Reading Workshop in Middle School: 6 Reasons Why I Use It
Updated: Nov 30, 2022
Teachers all teach language arts in unique ways. There is no one-size-fits-all curriculum...and that's okay! In my opinion, teaching is an art and we are the artists. We craft our lessons and create a classroom that suits our own teaching styles. For people at the top to expect all teachers to teach the same exact thing the exact same way is unrealistic.
However, we do have standards to cover, but the beauty of that is there are so many ways and approaches to the standards. For me, reading workshop has always been the best approach and I do promote it more so than others. That may sound contradicting, but it's an opinion. My opinion is that reading workshop is the best approach for optimal learning experiences in middle school.
There are 6 major reasons why I feel reading workshop is the best for middle schoolers:
It's structured and organized, but also flexible.
Teacher modeling promotes good reading.
Prepares students for real world reading.
Encourages classroom community.
What is Reading Workshop?
To be honest, I am not always following it 100% to it's definition. I learned about it initially in college, then, my first year out of college was in a district that was full-force Lucy Calkins. I was an aide, so I got to observe and that eventually became what I knew. It also helped me land permanent jobs because many districts were starting to lean into the approach.
Here is how I will describe it, no Googling. You are more than welcome to do your own research, however this is my version of reading workshop.
Lessons consist of short 10-15 minute mini-lessons focusing on a main reading skill. A mentor/shared/read aloud text is used as a guide. So, I'd read from a REAL book and use that book to show my students how to apply a skill to THEIR books. For example, I may show them how to make inferences using my book...then, they'd have to do it with theirs.
Students always read independently and use their own choice books for their independent work. There are no whole class novels being used. Also, within workshop, they meet with partners who are perhaps in book clubs with them to share ideas, conference with me, and more.
You could read a bit more about my typical day here.
It's Structured and Organized, but also Flexible
We crave routine and structure. While yes, we are always itching for vacations and freedom, having an expected schedule everyday gives us comfort. For kids, it's even more important. Predictability provides consistency. When students know what to expect each day, they are more focused, more productive, and more organized. They know what they need each day. They know what to take out when. Transitions from independent reading, to the carpet, to independent work is smooth.
Ultimately, the structure makes your life easier and students better behaved.
That doesn't mean it has to be a rigid routine every single day. While the daily routine is generally the same, I tend to change it up for units. Certain units follow that basic routine of mini-lesson, independent work, share. But other units may follow a different format. I may have them do book club meetings first. We may not even do a share for some units.
All in all, though, it should be the same most days and a few fun surprises in between.
Teacher Modeling Promotes Good Reading
The thing with basal readers, textbooks, is that most of the time, students end up reading the texts independently. There has to be room for teachers to model good reading.
I read aloud almost daily and that book is used in my lessons. I also read when my students are reading. Students seeing ME read shows that I am passionate and I practice what I preach.
What exactly do I do to model? I'll give you a basic example. In my first unit with 6th grade, I read aloud Ghost by Jason Reynolds. The students did a lesson in internal and external characteristics of characters. I read a specific chapter out loud that portrayed the main character's external and internal traits well. I then filled out a chart, using text detail, to show these traits. Students then had to do the same chart, but with their books.
Want students to read? You have to read, too.
Prepares Students for Real World Reading
One of main aspects of reading workshop is that students are doing REAL reading. They aren't reading short story after short story. Or random articles about random topics. Everything should be built on units...on texts they'd actually may read someday.
When students are reading REAL books and applying reading strategies to those texts, they can then apply those skills elsewhere. For example, I do an entire research unit with my 6th and 7th graders. For my 6th graders, they choose a social issue to focus on. I then get books from the library on those topics. Using various non-fiction skills, they use those books to learn more.
Isn't this what we should be doing as adults? When we want to learn more, we seek out legitimate resources?
My 7th graders do an online research unit, which is what tends to happen with us adults more (going online for information). They then write an argument essay on the topic. This works so well in reading workshop because you can spend a few weeks on it. Other programs are very rigid, forces students to use specific texts or topics, and more.
We need to make their reading applicable to their daily lives. They may not understand that right now, but over time, it will be of value.
Back in the day, my entire class library was leveled by Fountas and Pinnell reading levels. Every book had a letter on it, meaning, I looked up hundreds of books to determine what level they are on. This was all in the name of differentiation, but in reality, it was a huge disservice to my students.
First of all, it forced students to only pick from one section of books. So, if they were interested in a book in a higher or lower level, they couldn't read it. This just turned them off to reading. Not to mention, they'd consistently compare themselves to others who had higher or lower levels.
I've scrapped that completely. Now my library is set up by genre. Students can pick whatever book they want at any level.
You may think this isn't good. If a book is too high, the student is not learning. However, if a student is engaged, you'd be amazed at what they could do. But the beauty of reading workshop is, students can abandon books. They are forced to keep reading a book that's too difficult or easy. If it was a whole class novel, they'd be stuck reading that novel. In that way, it's differentiated.
Also, students respond to reading in a journaling format. There are no multiple-choice quizzes or tests. Journaling and grading on a rubric allows the teacher to cater to each student's needs.
Encourages Class Community
Another aspect of reading workshop is partner reading or book clubs. I do a TON of these. When students share and talk about books, this creates a strong community in the classroom. It is not just group work...making posters, creating slideshows...it's rich discussion. It's evaluating, analyzing, synthesizing, all that good stuff.
Also, seeing each other read and return lots of books encourages students to keep reading. Doing the 40 Book Challenge puts a little fire under them, too.
Listen, no matter what we do, there will be students who hate reading. Go ahead and tell me whatever you want, but I always have a few students, no matter what I do, they won't read at home and some, pretend to read in class.
However, I have never had a student who was not engaged with the read-alouds and mentor texts. Translating it independently is so so tough, but it is definitely much more engaging them forcing them to read from a textbook. At least with reading workshop, they can choose their books. They can abandon a book if they want.
Using engaging texts as mentors has always proven to keep my students focused. Finding just right books for them helps them want to keep reading instead of trudging through some old book that's been read in ELA for years.
Many teachers are stuck doing what their district bought into. That doesn't mean you can't implement versions of reading workshop. Instead of using the short stories provided as whole class, use them as mentor texts and let the students read independently. Same with whole class novel. Or do a mixture. I just think it's so important to have students use their choice reading with their own books.
A lot of times teachers say it's impossible to do reading workshop because they don't have enough books. Please, look into your public libraries...you'd be amazed at what they can do to help!