Does Reader's Workshop Promote Close Reading Adequately?

  • 22 October, 2017

Teacher question:

I’m a regular reader and it seems to me that you undervalue activities like Reader’s Workshop and what it can do for children. Letting them pick their own books is great for their motivation and this isn’t like free reading, independent reading, or SSR because I meet with them regularly, one-on-one, to talk about what they are reading. There is more to teaching reading than phonics lessons or fluency practice. 

Shanahan response:

Thanks for being a regular reader and I hope that you’ll continue to be after you read my answer.

Your inference is right on the button. I’m not a big fan of Reader’s Workshop—though it wouldn’t break my heart if you occasionally built a unit around Reader’s Workshop. A little of that activity isn’t likely to do much harm and it might allow you liven things up a bit.

More than that would be a bad idea if the purpose was to help kids to become powerful readers. 

Basically, my problem with Reader’s Workshop is the lack of teaching (and the idea of mini-lessons is basically to minimize teaching). 

You didn’t mention how many kids you’re responsible for, but let’s pick a moderate number: 25. And, let’s say those 25 kids pick 25 different books. Even if those books are from your classroom library, I think it’s unlikely that you, me, or any teacher is likely to have a depth of understanding and recall of all those books at your fingertips all the time. (I used to have about 1000 books in my class library).

But in order to push kids to a deeper understanding of a text—beyond just retelling the high points of a story or recalling some important facts from an informational text or generating some low-level inferences—the teacher needs to have read the text and to have thought deeply about it herself/himself. (Admittedly, textbooks can help with this, just like reading published criticism of a text can help you to think about it, but there is nothing like reading and interpreting a text oneself.)

If I’m right about this (and let’s face it, I am)—that you lack that depth of understanding of all the texts that you are asking kids to read—then your conferencing is more likely to be of the variety in which you check to see if the kids are at least superficially reading the text rather than asking them the kinds of questions that require that they notice the nuances and subtleties of a text and figure out how those connect to the big ideas.

Of course, you could operate your workshops differently than that. You could limit kid’s choices more severely—perhaps only allowing for only two or three choices from a carefully curated set of texts. That way you’d still have some choice for the kids, but it would be much more constrained, and you could definitely keep on top of those texts… which would allow you to be a teacher rather than a tester.

However, there are still problems with that approach.

How much time do your conferences last? If you keep them to 5 minutes each—and that is long in my experience, that would allow you to talk to kids about their reading about twice a week (or perhaps 3 times if you are particularly assiduous). But one would expect those discussions, if they were focused on only a few books, to be pretty repetitive. The same questions would get asked again and again. What’s the benefit of that? To me, it would make more sense to group those kids and have guided reading discussions—oops, there goes the individual conferencing.

But let’s say you don’t care about efficiency or the amount of teaching that kids get (big mistake, but let’s just say….). How deeply can you take kids into that text in those 5-minute discussions?

No question that a teacher using a textbook with all of the kids can lead a superficial discussion. That may happen, for instance, when teachers don’t bother to read the texts themselves, or don’t think much about them. However, the commitment to individual conferencing guarantees that you will not impel kids to a deep reading.

I’m not foolish. I get that many teachers who teach classes or groups with a common text fail to gain the benefits of that approach for their students. Such structures allow for excellent teaching, but they don’t assure it. Readers’ Workshop approach, however, even when used relatively well guarantees that teachers will not be able to engage kids in a deep dive into a text’s meaning and craft beyond a level that they can go without the teacher.

Some teachers may not know what deep or close or analytical reading looks like. If you need a model of deep interpretation of literature, then become familiar with the highly readable “How to Read Literature Like a Professor” by Thomas Foster or the erudite critical classic, “Seven Types of Ambiguity” by William Empson. These aren’t paint by number texts. They demonstrate how sophisticated readers read texts closely and intensely—paying attention to how ideas are conveyed powerfully through language. Teachers would have to look at these as exemplars of what great readers do, and then stretch to apply these examples to the books their students will read.

Or even better, perhaps you can find a Great Books discussion group in your area. These discussion groups are not specifically for teachers and they don’t focus on children’s books. However, once you see how reading with a group under the guidance of someone who knows that book well can push your thinking, I think you’ll understand why I’m not that impressed with individual conferencing in a classroom.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Margaret Oct 22, 2017 11:09 PM

I know a lot of teachers I work with have had these nagging thoughts- I'm not really teaching much in Reader's Workshop. The mini lesson I hope for the best. And you are so right about it being impossible for teachers to deeply know each book a student chooses. I will offer one one other reason Workshop fails- most teachers have not had the luxury of a classical education in literature So, it doesn't even matter which approach you are bound to- if you haven't been taught by a master English teacher or professor, you just don't have the knowledge and skill to get to the depths of close reading with your students.

Shawn Oct 22, 2017 11:59 PM

What approach do you support and encourage when teaching close reading? small groups?

Timothy Shanahan Oct 23, 2017 12:14 AM

Margaret—it is hard to teach something that you have never seen—especially if you limit the teaching to 2-3 minutes. Thanks.

Timothy Shanahan Oct 23, 2017 12:17 AM

Shawn- I would definitely teach close reading in small group or even whole class. And you are going to have to invest some real time for both the reading/rereading and discussion.

rob Oct 23, 2017 01:06 AM

This is another example of how there is no consensus on how to teach reading..even amongst experts or at least people who make lots of money off books and conferences

Tim Shanahan Oct 23, 2017 02:55 AM

Rob— I wouldn’t count someone as an expert just because they sell stuff to teachers or schools. There is much more concerns us than you presume among the scientists as to what it takes to teach reading. But you are correct that there are many people out there with “philosophies” but no data. That they may be taken as equal by some school administrators or teachers is a tragedy for kids.


Tracy Ocasio Oct 23, 2017 02:35 PM

This is a great response to help us all think about what is for a reader to have an interactive experience with a text and how important it is for a teacher to have a deep understanding of the richness of the text of s/he is going to facilitate students development as readers. I have been in classrooms in the United States where teachers are compelled in the interest of time to test comprehension with a series of quick questions about the text that aren't necessarily purposeful in helping to expose what is significant about the text. I also think that it's evident but not directly mentioned that this does less for struggling readers despite the 1:1 interaction as a result of its limitations.

Tim Shanahan Oct 24, 2017 01:53 AM

Good point, approach that becomes an excuse for not teaching!

Jill Oct 25, 2017 03:32 PM

As an instructional literacy coach in an urban school, I've been grappling with while coaching a 4th grade teacher in writing instruction. I would love to hear your thoughts on how your ideas might apply to writing. Thanks!

Tim Shanahan Oct 27, 2017 05:03 PM

By its nature, writing requires this kind of individual feedback, because each child necessarily must create his or her own text. Reading, on the other hand, can be taught with a shared text so individual discussion is repetitive, unnecessary, and limits the ability to go deep. (My point is not that there can be no place for group work in writing, but individual conferencing plays a very different role that makes it beneficial.)


Khalid Dec 15, 2017 04:34 PM

Sir, you are right by saying that we cannot teach things we haven't seen. However, still majority of things we teach are unseen by us. It is the confidence of believing we gives support to teacher,

Michael Jan 04, 2018 09:19 PM

This appears to be a very reductive vision of Readers Workshop. When you say, "the idea of mini-lessons is basically to minimize teaching" it distorts the actual "idea of mini-lessons." The idea is to reduce the time that students spend in highly scaffolded and guided instruction in which they can not practice the strategies and skills they need to be successful (or for "a deep dive" of the kind you describe). The fact of the matter is, research has clearly shown students need copious amounts of time to read and to practice reading skills and they need to do this in text that is at least somewhat close to their independent reading level. A Readers Workshop in a secondary classroom might have 15 minutes of whole-class instruction three times a week, 25 minutes of Independent Reading, and a 10 minute Instructional Share. One day a week might look more like a literature circle discussion or a socratic seminar, and another day of the week might look more like a Shared Reading that reflects the kind of teaching you're talking about. So what you've set up here is a straw man argument in which Readers Workshop appears "to minimize teaching."

If we imagine a classroom that regularly flips that ratio of instruction vs. practice, we generally find passive learners. If the teachers must guide instruction for 30 minutes and provides 10 minutes of independent reading practice a day with a text that may or may not match readers' independent levels, what we see are students pretending to read, or students who read superficially because they are actually unable to really access the text, or students waiting until other students provide ideas to start their thinking. It builds students' capacity very slowly, and often, it actually diminishes students' capacity. A wealth of research demonstrates this.

Instead of the straw man argument against Readers Workshop, it would be far more productive to talk about how to truly realize a balanced literacy approach within a secondary classroom. This would involve some shared close reading experiences with challenging, complex texts weekly, and some shared discussion on these complex texts, as well as roughly 3 days of more differentiated practice. This might look like literature circles, or it might be an independent reading unit, or it might be a research unit.

Incidentally, the claim that teachers can not usefully (or deeply or strategically) conference with students if they have not read the book is patently false. There are many videos of teachers doing this, and I regularly do this. At this point, I'm quite familiar with the books students read, but I certainly haven't read them all. I know their features quite well, I have read excerpts of them, and understand the character arcs quite well. It's a simple matter to have students take me to a specific place in the text and ground their thoughts in that place (which they should also have done in their notes). It takes me about 30 seconds to understand the conflict of the moment in their text and assess how they're reading for that. I *do* generally recommend that teachers I work with confer with two to four students at a time, but this isn't because I can not have a useful conference with one. It's because, in a secondary context, I teach an average of 30 students in 50 minutes, and in the span of 5-7 minutes I want to assess 2-4 students. That way, in 25 minutes I'm assessing approximately 9 students deeply. The rest of the students I assess more superficially through exit tickets that day or by looking at a single extended response every couple days or any number of other ways.

*This* is the kind of measured conversation that teachers should be having about how to really move students toward independence in increasingly complex texts.

Simon Hand Apr 21, 2018 03:17 AM

Hey Tim, How do you respond to Nancie Atwell's The Reading Zone? She's clearly one of the most renowned and influential reading teachers in the country and she's arguing that reading workshop is the only way to go. More specifically, to your comment about conferences being superficial, she argues, in part using the words of one of her middle schoolers, that reading and discussion in her school are more rigorous than what typically goes on in reading classrooms because choice, volume of reading, and experience guidance, albeit in individual conferences, lead to deeper appreciation of books by young readers.

Jenean Sep 09, 2018 12:33 PM

Both, Readers Workshop for books of choice alongside the class close reading of a full novel. Students practicing the moves demo’d in class novel with their book of choice. Yes, there’s time.

Iris Sep 28, 2019 07:25 PM

Thank you! You've articulated my concerns with this philosophy. Our district is late to the game, but we are being forced to implement this framework this year. It seems that truly balanced literacy would combine independent reading with actual teaching. It seems that students are not reading to learn, but just reading to get to the end of a book. If you are not allowed to hear them read, how do you gauge fluency? How can there be no wrong answers, just levels of justification? No technology allowed, no projects. I'm very thankful my own children are out of school!

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Does Reader's Workshop Promote Close Reading Adequately?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.