  Use a timer.  You might feel silly at first, but using a timer can really help you in initially identifying where you take up too much time in your minilesson.  After students have copied down the minilesson statement and you begin your modeling, start the timer and keep your modeling to five minutes or less.  Once students engage in the "have-a-go" portion of the minilesson, set the timer for 2-3 minutes again.  This will give you a minute or so to explain the application and have the students get started.  Using the timer will hold you accountable and help you identify where you're going over.

3.  Give up control.  That idea that you're students aren't learning unless you're standing up in front of the room inputting direct information into their brains, leave it!  By giving a ten minute minilesson, followed by independent reading and writing time, you will have students engagement while you are instructing, and you'll also be able to gather a ton of formative assessment data as you work in small groups and conference with individuals.  We often find that 80% or more of our students are able to do the work independently.  By lessening your direct instruction time in front of the class, you're giving yourself more opportunity to work with students at all levels to extend and challenge their understandings for higher level students to supporting and scaffolding information for students who are struggling.  Teachers who are able to have students work independently while they work with small groups and individuals have the highest level of classroom control because of the common expectations and consistent routines that are in place day in and day out.  If you're tight on your routines and expectations and are willing to let go of the "sit and get" delivery of information, your students will benefit.

Check out my freebies from my TpT store for more information about minilesson structure:

Reading Workshop Minilessons

Writing Workshop Minilessons

I hope this post was helpful in providing some ideas for keeping minilessons "mini."  Have a great start to your week, everyone!


  1. I don't remember how I stumpbled on to your blog but I'm glad I did. I'm a 39 year old second year teacher with a strong background in high school math. I am teaching Language Arts, Science, Social Studies and math to a multi-age (grade 6-8) classroom in a school division that has placed an emphasis on literacy. Language Arts is NOT my thing. Thank you for this blog. It's helping me wrap my head around this whole readers, writers workshop thing.

    1. Well I am certainly glad that you found my blog as well! I commend you for doing such a difficult job-I can't imagine having to teach to that many grade levels for that many subjects! I am so happy that my blog can help out in any way to you! Thanks for your comment!

  2. "Giving up control" is the scary part. But I do agree that the person doing the work is the one doing the learning. Thanks for the reminder!

    1. It can definitely be scary, but you're right, every teacher has a major part of them that loves control, whether we want to admit it or not. I personally have to remind myself daily because otherwise that part of me overtakes the other! :)

  3. I definitely struggle with this as a first-year teacher. I have a 40 minute LA period every day and a 40 minute writer's workshop period every other day. With only seeing my students for writing every other day the instructional days are so limited (half the year) that I think I feel the extra pressure to move quickly through a unit! Any advice?

    1. My advice for you no matter how much time you have with students is to teach deep and not shallow. When we try to "cover all of the curriculum," our students generally don't retain our "maxi lesson" anyway. I have always found that by identifying the most important concepts and teaching those deeply, that always yields the best results. I would also advocate with your school to make sure that students are getting reading and writing every day. That should be a non negotiable!

  4. Hello, what would you reccomend to someone that thinks teaching for 10 mins isn't enough time for students to understand? Better yet how will they master the CCST using this model?

    1. Hi Rosemary,

      You are the person who knows your students the best, so you are the expert with how much instruction you think they're going to need. There are obviously many different ways of teaching out there. I may teach a minilesson for only ten minutes at a time, but I do two minilessons per class period. I just believe in giving my students one thing at a time. A lot of times when my minilessons are really long, I realize that I tried to teach something way too big. I've found with my students that if I can get them to take on a small piece each day and build it into a large piece, that's what works best for me. Also, by doing a minilesson with the whole class, it allows me to get into small group work with students at their level. DIfferentiating instruction to small groups of students and individuals is a top priority for me and a time where I see the most student growth and can reinforce minilesson concepts. So I guess I'm "teaching" the entire class period, I'm just teaching to whole group, small group, and individuals versus the entire class... There are several minilesson examples of what this would look like focused toward the CCSS on my blog.


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