Seatwork that Makes Sense for Reading

  • classroom organization seatwork
  • 12 September, 2020

Teacher question:

I work with students in small groups daily and need the rest of the students to be engaged in meaningful practice of their new literacy skills. What types of activities would be best for this practice?

Shanahan response:

The benefits of small group instruction are obvious. Teachers can make the learning experience more apt and intense – the small numbers allow for more responsiveness, more vigilant monitoring, and fine tuning of the teaching.

The downside of small group instruction should be equally evident. While the teacher is working with one small group, the rest of the kids are on their own. Much more learning takes place with the teacher and, frankly, much less with the kids on their own.

There are some supports and approaches that can mitigate this problem, though their availability is pretty uneven. For instance, some schools provide teacher’s aides and this assistance can allow productive activity with a couple of groups simultaneously. Or, there may be parent volunteers who play that role. Some schools are close to a college and have access to preservice teachers. And, then there are those classrooms with multiple computers that allow students to work with research-proven programs.

Those situations exist, but there are many more teachers who are on their own trying to manage small groups. I suspect you are one of those.

Even in those cases, there are things a teacher can do to minimize the problem. For instance, in some schemes the teacher moves among groups. This takes various forms. In paired reading, the teacher goes from pair-to-pair to monitor progress, guide partners’ responses, and add some teaching to the mix. I recommend that all the kids in a class work on fluency simultaneously, to make this as efficient as possible. Or, sometimes teachers alternate between two guided reading groups, interacting with one while the other reads. Cumbersome, perhaps, but workable. Another possibility is book club groups in which the kids play a big role in operating the group discussions; this allows the teacher to move profitably among even more groups.

Teachers can also have everyone in the class reading the same selection at the same time. What varies in this case is the amount of scaffolding, support, and extension that will be provided to some students. That increases the amount of teaching delivered to the lowest readers (they get more help) and decreases it for the best – which fits nicely with Carol Connor’s research on what leads to the greatest learning for a class. (Connor found that the best readers could make real progress reading on their own and being engaged in more independent activities. She did not find the same benefits for the other students.)

In any event, I’ve long recommended that teachers minimize small group work. Often such work is unnecessary, engaged in only because the teachers are required by their district to do it. This leads to silly stuff like teachers delivering the same lesson multiple times.

While I try to avoid any more small group teaching than absolutely necessary, I would never ban the practice. It’s just too valuable and classroom life too complicated to not have access to it – at least when it is used appropriately.

Let’s say you use small group instruction strategically, to target particular learning needs of students and you need to know what kinds of activities to assign the other students. For that, all you need to do is turn your attention to the research on seatwork…

Except there is no body of research on seatwork (just one study as far as I can tell—and, though helpful, it doesn’t even attempt to describe appropriate instruction in any kind of specific detail).

This is an issue without empirical data; Just lots of authoritative opinion.

So, let me add my advice to the mix.

Use activities that require a lot of accountable reading and writing. We want kids to read and write a lot. Some schemes aimed at doing that actually reduce instruction markedly to free up reading time. I’m not talking about that kind of thing, since studies haven’t found those practices to be productive for most kids.

The accountability issue is big here. If students know that there will be some real follow up that will take them back through the text in detail it changes both their reading behavior and their learning. I’m not a big fan of one-on-one conferencing in reading because it increases the amount of time kids are away from the teacher and minimizes their accountability.

There are various ways of requiring reading during the time a teacher is busy with another group. The teacher might encourage students to attempt that day’s selection on their own before they try to undertake it with the teacher’s guidance. The same thing can be done, frankly, with a social studies or science chapter. That permits students to read such texts multiple times.

Another possibility is to teach a writing lesson just prior to starting with reading groups and to have the boys and girls working on their compositions or revisions while the teacher is elsewhere. The same can be done with vocabulary lessons.

However, if students have problems with the work tied to such lessons, the teacher will have to follow up – so it’s important that the seatwork not be so demanding that children need teacher help. I’ve tried this with math, which would be fine if doing the problems wasn’t such a big part of the math learning. Teachers really need to be available to take part in that classroom activity, so that particular pairing wasn’t a good one. 

Accountability means that the teacher is going to have to closely monitor student success. This can be done a number of ways – but usually through either follow discussion (small group or whole class) or writing.  

The best seatwork activities will guide students to engage the meaning of the text more deeply. I suspect this is as true for seatwork as for other pedagogical endeavors. That’s why many worksheets and centers simply don’t work very well. To complete them it usually isn’t necessary to think much about the text.

What kinds of activities fit the bill? Here are a few that can be done with any texts that the students are trying to read. The key is to focus them on key parts of the text or language that you suspect will trip kids up.

1.     Sentence reducing and sentence combining

Get students to dig into the meaning of sentences by recomposing them. For instance, have them turn these three sentences into one:

“Cities in many countries have special building laws. Buildings must be strong and flexible. That way, they won’t collapse during an earthquake.” ----> 

To keep buildings from collapsing during an earthquake, cities in many countries have special laws that require the buildings to be strong and flexible.

Or, try breaking this sentence down into multiple sentences:

“So Hayleigh began drawing out her ideas to make charms that look like earrings.”  ---->

Hayleigh draws out her ideas.

She makes charms.

The charms look like earrings.

2.     Cohesion analysis

Get students to connect the ideas across a text. To track the ideas, students can mark each appearance of an idea with different colors or by some other marking system. Here I have used underlining, italics, and bolding to show the links.

“When disasters such as storms, floods, and earthquakes strike an area, people from all over the world want to help. They know that someday they may need help themselves. They also know that it is the right thing to do and that it is rewarding. I think that when people are in need it is important for all of us to find a way to help out.” â

“When disasters such as storms, floods, and earthquakes strike an area, people from all over the world want to help. They know that someday they may need help themselves. They also know that it is the right thing to do and that it is rewarding. I think that when people are in need it is important for all of us to find a way to help out.

3.     Vocabulary and context

Lift some sentences from the text and have the students use the context to figure out the meaning of the underlined word and then have them replace the word with an appropriate synonym or phrase.

Buildings must be strong and flexible. That way, they won’t collapse during an earthquake. â

Buildings must be strong and flexible. That way, they won’t _fall down_ during an


4.     Text Comparisons

Have students write text comparisons. They can compare today’s text with any other text that you have already had them read or that you have read to them. These comparisons might be of something quite specific such as comparing the characters from two stories, or it might be something more all-encompassing like comparing two social studies chapters (comparing two civilizations in grade 4, for instance).

Each of these exercises requires that students think deeply about the language of the text that they are trying to understand. These kinds of exercises can be done before or after the students have read the text.

Of course, if they are going to analyze text in those ways successfully, you cannot start out with a seatwork assignment. Initially, you’ll need to do these with the boys and girls so that they learn how to do them. In that one study on seatwork that I mentioned, this was one of the big take-aways. Kids often don’t have any idea how to do the seatwork. Using similar activities throughout the year and preparing students to complete them will make a big difference.


See what others have to say about this topic.

MARGARET N CONNOLLY Sep 11, 2020 04:57 PM

It’s so difficult for teacher hanging between Fountas and Pinnell and Lucy Caulkins to trust the ideas above. But as a person trained in both, and having seen limited success for our “struggling” readers, I can clearly see how the tasks you’ve described: 1) demand more thinking and 2) have the student doing the reading work, when so often teachers , during guided reading, are doing to much of the guiding of students’ thinking.

Mark Pennington Sep 11, 2020 05:48 PM

Practical advice that will resonate with teachers in real classrooms. Again, to bullet-point what was mentioned: Why teach the same lesson more than once to small groups? The "smallness" is not a magic potion for learning.

Linda Bowles Da Silva Sep 11, 2020 10:16 PM

The research he quoted from Carol Connor backs up what I see in the classroom. The higher readers prefer to work independently and do learn on their own as long as the work is meaningful. The lower readers need a lot more one on one help. I find this easier to do in small groups. Working in groups also takes into account the fact that lower readers are uncomfortable reading in front of a large number of students. In small groups I have the students read articles, or fiction texts out loud paragraph by paragraph (I teach high school ESL). I move around to different groups to listen to them and give input or question. I'm doing this online and I do think the management of the groups is harder because I can't see what the other students in the room are doing. I do think it's getting easier as the weeks progress and we continue following the same procedure, so the students are doing more work. I also work on fluency whole group or let the students use immersive reader. This is easier now that we are online.

Tracy Ocasio Sep 12, 2020 08:08 AM

I think the key takeaway is that when students must work on their own without the teacher, it should be to complete meaningful practice opportunities that either extend their thinking or allow them to interact with the text in ways that help them delve into specific parts that will allow better understanding. The other takeaway is that when students are doing work independently, the best use of this time requires active monitoring by the teacher, who uses this work as unobtrusive formative assessments where the teacher can monitor and adjust their subsequent instruction more immediately. This could be instruction in a small group that is targeted based on student response. Lastly, it’s clear that the teacher is the driver of the learning especially for struggling students. Another great blog that lets us consider the effectiveness of what we do.

Aida Fahoum Sep 12, 2020 11:59 AM

Thank you for these suggestions. Modelling how to engage in these kinds of activities with a whole group would help kids dig in meaningfully. (It would make things really engaging if you could find a journalist to zoom into your class to talk about how this is done in the real world.) Also, for kids who need visual structures to fit their ideas into, teaching how to use certain apps will help. Inspiration is a great one with a number of mind mapping graphics that support idea organization. Lastly, I really see here how the approach of Structured Word Inquiry has the power to enrich learners’ understanding of the words and ideas within a familiar and novel text. If we can guide this kind of inquiry, we can teach students to do it independently or with one another.

Kelly Greene Sep 12, 2020 03:35 PM

I teach first grade and have struggled with working with small groups while finding meaningful activities for the rest of the class while I am unavailable. What is recommended above is far too complicated for my grade level. I am the only adult in the room unless I ask for parent help. Often the parent help is more work than help. What would you recommend for independent seat work for first graders?

Harriett Sep 12, 2020 09:26 PM

Kelly, Tim mentioned the possibility of using computer programs for the rest of the class while doing small group instruction. At my school, students have access to several programs, and I found this was the best way to keep the students meaningfully occupied while I worked with a small group of kindergartners or first graders.

Andrea Welter Sep 14, 2020 12:57 PM

I think the answer/solution varies greatly dependent upon the age and ability level of the students. I taught 2nd grade for 12 years, and most of them would not be able to do any of those activities without a lot of assistance. I agree they can be writing though. I have had some success with the Daily 5 model that uses word work activities and listening to reading. I have found that reading to self was not as beneficial for the struggling readers because they frequently selected books that were too difficult (even tho we teach how to choose a good fit book for independent reading) and they were just typically more off task without any support. I have found that small groups were very helpful for phonics lessons-the whole class got a brief overview/review of the skill, but the kiddos who have not mastered it got more intense instruction and additional practice.

Adam Oct 10, 2020 06:30 PM

Thank you for your suggestions and advice Tim.

I teach in England and I have seen a noticeable reduction in schools advocating the guided reading approach. I’m sure many schools continue to struggle through various carousels and ‘holding’ activities but I’m pleased to say that the schools I have worked for do not advocate for this strategy.

As one of my more astute former colleagues pointed out to our group during a CPD session, why do we have a completely different approach to teaching reading than any other subject? We don’t expect teachers to work in small groups for maths and rotate the class around activities largely designed to ‘hold’ them and prevent them from disturbing their teacher, so why do some teachers still feel this is the correct approach when teaching reading?

I do not know the answer to this last question and I’ve yet to see any robust research or evidence that supports guided reading. If it does exist, please let me know.

While responding to texts in writing is crucial for improving comprehension because the learners are being asked to engage in a meta cognitive paradigm about their own understanding, it is also crucial for children to discuss and debate the texts they read robustly. If only one group a day gets that opportunity and the others do not because the teacher has to minimize disturbances around the classroom, are the children benefitting from the work given to them?

Give all of the children the same engaging, insightful text which will stretch their decoding and comprehension skills. Something thought provoking! Read to them and have them read in pairs as well so they can hear what fluent reading sounds like and try it themselves with a peer to support. Give them follow up activities which force them to engage and debate. Then ask the learners to respond in writing based on and furthering discussions they have taken part in.

Don’t be afraid to follow your instincts. If you feel like something isn’t working for your students, it is your responsibility to try something different. We’re all professionals and should be treated as such!

What Are your thoughts?

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Seatwork that Makes Sense for Reading


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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