How to Make Reading Workshop More Effective

  • 04 May, 2019

Teacher question:

In an effort to streamline the workshop model in our district, I am looking for your stance on focused independent reading and/or any articles that you have written that support the importance of students reading at school with a specific focus in mind rather than "reading just to read"?  

Shanahan response: 

Unfortunately, there aren’t studies of this. People who are claiming that “focused independent reading” works better than having kids just reading on their own are theorizing.

I can tell you that the pattern of studies that I’ve reviewed over the years suggests that efforts to teach reading through kids’ reading practice tend to be most effective when they look the most like explicit instruction.

What I mean by that is that teacher guidance or choice with regard to the texts read, teacher involvement in establishing purposes for reading, and holding kids accountable for comprehension of the material seem to increase the chances of success. Of course, those components aren’t very “reading workshoppy”.

Reading is good, but it is most likely to pay off in more learning than kids can do on their own when someone is making certain that the text delivers a particular reading experience or knowledge for the students, when the kids have a clear idea of what they are working on or trying to accomplish, and when someone makes certain that kids are accomplishing the reading goals and provides reteaching and rereading as needed.  

Kids definitely need to read.

They should read within instruction. That kind of reading has students take on particular kinds of reading challenges and makes sure that they learn to do that successfully.

Students also should read on their own, as part of their own lives. Requiring kids to read for enjoyment at school is neither particularly enjoyable, nor does it provide kids with any opportunity to make decisions about when and why they will read in the spaces they reside and in their daily routines.

Reading workshop as usually conceived is too different from instruction to give kids the added benefit that should come from working with teachers. You can try to tighten up on workshop practices to make them more like teaching, but you might be better off starting with a teaching model and then try to make it more motivational.

Nevertheless, I’m glad you are trying to find ways to make reading workshops effective. In contrast, I heard from a teacher this week who was reprimanded for running extended classroom literature discussions instead of 1- to 3-minute individual conferences.

I guess not everyone wants kids to think deeply about literature. Or understands that you can’t accomplish that in 60 second increments with relatively non-challenging books.

Oh, I know that there are teachers (and authors of popular education books) who claim kids benefit greatly from reading self-selected popular YA literature and that no student should be questioned closely or thoroughly by teachers who have studied and thought deeply about those books.

But they’re wrong. They don’t have research supporting their claims and the research that does exist on such issues suggests that what they have to offer is not particularly potent. Indeed, try to find ways to make your workshops look more like effective teaching. That might just work!


See what others have to say about this topic.

Satish Shah May 05, 2019 06:24 AM

It appears that many teachers are trained to spot children who may be dyslexic and instead of putting forward for assessment with educational psychologist they keep on insisting that children read more at home to improve reading capability. Training should cover identifying such life impacting difficulty.

Christine Carter May 06, 2019 07:08 PM

As a Speech-Language Pathologist with specialized training in Dyslexia Therapy, I appreciate your effort to expose that reading to one-self, kids reading aloud to each other, and other like "stations" are not Reading instruction. I am trying to help one parent in particular fight a powerful school system that insists their reading programs are appropriate for a students with dyslexia. The reading program they claim to be appropriate takes this workshop/station approach. The student gets plenty of opportunity to learn and practice decoding incorrectly, and minimal time 1:1 with the teacher. Never mind the fact that the teachers are not properly trained on how to teach reading to dyslexic children in the first place, nor the inappropriateness of the materials themselves (as I have had a chance to preview samples from the publisher). Ugh! Any suggestions for filing lawsuits with limited funding? I wish I would win the lottery so I could help this family.

CShaw May 15, 2019 03:49 PM

Christine Carter, I am fighting this same battle as a consultant. Schools have fully bought into the idea that a child sitting with a stack of books and reading to a "buddy" is a superior method of "teaching" reading than explicit instruction by a qualified teacher. Therefore, the students who would benefit from more 1:1 or even effective whole group teacher reading instruction, are only getting about 12 min a day because of the mandatory rotations. At times, I feel like I am the "crazy" one going against what I know is not the most efficient way to actually improve student comprehension. It's quite frustrating. How do we get more educators and ecducational "leaders" to see that what is "Edsexy" isn't always what's really best for kids??

Tim Shanahan May 16, 2019 02:58 AM

My only answer is that we need to get used to relying on research evidence rather than edsexy opinions.

Audrey May 16, 2019 03:29 AM

I think it’s important that everyone develops a shared vision of a true reading workshop.

1. A mini-lesson that is focused on a specific teaching point
2. Students reading for extended time, in self-selected texts, utilizing the learning from the mini-lesson or another reading goal that has been determined earlier
3. The teacher conferring with students to support their learning
4. The teacher pulling small groups to work on needed skills
5. The class coming back together to discuss their application of the learning in their own, self-selected books

If a “workshop” looks different than the description above, then the teacher isn’t utilizing a true workshop model. We can’t expect kids to get better if they’re not actually reading authentic texts.

*See Allington’s research on the importance and effectiveness of having students read for extended periods of time in authentic texts.

Timothy Shanahan May 24, 2019 05:28 PM


And if someone follows all of those steps, they still are not providing the kinds of instruction that have been found in research to improve kids' reading ability. It is terrific that teachers need to be following those steps to be consistent with the one true faith, but I'd prefer that they did things that have been proven to help kids do better.

Mike Jun 07, 2019 02:54 PM

Tim - Can you point to a blog post that lists out and explains the things that have been proven to help kids do better? I am sure you have written one before!


Tony Manzo Jul 30, 2019 10:25 PM

I have the same question as Mike above. I am, too, disillusioned with the workshop model, but should I do instead?

What Are your thoughts?

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

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How to Make Reading Workshop More Effective


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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