What is the reading workshop?

Reading Workshop- The What, Why And How

Mar 09, 2020

This week’s blog post answers a question asked by one of the Oz Lit Teachers in our community. It focuses on all things Reading Workshop.


What is the Reading Workshop?

The concept of a Reading Workshop was introduced by Nancie Atwell back in the 1980’s and has been discussed and used in both primary and secondary settings since then (see Atwell, 1987; Calkins, 2010; Tovani, 2011).  

Essentially, Reading Workshop is a lesson structure that enables the full enactment of the Gradual Release of Responsibility across a reading lesson.

Interestingly, the Gradual Release of Responsibility (or 'Gradual Acceptance of Responsibility' as some people refer to it) was originally developed specifically for reading instruction. Fisher and Frey (2014) state that it brought together several theories, including those of Piaget (cognitive structures), Vygotsky (zone of proximal development), Bandura (attention, retention, reproduction and motivation) and Wood, Bruner and Ross (scaffolded instruction). (Now there are some names from back in my uni days!)

Fisher and Frey’s take on the Gradual Release of Responsibility adds in the layer of 'collaborative learning’ to the original framework created by Pearson and Gallagher in 1983. They added this layer to reflect the research that states that students learn through collaboration with their peers. This is an important addition to the modern-day Reading Workshop. Their framework looks like this:

Fisher and Frey's (2014) adaption of Pearson and Gallagher's Gradual Release of Responsibility


Why use the Reading Workshop structure?

Here are 4 reasons teachers and students should engage in the Reading Workshop structure (there are more, but I need to stop this post becoming a book chapter!).

  1. It provides a structure that enacts the Gradual Release of Responsibility (a research backed approach that moves students towards successful independence in reading).
  2. It provides a consistent structure for both teachers and students to follow in every reading and writing classroom. (Spoiler alert: the Writing Workshop follows the exact same structure).
  3. It enables students to engage in research backed practices (such as engaging in large chunks of time for Independent Reading, engaging in substantive conversations around texts and reflecting on lesson goals and success criteria).
  4. It enables teachers to engage in research backed teaching practices (such as modelled, and shared reading as well as other practices such as reciprocal teaching and conferring).


How does the Reading Workshop structure work?

Reading Workshop has been refined over the years and several elements have been critical to highly effective implementation of this structure in that time. Some of these critical elements include:

  • Time- is divided up on the belief that ‘the person doing the work is doing the learning.’ Therefore, large chunks of time are set aside for independent reading and collaborative practice. The teacher provides explicit instruction and then gets off the stage quickly. Transitions are tight, allowing for maximum time on task.
  • Teaching- Teachers engage in explicit teaching focused on a specific and targeted goal that is determined by the needs of the students sitting in front of them. It is highly responsive and based heavily on formative assessment.
  • Tasks- Students engage in authentic and purposeful learning experiences with a goal of supporting them to develop independence as readers. The learning experiences within a lesson are tied to the goal of the lesson.
  • Talk- Students engage in regular substantive talk about texts.
  • Texts- Student choice is promoted through text selection, with the classroom library playing a key role in access to a range of texts throughout the workshop.

In terms of the actual structure, Reading Workshop generally consists of the following parts (this is based on Chris Tovani’s (2011) model):


Lesson Introduction

The start of the lesson is where the teacher introduces the Learning Intention and the Success Criteria. They also link this lesson to the prior learning and state WHY they decided to teach this specific lesson. Eg. 'I have been noticing in your reading that many of you…’ Teacher clarity is important here, as it helps the teacher focus on what they want students to understand and be able to do as a result of the learning in the lesson. This intentional and specific focus forms the Learning Intention and the Success Criteria. The remainder of the workshop should be focused on building student capacity to achieve these goals. If you’re a John Hattie buff you’ll know that teacher clarity has a very high effect size of 0.75 (Fisher, Frey & Hattie, 2017) so it’s really important that teachers get this part right in their planning.

Teachers need to think like a GPS:

"If we don't know where we are going, we'll never get there...Just as when we are using a real GPS, a clear understanding of where we're headed lays the foundation for our route. The more exact the address we enter, the more likely we are to arrive at our destination." (Thompson, 2015)


Explicit Minilesson

As the name suggests, the teacher provides an explicit lesson here that is MINI in time, but MAXI on targeted focus. Ultimately, teachers should be off the stage in 10-15 minutes (of course this is just a goal and some lessons -such as when teachers are reading a mentor text for the first time- make take a bit longer.)

The minilesson provides an opportunity for the teacher to engage in the ‘I do it’ phase of the Gradual Release of Responsibility- where they could be modelling or demonstrating using a mentor text, or the ‘We do it’ phase where they could be engaged in shared readingEither way, what the teacher does in this part of the lesson should be directly linked to the Learning Intention and Success Criteria.

"The focused instruction phase of learning provides students with information about the ways in which a skilled reader, writer or thinker processes the information under discussion. Typically this is done through direct explanations, modelling, or think-alouds in which the teacher demonstrates the kind of thinking requires to solve a problem, understand a set of directions, or interact with a text." (Fisher & Frey, 2014)


Student Application/Work Time #1 ('You do it together or you do it alone')

This application / work time is dedicated to purposeful learning experiences (PLE) that are directly related to the Learning Intention and Success Criteria. Independent Reading is often the preferred PLE in this part of the workshop as it provides students with an opportunity to trial the strategy/focus that was demonstrated in the explicit minilesson with their own Independent Reading texts. While students are working in this time, the teacher could be conferring or engaging in small group instruction such as Reciprocal Teaching, Language Experience or even  Literature Circles.

"Dozens of studies confirm the relationship between the volume of independent reading that students do and reading achievement." (Moss and Young, 2010)



The 'catch' is an OPTIONAL part of the Reading Workshop lesson structure.  It is where good formative assessment comes into play. If the teacher notices that their students are rolling around on the floor, disengaged with the lesson for example, they may choose to use this 'catch' to pause the class and give an enabling or extending prompt to support their students to reengage. Alternatively, they may evoke the 'catch' to redeliver clearer expectations and/or instructions to their students (e.g. by drawing everyone’s attention to a specific student's work or thinking etc.)

The Catch is a short, sharp refocus or next-steps focus and shouldn’t be used as a chance for another minilesson (unless it’s a Foundation class, where it could be a second minilesson to direct the students for the second work time).


Student Application/Work Time #2 ('You do it together or you do it alone')

Depending on the year level of the students and the focus of the lesson, this application time may just be a continuation of the independent reading that occurred in the first student work time (especially in senior primary classrooms, where students should be building strong reading stamina). Alternatively, it could be an opportunity for students to move into the ‘You do it together’ phase of the Gradual Release of Responsibility, where they engage in partner reading or book discussions or the like. They could even work on reader’s notebook responses in this time (naturally, students would have first been through a Gradual Release of Responsibility to learn how to create strong and effective reading responses).

Similarly to student application / work time #1, the teacher could be conferring or engaging in small group instruction while their students are working. This is prime time for teachers to have their formative assessment radars on to see how their students are engaging in the lesson focus and to inform their teaching decisions for future lessons.

"If kids are to become thoughtful, versatile, independent readers and thinkers who can read between the lines, they need a classroom community that values and expects kids to interact, think, and question all day, every day." (Harvey & Goudvis, 2017)


Lesson Reflection

This part of the Reading Workshop should focus on returning to the Learning Intentions and Success Criteria and building students’ capacity to self-evaluate using the criteria (this is a critical part of developing agency in our learners).

Teachers could ask students to share how they used the strategy that was modelled in the minilesson or turn and talk to a partner about how they improved their reading in the lessons. Some teachers use sentence starter sticks or evaluation stems here to get students to self-reflect and think about their thinking during the workshop. This is all about building metacognitive readers and learners and is a very important part of the lesson that should not be missed (but often is).

"If students know what they are learning and why, and get regular and constructive feedback about their learning, they are more likely to feel empowered and positive about their progress and skills as a reader." (Cameron and Dempsey, 2019)


A few important notes about the Reading Workshop

  • Student application / work time: The main point to note during both student application/work times is that the work the students are engaging in needs to be purposeful and focused on enhancing their literacy development (rather than purposeless and focused on enhancing behaviour management). This isn’t the time or place for teachers to come up with purposeless reading rotation activities or busy work in order to keep the rest of the class quiet while they run a small group reading lessons etc. This time is critical for all students’ development in reading, not just those students who happen to be conferring or part of small group instruction with the teacher. Before assigning any task during this time, teachers should ask themselves ‘what purpose does this serve?’ and ‘is this aligned to the Learning Intention and Success Criteria for this lesson?’ For more information and guidance in developing purposeful learning experiences I recommend the book “What are the Rest of my Kids Doing?” Fostering Independence in the K-2 Reading Workshop by Lindsey Moses.

  • Small group instruction during student work time: In their bid to have 100% consistency across classes, some schools mandate that teachers must engage in a specific number of small group instructional practices (often Guided Reading) during their Reading Workshop lessons. This approach is not recommended because it is not responsive to the needs of the students in the class. Small group instructional practices in reading each serve specific purposes and no one practice should be mandated for all students. Guided Reading for example, was once seen as a practice that all students should experience when they may have been better served by any number of other small group options (such as strategy groups or reciprocal teaching or even literature circles.) The decision around which teaching practice to engage in during the student work times should be decided by the teacher and based on their assessment of the needs of the students in their class. (Note: This approach does require deep content knowledge of each of the available teaching practices. Teachers need to know what the different practices are and when they should be used. 

  • The structure: Don’t be a slave to the structure! If teachers can clearly see that their students need more time in the minilesson or they need to pull up early on the student work time, they shouldn't don’t be afraid to modify the lesson to be responsive to the needs of their students. Teachers can make the first student work time "You do it together" and the second student work time "You do it alone." This is a framework that needs teacher professional judgement informed by formative assessment to make it most successful! 


Transitioning towards a Reading Workshop model

If you currently teach in a classroom where reading rotations are the norm or you have a different structure all together and you want to transition towards this structure, I suggest the best way to transition is to focus on implementing Learning Intentions with an explicit minilesson before your rotations, then move towards adding in Independent Reading (either as a whole class activity or as one of your reading rotations). You can also experiment with trialling more purposeful reading experiences that are linked to the Learning intention in this time. Don’t be too hard on yourself: take a small bite of the elephant- don’t try and eat the whole thing in one go! Once you see the improvements in both engagement and academic outcomes you will undoubtedly be motivated to keep going.


If you want to continue learning about the Reader’s Workshop, I recommend these books:

  • Better Learning Through Structured Teaching by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey (this is all about the Gradual Release of Responsibility)
  • “What are the Rest of my Kids Doing?” Fostering Independence in the K-2 Reading Workshop by Lindsey Moses. (The Reading Workshop in the junior grades)
  • Guiding Readers and Writers by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell (Reading and Writing Workshop in the primary years)
  • So What Do They Really Know? by Chris Tovani (The Reading Workshop in Secondary School)


Do you use a Reading Workshop in your class? How does it work? What Purposeful Learning Experiences do your students engage in? Which parts are the most challenging for you? Which parts have you had the most success with? What would you like to learn more about? Join in the conversation over on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group .





  • Atwell, N. (1987). In the Middle: Writing, Reading and Learning with Adolescents, second edition. Portsmouth: Heinemann.Calkins, L. (2010). A Guide to the Reading Workshop. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
  • Cameron, S. and Dempsey, L. (2019). The Reading Book: A Complete Guide to Teaching Reading. Auckland: S&L Publishing.
  • Fisher, D., Frey, N. and Hattie, J. (2017). Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom, Grades K-5. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.
  • Fisher, D. and Frey, N. (2014). Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility, 2nd Edition. 2nd ed. Alexandria: ASCD.
  • Harvey, S. and Goudvis, A. (2017). Strategies That Work. 3rd ed. Portland: Stenhouse.
  • Moss, B. and Young, T. (2010). Creating Lifelong Readers Through Independent Reading. Newark: International Reading Association.
  • Thompson, T. (2015). The Construction Zone: Building Scaffolds for Readers and Writers. Portland: Stenhouse.
  • Tovani, C. (2011). So What Do They Really Know?. Portland: Stenhouse.

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