What Do You Think of the Reading Workshop? or How Not to Teach Reading Comprehension

  • 21 September, 2019

Blast from the Past: First released on September 21, 2019; re-issued January 22, 2022. 

This blog entry was met by a great deal of controversy with some teachers agreeing with me and others arguing that you can deeply engage a text even if you haven't read it. Of course, since this was released we have been immersed in a COVID crisis that has greatly reduced the amount of reading instruction that children are receiving. The reading conference method might seem more useful to some in this unfortunate climate. We definitely want to encourage kids to replace some of that lost schooling with independent reading but it is essential that teachers and parents find ways to guide students' reading efforts so that they take on books that are sufficiently challenging and that they receive sufficient guidance so they don't miss important and subtle content and craft considerations. I hope this re-issue encourages responses from teachers who may have found some ways of accomplishing that in our seriously disrupted educational system). 

Teacher question:

I saw you make a presentation recently, and I was surprised to hear that you did not like the conferencing that is provided in Readers Workshop. That is the method that our district requires. Isn’t it research-based?

Shanahan responds:

No, it definitely is not research based.

I can’t find a single study that supports its use.

I can’t even find any study that supports programs that include this approach.

Of course, a lack of research support for a particular method doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Perhaps the technique has never been studied, or if it was investigated maybe the study had some important flaw.

I don’t think that’s the problem here, though. I think it is just a bad idea.

Readers Workshop is an approach that seems to have emerged from Writers Workshop. I’m more sympathetic to the latter than to the former. Although there are important connections between reading and writing, that does not mean that they should to be taught in the same way—and in this case, the workshop method is not particularly supportive of reading.

There was a similar approach recommended for beginning readers back in the 1950s referred to as “individualized reading” (thank you, Jeannette Veatch), but this modern version doesn’t seem to be closely aligned with that.

Basically, readers workshop provides extensive collections of books, emphasizes student choices of what will be read, limits students’ reading to texts that can be read easily by them, requires that the students spend extensive time reading these books, provides explicit teaching through mini-lessons, and monitors and supports reading comprehension development through one-on-one teacher-student conferences.

There are various problems with this approach, but, to me, the most egregious ones are the heavy emphasis on texts that the kids can already read well, and the remarkably weak support provided for making sense of text.

Last week I defined reading “as making sense of text by negotiating the linguistic and conceptual affordances and barriers to meaning.”

By that definition, high quality reading comprehension instruction would introduce students to texts that they could not already read easily or well, and would provide some kind of guidance or support to help them negotiate the text or content features that might be tripping up their sense making.

Of course, easy books are important in this Readers Workshop since the kids will be doing so much of the reading on their own, and with so little teacher support. Hard to imagine many students reading hard books on their own for 80 minutes per day (40 minutes during the workshop and another 40 at home in the evening)—though those amounts of reading are surely admirable.

The lack of teacher support strikes me as, well, bizarre.

Awhile back I got in a Twitter fight with some teachers who were claiming that they were able to get kids to do ambitious, sophisticated close readings of challenging texts through their one-on-one conferences that typically take 1-3 minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, discussions of books can be very powerful stimulants of reading comprehension and learning. Research has certainly shown that to be the case (Murphy, Wilkinson, Soter, Hennessey, & Alexander, 2009).

But it highly improbable that a 1-minute discussion of a text is going to help a student develop some deep insight to meaning, to grasp some subtlety expressed idea, to gain purchase on a concept like symbolism or allusion, or to learn how to deftly connect prose and graphics.

My hunch is that teachers who think such brief exchanges are effective are those who have not been fortunate enough to engage in deep discussions of books.

Even more disturbing was that my Twitter compatriots were not only certain that these brief text conversations were potent teaching tools, but that they didn’t have to know the books the kids were reading.

I thought that was kind of crazy, but then I recently read Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for third grade. It’s one thing to say something dopey on Twitter (who hasn’t done that?), but to write it in a book takes some real forethought.

On page 52, teachers are given advice on how they can fake it when they haven’t actually read the book. Calkins and company are concerned that teachers might “feel insecure” having to confer about unknown books. They make no mention of the instructional value of reading guidance from a teacher who couldn’t possibly know what the student is dealing with, but we certainly wouldn’t want uncomfortable teachers.  

Yes, if you’d read the book you might know that the confusing thing is that two of the characters are really similar, or that the most important idea is that the changes in the setting are reflective of the changes in the characters, or perhaps it’s the comparison of two science concepts.

But since you haven’t read it, you can’t help with or emphasize any of that.

And, yet, according to Calkins and company you can conduct a probing interrogation like, “Can you tell me a bit about the main character?”

Little Johnny is fighting his way through Moby Dick, and the teacher’s one-minute conference might go something like this:

Teacher: Johnny what are you reading?

Johnny: Moby Dick.

T: How’s it going?

J: Good.

T: What can you tell me about the main character?

J: He’s a whale.

T: What have you learned about him?

J: He’s white.

T: Is the main character the narrator?

J: Sure. Moby tells the story.

The fact that little Johnny isn’t really understanding Moby Dick could easily be lost on a teacher who herself hasn’t read the text.

This illustration is silly, of course. First, no kid in Readers Workshop is likely to decide to take on Melville, even in high school. Second, no teacher is going to let a kid take on Moby Dick because its Lexile level will likely be beyond their supposed “instructional levels.”

Nevertheless, the point is a fair one: Kids learn more from texts when they are engaged in discussions of those texts (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988; Murphy, et al., 2009), but the discussions that have been studied are led by teachers who have read the texts and who are going to help the students to develop a coherent understanding of them. 

There are wonderful research-based guides out there that provide direction for leading such discussions based on teacher knowledge of the text (Dwyer, Kelcy, Berebitsky, & Carlisle, 2016; Kucan & Palincsar, 2018). But, then what else would you expect from the research community? They couldn’t possibly understand the depths of comprehension that can be stimulated by teachers without any real knowledge of a text.

Of course, teachers who follow textbooks can fall into the same trap. They convince themselves that because the textbook editor has read the story and provided some questions that they don’t have to read it, too. You know them, the “We’ll learn this simultaneously” crowd.

This is like those supposedly “driverless cars.” The car might do most of the driving, but there has to be a human holding the steering wheel and paying attention. No matter how good the textbook program, teacher still need to read the texts to be adequately prepared to guide kids’ reading when it needs guiding.

Next week’s blog entry will focus on why effective math teachers don’t need to know anything about mathematics?


See what others have to say about this topic.

Concerned Teacher Mar 26, 2021 11:20 PM

I think if a reading workshop has
1 whole class focus
2 time for independent reading (where picking a best fit book OR book provided where needed because that child needs something picked for them - there are tasks to do during this time)
3. A guided lesson of some kind happens (such as reciprocal reading, fluency based, phonics based or guided reading or other explicit teaching with a small group or 1:1 - dependent on needs of that group)
4. A short chat 5mins - 7 mins about children’s goals when reading - or conference.
^^^then I’m not sure what you’d think wouldn’t work about that. Explicit teaching. Time to consolidate skills. Reading time, books with challenge for guided or explicit teaching, whole focus that links to reading skills is exactly what should be taught. Not sure what you’re advocating for in a classroom in that case

Marilyn Zecher Sep 21, 2019 03:20 PM

I agree that brief discussions about a book the teacher does not know do not help students really dive deeply into complex text. This is particularly egregious for students with disabilities who may need additional support with decoding or vocabulary even though they are perfectly capable of literacy insights and larger ideas within the text.

As to your the topic of next week's blog, I have very strong feelings b/c I offer professional development on teaching math to all kinds of learners. I am a certified academic language therapist who specializes in multisensory strategies for math instruction K-algebra. There is a reason so very few students with LD are not proficient in math when they begin algebra in 8th grade. Much of it has to do with teacher preparation and knowledge of math at lower levels. Not knowing the mathematical concepts and how to teach them leaves many teachers offering only procedural instruction. This is especially true when students get to multiplication and fractions. You can see state test scores for students with LD begin to decline after fractions are introduced and they plummet by 8th grade. Let's have that discussion.

Gretchen Sep 21, 2019 03:21 PM

I had a very fortunate experience to attend a one day workshop/experience at a nationally acclaimed model school yesterday. I learned much, but I was very disturbed by one “master” teacher who said he spent 20-30 minutes of his 60 minute block allowing students to do self selected reading while he conferences with students. All the teachers loved the idea, but I was cringing on the inside because it just perpetuates this cycle of ineffective reading “instruction “.

Shellie Sep 21, 2019 03:28 PM

I wish more people in education would read this! I am in a district that loves this method and I’m very disturbed by it. Sigh...I’m SO tired of the constructivist method of teaching. Why have teachers anymore? They are just babysitting at this point. But hey I’m 45 and have taught 15 years successfully what do I know, right? I asked at a Readers Workshop meeting recently “when do the kids learn the classics? You know, books they won’t ever read voluntarily?” And the very very young, bouncy, bushy tailed presenter actually said “well they really don’t NEED to read those. Most people agree we should move away from those required lists. I mean culturally we don’t even know or agree on what is relevant to read anymore anyway.” It truly hurts to hear this is how we are training the next generation of teachers.

Jamie Metsala Sep 21, 2019 03:29 PM

I recommend, "Motivating Reading Comprehension: Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction", by John Guthrie, Allan Wigfield , and Kathleen Perencevich (Editors). It's from 2004 - but don't let that deter you. Lots to learn here about teaching reading comprehension within an engagement framework. The book has many classroom examples that will resonate with teachers. The focus is on grades 3-6, but very relevant to Middle school teachers as well.
For Middle and High School teachers, see Engaging Adolescents in Reading, by John T. Guthrie (Editor).

Kausalai Wijekumar Sep 21, 2019 03:39 PM

I wish EVERY TEACHER would be required to read these insightful comments Dr. Shanahan!

SHERRI MORGAN Sep 21, 2019 04:04 PM

I respect your opinion. My question to you would be how would you teach reading to 3rd graders? Please answer with your best choice in a researched based curriculum and/or methodology. I am interested in your opinion.

Tammy Sep 21, 2019 04:12 PM

I have the same question as Sherri Morgan. We also use workshop model AND we use Lucy Calkins as our guide. I am very open to ideas/suggestions to help our students to become competent lovers of reading. Thanks!

Cindy Matthews Sep 21, 2019 06:31 PM

You are spot on. I am a Reading Specialist who has been teaching reading at the elementary level, middle school level, college level reading department, then back to coaching reading and writing instruction. It seems everyone in my area has drunk the Calkins kool-aid but I truly agree that she has bitten off more than she can chew with reading. In fact, reading workshop notwithstanding, I was just made to give up my fledgling Fundations initiative in K-2 because Calkins Phonics is endorsed by the district and my Fundations implementation was decided upon and funded at my building level based on our interpretation of the data. Can I move to Chicago and help you run a study to put this issue to rest? Discouraged in Massachusetts.

Harriett Sep 21, 2019 07:19 PM

The good news is that Tim isn't the only one saying that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. The wonderful new audio documentary by Emily Hanford, At a Loss for Words https://www.apmreports.org/story/2019/08/22/whats-wrong-how-schools-teach-reading, also calls out the reigning emperors who have a stranglehold on many districts, and she meticulously dissects their midguided approaches. At the end, she states: "I wanted to know what the authors of those materials make of the cognitive science research. And I wanted to give them a chance to explain the ideas behind their work. I wrote to Calkins, Fountas and Pinnell and asked for interviews. They all declined. Heinemann sent a statement that said every product the company sells is informed by extensive research." There are many of us who are thinking globally but fighting locally.

Courtney Sep 21, 2019 08:24 PM

Why is the education community referring to students as learners? I find this very disturbing. Also, my daughter went to a school that used the approach by Calkins and she became a very lazy reader and learned nothing. This program is harmful and I don't understand why so many teachers have embraced this terrible curriculum. They don't read classics in this program because too many white makes wrote the classic books and there isn't enough "diversity". That is the real reason why the classics have been tossed in this program. They care more about diversity than actual quality literature that might have a focus and value on God.

Lori S. Sep 21, 2019 08:35 PM

????Please help districts, schools, leaders, & teachers learn that Reader’s & Writer’s Workshop are not research based practices. Add to that message that high-quality curriculum should be adopted & implemented instead of the workshop model.
????Please stop revising, writing, editing, enhancing, supplementing curriculum... etc.

????Leaving old practices behind that haven’t worked doesn’t mean we have failed! ????

Angela Sep 21, 2019 09:07 PM

I read through the comments, and I wanted to respond briefly.

I’m really over the idea of getting kids to love reading. I’ve learned so much these past few months about learning disabilities and how kids struggle to read. I understand the concept that reading is not natural, and it is a difficult process for more people than we admit.

I want parents and student to know the magic of reading. It is amazing how our brains are able to create an interface between different parts to learn how to read.

This is not as easy for some learners as others and just wanting them to love reading is not enough. We have to use reading strategies based on scientific research. Teachers have to be adept in knowing the major areas of of reading outlined by the NRPR (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) and the strands that fall under each one of those areas (see The Simple View of Reading).

Teachers also need to understand the strategies and techniques that are required to help struggling readers when they have weaknesses in any of these areas (see Structured Literacy). There are other resources available that will help, but they are not always the resources that are found in schools.

I’m not against the love of reading, I just stopped saying that as I began to realize the very real struggle students are having and the very real problem of getting better scientifically-based research strategies in our schools that match the findings from cognitive neuroscience, educational psychology, education, and linguistics. Hopefully, when we start doing that, we will be better able to support more young readers, and they will have a better chance to enjoy reading.

Tim Shanahan Sep 22, 2019 02:24 AM


I want to make sure you know that John Guthrie doesn’t support teachers not knowing the books—nor does he recommend having kids read whatever they want from 1000 books. Just saying...

Tim Shanahan Sep 22, 2019 02:28 AM

Sherri and Tammy— I’ve written such pieces a number of times in this space. How about typing Chicago Reading Framework into search function on this site. You can find out how Chicago teachers actually improved kids’ reading achievement. The key is a substantial amount of explicit teaching of key elements of literacy in ways that have made a difference in kids’s learning in the past.


Jamie Metsala Sep 22, 2019 03:45 AM

Tim, I was just adding some recommended resources for teachers to your recommendations. I was not disagreeing with your comments whatsoever. Best.

Donna Perry Sep 22, 2019 10:15 AM

I have had years of training in the Readers and Writers program. I was required to use this program even with students who had significant learning disabilities. It was frustrating at best. I would follow the method verbatim and yet the students still could not improve at an acceptable rate. The method can be aesthetically pleasing for a principle to observe because it is a system that follows the same steps with every lesson. Schools having the Teacher College Readers and Writers method “were keeping up with the Jones’” It ALWAYS bothered me that it would be unlikely that I’d be able to read every book so that I could ask appropriate questions. The students who gained the least by this format were the students with learning disabilities. I always felt that I was cheating them.

I am glad that you broke down some of the specific logical reasons as to why parts of the workshop model logically do not work. For example, being limited to few minutes to conferring with a student without LD is too short but for a student with LD, it was most definitely impossible and a waste of time with students with LD. It always frustrated me to not have read the book the student was reading. I was constantly trying to read as much as possible so that I could better guide my students.

Deb Sep 22, 2019 12:14 PM

Thank you for all you do Mr. Shanahan. What are your thoughts on the research behind reading volume? We do a mix of direct comprehension instruction and independent reading in hopes of students utilizing and practicing the skills taught on their own. My worry is that without any independent reading time, students leave each grade having read class texts only - sometimes three or four books total. I do agree fully that a workshop model alone is not enough.

miriam giskin Sep 22, 2019 02:22 PM

I think we have to draw a distinction between upper and lower grades, as well as between beginning, struggling and proficient readers. I taught the workshop model in grade 2 very successfully because I tested each student to determine their strengths and needs. I provided instrutional time that focused on phonemeic awareness, phonics, and decoding as well as on comprehension. I taught whole group, small group and individual lessons. Students were given direct expilcit instruction, time for guided as well as independent practice and I saw the workshop as a structure that allowed students to have choice (when they had finished assigned work) to work with partners and independently and to provide me the time to work with small groups and individuals. If there is sufficient teacher guidance and support as well as student accountability this independent work time can be called a workshop or by another name but effectiveness as always depends on appropriate instruction which depends on in depth knowledge of the students.

linda schutz Sep 22, 2019 03:25 PM

Many colleges focus on reader's workshop with their students. We have to use the research based curriculum presented by our district. There is no choice in how you teach something. Eventhough teachers point out areas that are weak within the curriculum, the curriculum director will not let us faulter from it. I do get to choose read alouds at transitional periods. Most of my time is spent assessing students using research based material that is not developmentally appropriate for first graders. But, the district wants everyone doing the exact same thing at the exact time so they can track the data that shows this is not working. Why don't districts listen to teachers who know what works and what doesn't. I'm so sick of the term research based. My students are more than what research shows.

Jo-Anne Gross Sep 22, 2019 03:38 PM

Hi Tim,

Can you help us one day,maybe not under this specific topic,understand why districts buy most things that are not research based.
I`d love to see it as a topic.
That`s the reality,I have become so used to it that as a teacher trainer with a study behind my work and honoring the NRP research and the NICHD fabulous study I take it as a given that that`s what will happen.Where I am able to make a difference is in Tier 2 and 3.

Ann Sep 22, 2019 10:14 PM

Parents and school boards will have to get involved for anything at all to change in the areas saturated by the workshop myth and Lucy Calkins. The upper middle class suburbs of Chicago are awash with it and I can’t think of a single town using anything else. But, I feel confident that if the general public knew we had a reading program with no actual reading material, they would see instantly how idiotic that is.

Michelle Sep 23, 2019 12:01 AM

Tim, the RW you mention here is merely one layer of what happens. Reading in a complex process...so is the teaching of reading. Instead of having kids do "busy work" while the teacher is working with small groups, or doing 1:1 conferring, students are given time to read books of their choice. There is goal-setting and planning involved in their personal choice reading. Much of the heavy comprehension work is done through Interactive Read Aloud or in small group instruction (some call this guided reading). The teaching that takes place in these settings are intended to help students to extend the same thinking work in their independent books. Richard Allington has researched that too much time is spent on non-reading tasks, not on actual time with eyes on text. This method provides many scaffolds for children to read a range of books they can read successfully with instruction on texts that are just beyond what they can read on their own.

Helen Hoffman Sep 23, 2019 01:30 AM

Can there not be room for independent reading as well as instructing? Enabling kids to discover that reading is an enjoyable experience, that reading stories is fun, that learning through reading is interesting, isn't wasted time.And kids will often challenge themselves to read something more difficult if it interests them. This doesn't mean teachers don't also engage with kids in classroom texts, instructing as appropriate, enabling discussions, and asking kids to write and respond.

Anna Gill Sep 23, 2019 01:38 AM

Every reader brings their own context to a novel. They should be judged not on the ideas that result from the novel but for how well they express and defend their ideas to another person who comes from another context. To make a change in 'reading', we are going to have to shift society. It's time that we valued depth of understanding not amount of knowledge. This is about time. Allocate 30 seconds to the answer, not 10 seconds.

Tim Shanahan Sep 23, 2019 04:02 AM

Michelle— the interactive read alouds May focus on listening comprehension, but those are so brief and the teacher does the reading, so I don’t think that changes things much. Calvin’s does suggest some group guided reading with the lowest readers, but makes this so conditional (she recognizes most teachers won’t be able to fit it in) that I think that too rare.


Tim Shanahan Sep 23, 2019 04:06 AM

Linda — I agree with you. We should just trust people without all this requirement for data. The drug companies could do much better if they didn’t have to show that their products worked, and doctors shouldn’t be expected to treat patients more effectively thsn they feel would be appropriate, and the banks shouldn’t have to show that they haven’t swiped our money. Teachers definitely know what is best for kids and parents and the rest of us should butt out. You’re definitely onto something.


Tim Shanahan Sep 23, 2019 04:10 AM

Research has found that it is very difficult to get much of a learning effect from independent reading. Teachers providing explicit teaching has the biggest impact on learning. Encourage kids to read at home or if you’d prefer to have them just reading during the day perhaps you could accompany them home in the evening to provide teaching.

Let’s face it required free reading is not independent reading and isn’t likely to teach kids to enjoy reading—especially the lowest achieving of them.


Wendy Bartell Sep 23, 2019 10:30 AM

The Units of Study are much more than what is represented here. Deep, rich discussions about reading also happen during interactive read aloud and shared reading. A conference can last longer than 1-3 minutes. The student achievement data from the Teachers College schools in New York as compared to the schools using other curricula speaks volumes. I invite anyone to look at it; it can be found on TC's website or on the NY Department of Ed. site.

Wendy Bartell Sep 23, 2019 10:38 AM

Here is the link to 2018 data which is based on the state-wide test all students take at the end of the year:

Tim Shanahan Sep 23, 2019 12:15 PM

Wendy— first, what you shared wouldn’t be referred to by scientists as data— they’d call it “advertising”. You’re comparing apples and oranges. Nothing was done to make these data comparable. Comparing kids on the upper level east side with high poverty kids in the Bronx and attributing the differences to Units of Study is silly.

How do teachers lead these deep book conversations without reading the books? Championing the effectiveness of ignorance in teaching is bad for kids and bad for teachers?


Chris Walsh Sep 23, 2019 04:26 PM

When we say that a teacher is using a Reading or Writing Workshop approach to instruction, we assume, perhaps, that the teacher relies only on this method for teaching literacy. We assume that the only reading done in the classroom is in the books the teacher has not read. Not necessarily true. And you assume that conferencing for one minute with each student is all the reading instruction the student receives. That may or may not be the case either. Every classroom is different. Every teacher is different. Every day might be different!

In many classrooms, teachers have a variety of kinds of reading and writing activities happening throughout the week, often simultaneously. A teacher who believes in a balanced literacy approach will ensure that the curriculum and instruction and assessment are aligned and differentiated to reflect the learning needs in that classroom.

This piece is an insult to teachers who use this method and stick with it because it works. It takes a well-documented approach that we've used for decades and discards its value simply because there is no "scientific evidence" to support it? Teachers would not continue to use it if they didn't see results. They use it because they believe it increases reading skills, stamina, motivation, engagement, and transfer of learning through reading to other content areas. They see the changes in their students' literacy skills as they meet their reading/writing goals. They know that reading for meaning is limited when we remove student choice and free and voluntary reading from the ELA curriculum. Teachers are collecting this data daily and making informed decisions about future instruction using the data.

Teaching reading comprehension doesn't have to be "either-or"; it can be "and".

Let's celebrate the diverse nature of our work and support the many different approaches that help us get our jobs done well. Please respect the challenging professional decisions teachers make each day, and be willing to learn from each other what works for everyone.

LaRae Sep 23, 2019 06:35 PM

Marilyn Zecher, I believe that in your passion and enthusiasm for the comments that Dr. Shanahan shared, you may have overlooked the sarcasm intended by the teaching math comment. As for your first paragraph, I could not agree with you more. Have an awesome week!

Sandra Wilde Sep 23, 2019 06:45 PM

Tim, what you’ve written is a sarcastic parody of reading workshop, as evidenced in the Moby-Dick example. Just two comments about this approach, which indeed has its origins in the important individualized reading approach developed by Jeanette Veatch in the 1950’s. First, children don’t stagnate at the level of books they happen to be currently reading. The workshop, through a lot of independent reading and other activities like guided reading, helps them move forward through increasingly difficult books. Second, the conferences are brief coaching check-ins that allow the teacher to informally monitor and respond to each student regularly during workshop time.

Denise Trainor Sep 23, 2019 09:18 PM

Sandra, I am line with you! To say there is no research behind Calkins, Fountas & Pinnell, Allington, Cunningham, Goudvis and Harvey , etc. is beyond ridiculous and misleading. Mr. Shanahan, you are rehashing, once again, the old arguments of the 'reading wars.' Are we really doomed to repeat all of this? Is Reading Workshop without challenges? No. The difficulty with creating and sustaining effective reading workshops is that teachers aren't trained adequately for the process. It takes a broad understanding of the reading process (from all theories, mind you.) Once armed with deeper knowledge and understanding, reading workshop is extremely effective in creating, improving and fostering readers. For those readers who need more structure, the informed teacher can identify and support that child using a different approach,. But since Professional Development is fly by night at best, states only require 6 credits in the teaching of reading, and teachers colleges/universities offer limited views/theories of reading, it is most efficient to promote your views. Keeping in mind, most teachers who read you were most likely still in school during the height of The Reading Wars, your views and arguments are new to them. All you're offering is the same old stuff, but on a different day.

Wendy Bartell Sep 24, 2019 02:17 AM

The school I worked in was NOT in the upper East Side... To categorize TC schools as being located in the wealthy areas is very misleading.

Denise K Trainor Sep 24, 2019 02:30 AM

Wendy- Bartell-- Thank you for mentioning TC' schools! Many are in impoverished areas!

Harriett Sep 24, 2019 04:29 AM

At the end of At a Loss for Words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers (https://www.apmreports.org/story/2019/08/22/whats-wrong-how-schools-teach-reading), Ken Goodman says "My science is different," and Emily Hanford remarks that "this idea that there are different kinds of evidence that lead to different conclusions about how reading works is one reason people continue to disagree about how children should be taught to read.

And therein lies the tragedy of our profession.

Erik Sep 24, 2019 09:36 PM

This reflects a narrow and limited definition of the reading workshop and doesn’t take into consideration how it should be implemented as part of a balanced literacy framework that includes interactive read aloud, shared reading, guided reading, independent reading with explicit strategy instruction, and word study. When these components are well planned and work together, the conditions of tackling complex texts with students when the teacher knows the text exists. It is also done using a differentiated approach where students are working with texts that are challenging yet still within their zone of proximal development.

Tim Shanahan Sep 25, 2019 01:43 AM

Denise—what research are you talking about? You made it up.


Tim Shanahan Sep 25, 2019 01:48 AM

Erik— I just finished reading three grade levels of Units of Study... I’m not the one who wrote that teachers didn’t need to know the books...or that guided reading something that you should try to work in occasionally with the lowest readers. I saw the explicit strategy instruction but the recommended teaching didn’t look much like the research based practices, and the word study is extremely limited. If that’s a bad description of Units of Study then you’re complaining to the wrong guy.


Tim Shanahan Sep 25, 2019 01:51 AM


What do you think those data show? I think you are fooling yourself... I’m willing to believe that program works, but you’ve got to show improvement when you switch to that program. That you have test scores means nothing, all public schools have test scores.


Tim Shanahan Sep 25, 2019 01:53 AM

Please explain how teachers who don’t know a book lead kids to a deeper interpretation of it?


Kylene Beers Sep 25, 2019 01:42 PM

Most often criticism of Notice and Note - which requires kids to actually notice and then ponder the author's craft - is that "It's really hard to use if you haven't read the book. ". Um, yes. As always, Tim, you make such important points. We don't agree on everything, but that rub is where I always learn from you. Thanks for keeping me thinking.

Lois Dierlam Sep 25, 2019 07:51 PM

DOes anyone know of a research based comprehension program? We use SPIRE for decoding and there are stories, but that is the main focus;

Philomena Marinaccio Sep 26, 2019 02:31 PM

Thank you for the shout-out for Jeannette Veatch and the etiology of individualized instruction. The meaning of this term has been incorrectly used interchangeably with personalized learning and modified to mean whatever program publishers want it to mean.

Mark Sep 26, 2019 06:44 PM

Is there a curriculum you recommend? I can't imagine there is a perfect curriculum, but is there more perfect one you can steer us toward? I imagine it's easy to tie one's name to a critique, but can you provide us a better alternative?

Elizabeth Robins Sep 26, 2019 06:50 PM

Thank you for highlighting the issues with Lucy Calkins' Reading Workshop.

I have been retired for 5 years from elementary teaching. Through former colleagues, I have been horrified to hear that my former district has spent a lot of money on purchasing first her Writing Workshop and now these materials ... and the misguided training that accompanies them. Distressingly, I am now learning that not only does Calkins fail to provide a structured, evidence-based phonics approach to teach beginning reading, but provides no support for effective comprehension development in third grade ... and likely beyond.

Selection of these programs shows the literacy director and team are not aware of the latest (or indeed any) cognitive-based science studies. Did they rely on publishers having done due diligence with the latest research? Teachers take direction from admin, and in turn parents depend on the district and teachers being knowledgeable about the best way to teach reading's basics of decoding and comprehension. Sadly, this does not bode well for the students, especially those who experience difficulty in learning to read.

Harriett Sep 26, 2019 07:00 PM

I suggest going to Ed Reports and examining their ratings and recommendations.

Denise K Trainor Sep 27, 2019 12:35 AM

Yep, Tim, I made all of this up!
Allington, R.L. McCuiston, K & Billen, M. (2014).What research says about text complexity and learning to read. Unpublished. The Reading Teacher, pp. 1-10.
Allington, R. L. (2012). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Anderson, R. C., Wilson, P.T., & Fielding, L. G. (1988). Growth in reading and how children spend their time outside of school. Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 285-303.
Brozo, W.G., Shiel, G. & Topping, K. (2008). Engagement in reading: Lessons learned from three PISA countries. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 51(4), 304-315.
Cipielewski, J., & Stanovich, K.E. (1992). Predicting growth in reading ability from children’s exposure to print. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 54, 74-89.
Cullinan, B. (2000). Independent reading and school achievement. School Library Media Research, 3, 1-24.
Ehri, L.C., Dreyer, L.G., Flugman, B., & Gross, A. (2007). Reading Rescue: An effective tutoring intervention model for language minority students who are struggling readers in first grade. American Educational Research Journal, 44(2), 414-448.
Hiebert, E.H. & Reutzel, D.R.(Eds.) (2010). Revisiting silent reading: New directions for teachers and researchers. Newark, D.E.: International Reading Association
Moss, B. & Young, T.A. (2010). Creating lifelong readers through independent reading. International Reading Association.
Guthrie, J.T. & Humenick, N.M. (2004). Motivating students to read: Evidence for classroom practices that increase motivation and achievement. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research (pp. 329-354). Baltimore: Paul Brookes.
O’Connor, R.E., Bell, K.M., Harty, K.R., Larkin, L.K., Sackor, S.M., & Zigmond, N. (2002).Teaching reading to poor readers in the intermediate grades: A comparison of text difficulty. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 474-485.
Allington, R. (1983). Fluency: The neglected reading goal in reading instruction. The Reading Teacher, 36, 556–551. Allington, R. L. (1983). The reading instruction provided readers of differing reading ability. Elementary School Journal, 83, 548–559. Anderson, R. C., Wilson, P. T., & Fielding, L. C. (1988). Growth in reading and how children spend their time outside of school. Reading Research Quarterly, XXIII, Summer, 285–303. Au, K. H. (1997). Ownership, literacy achievement, and students of diverse cultural backgrounds.

Denise K Trainor Sep 27, 2019 12:37 AM

And all of this too!
In J. T. Guthrie & A. Wigfield (Eds.), Reading Engagement: Motivating Readers Through Integrated Instruction (178–182). Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Barr, R, & Dreeben, R. (1991). Grouping students for reading instruction. In R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.) Handbook of Reading Research, Volume II. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Baumann, J. F., Kame’enui, E. J., & Ask, G. E. (2003). Research on vocabulary instruction: Voltaire redux. In J. Flood, D. Lapp, J. R. Squire, & J. M. Jensen (Eds.). Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts, (2nd ed.), 752–783. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Baumann, J. F. (2009). Vocabulary and reading comprehension: The nexus of meaning. In S. E. Israel & G. G. Duffy (Eds.) Handbook of Research on Reading Comprehension (223–246). New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (1991). Conditions of vocabulary acquisition. In R. Barr, M. Kamil, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.). Handbook of Reading Research, (Vol. 2), 789–814. New York: Longman. Biancarosa, G., Bryk, A., & Dexter, E. (2008). Assessing the value-added effects of Literacy Collaborative professional development on student learning. Paper presented at the 2008 Conference of the National Reading Conference, Orlando, FL. Campbell, J. R., Kelly, D. L., Mullis, I. V. S., Martin, M. O., & Sainsbury, M. (2001). Framework and specifications for PIRLS assessment 2001. Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College, Lynch School of Education, PIRLS International Study Center. Campbell, J. R., Voelkl, K. E., & Donahue, P. L. (1997). NAEP 1996 trends in academic progress (NCES Publication No. 97-985). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Cipielewski, J., & Stanovich, K. E. (1992). Predicting growth in reading ability from children’s exposure to print. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 54, 74–89. Clay, M. M. (2001). Change over time in children’s literacy development. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Clay, M. M. (1991). Becoming literate: The construction of inner control. Auckland, New Zealand: Heinemann. Commeyras, M., & Sumner, G. (1998). Literature questions children want to discuss: What teachers and students learned in a second-grade classroom. Elementary School Journal, 99, 129–152. Cullinan, B. (2000). Independent reading and school achievement. School Library Media Research (Vol. 3). Retrieved from . Dahl, K. L., & Freppon, P. A. (1995). A comparison of inner-city children’s interpretations of reading and writing instruction in the early grades in skills based and whole language classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 50–74. Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S. (2008). When readers struggle: Teaching that works. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S. (1996). Guided reading: Good first teaching for all children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S. (2006). Teaching for comprehending and fluency: Thinking, talking, and writing about reading, K–8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S. (2009). Prompting guide 1: A tool for literacy teachers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S. (2008). The Fountas and Pinnell prompting guide: Teaching for strategies in reading and writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Fountas, I., & Pinnell, G. S. (1999). Guiding readers and writers, grades 3–6: Teaching comprehension, genre, and content literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Gerla, J. P. (1996). Response-based instruction: At-risk students engaging in literature. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 12(2), 149–169. Goatley, V. J., & Raphael, T. E. (1992). Non-traditional learners’ written and dialogic response to literature. Fortieth Yearbook of the National Reading Conference (313–322). Chicago: National Reading Conference. Goldenberg, C. N. (1992/93). Instructional conversations: Promoting comprehension through discussion. The Reading Teacher, 46, 316–326. Good, T. K., & Marshall, S. (1984). Do students learn more in heterogeneous or homogeneous groups? In P. L. Peterson, I. C. Wilkinson, & M. Hallinan, (Eds.). The social context of instruction. New York: Academic Press. Guthrie, J. T., Wigfield, A., Metsala, J. L., & Cox, K. E. (1999). Motivational and cognitive predictors of text comprehension and reading amount. Scientific Studies of Reading, 3(3), 231–256. Hiebert, E. H. (1983). An examination of ability grouping for reading instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 18, 231–255. Hiebert, E. H., Colt, J. M., Catto, S., & Gury, E. (1992). Reading and writing of first-grade students in a restructured Chapter 1 program. American Educational Research Journal, 29, 545–572. Hill, M. (1998). Reaching struggling readers. In K. Beers & B. Samuels (Eds.). Into focus: Understanding and creating middle school readers (81–104). Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon. Hoffman, J. V., Roser, N. L., & Farest, C. (1988). Literaturesharing strategies in classrooms serving students from economically disadvantaged and language different home environments. In J. E. Readence & R. S. Baldwin (Eds.), Dialogues in literacy research: Thirty-seventh yearbook of the National Reading Conference (331–338). Chicago: National Reading Conference. Holdaway, D. (1979). The foundations of literacy. Sydney, Australia: Ashton Scholastic. Institute of Education Sciences. (2004). I

Denise K Trainor Sep 27, 2019 12:37 AM

Since your website won't let me put in too much info: Here's even more:
dentifying and implementing educational practices supported by rigorous
evidence: A user friendly guide. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Kaye, E. L. (2008). Second graders’ reading behaviors: A study of variety, complexity, and change. Literacy Teaching and Learning, 10, 2, 51–75. Lyons, C. (2003). Teaching struggling readers: How to use brain-based research to maximize learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Morrow, L. M. (1992). The impact of a literature-based program on literacy achievement, use of literature, and attitudes of children from minority backgrounds. Reading Research Quarterly, 27(3), 251–275. Morrow, L. M., O’Conner, E., & Smith, J. (1990). Effects of a story reading program on the literacy development of at-risk kindergarten children. Journal of Reading Behavior, 22, 225–275. Nagy, W. E., Herman, P. A., & Anderson, R. C. (1985). Learning words from context. Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 233–253. National Assessment Governing Board. (September, 2008). Reading framework for the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington, DC: NAGB National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, NIH Pub. No 00-4754. Newkirk, T. (2009). Holding on to good ideas in a time of bad ones: Six literacy principles worth fighting for. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Nystrand, M., & Gamoran, A. (1991). Student engagement: When recitation becomes conversation. In H. C. Waxman & H. Walberg (Eds.), Effective teaching: Current research (257–276). Berkeley, CA: McCutchan. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2000). Measuring student knowledge and skill: The PISA 2000 Assessment of Reading, Mathematical, and Scientific Literacy. Pearson, P. D., & Camperell, K. (1994). Comprehension of text structures. In R. B. Ruddell, M. R. Ruddell, & H. Singer (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (4th ed.) (545–586). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. Pikulsky, J. J. (1997). Factors common to successful early intervention programs. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Pinnell, G. S., Pikulski, J. J., Wixson, K. K., Campbell, J. R., Gough, R. B., & Beatty, A. S. (1995). Listening to children read aloud: Data from NAEP’s integrated reading performance record (IRPR) at Grade 4. Report No. 23-FR-04 Prepared by Educational Testing Service under contract with the National Center for Education Statistics, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. C. (1999). Matching books to readers: A leveled book list for guided reading, K–3. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. C. (1998). Word matters: Teaching phonics and spelling in the reading/writing classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. C. (2006). Leveled books, K–8: Matching texts to readers for effective teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. C. (2008). The continuum of literacy learning, K–8: Behaviors and understandings to notice, teach, and support. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. C. (2008). When readers struggle: Teaching that works. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Pinnell, G. S., Lyons, C. A., DeFord, D. E., Bryk, A. S., & Seltzer, M. (1994). Comparing instructional models for the literacy education of high risk first graders. Reading Research Quarterly, 29(1), 8–39. Pressley, M. (2000). What should comprehension instruction be the instruction of? In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr, (Eds.) Handbook of reading research, Vol. III (545–586). Mahway, NJ: Erlbaum. RAND Reading Study Group. (2002). Reading for understanding: Toward an R&D program in reading comprehension. Santa Monica, CA: RAND. Resnick, L. B., & Hampton, S. (2009). Reading and writing grade by grade. Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Slavin, R. E. (1987). Ability grouping: A best-evidence synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 57, 293–336. Stahl, K. A. D. (2009). The effects of three instructional methods on the reading comprehension and content acquisition of novice readers. Journal of Literacy Research, 40, 3, pp. 359–391. Taylor, B., Short, R. A., Shearer, B. A., & Frye, B. (1995). First grade teachers provide early reading intervention in the classroom. In R. L. Allington & S. A. Walmsley (Eds.), No quick fix: Rethinking literacy programs in America’s elementary classrooms (159–176). New York: Teachers College Press. Wentzel, K. R. (1996). Social and academic motivation in middle
school: Concurrent and long-term relations to academic effort.
Journal of Early Adolescence, 16, 390–406.

Tracy Sep 27, 2019 10:18 PM

In Reader’s Workshop, as in all instructional frameworks, there should be the flexibility to adapt to the needs of your students AND to balance direct instruction with personalized support. Too much focus on self-selected, independent-level reading does not follow the systematic, explicit teaching of skills which research has proven as necessary. Too much focus on always teaching all kids from on-level text alienates the kiddos who are grade-levels above or below in their reading ability. There has to be a balance between meeting students where they are while also pulling them along to reach where they should be.

Wendy Bartell Sep 28, 2019 01:17 AM

Lucy Collins has written a thoughtful response to this attack on reading workshop and the Units of Study curriculum. It is on TC's Facebook page.
That data is the state ELA test all students take at the end of the year. TC schools consistently outperform other schools in the state, and "those schools" are not in the wealthy upper east side as you claim.

patricia pollack Sep 28, 2019 02:12 AM

I found this article to be counter intuitive to teaching the reader as opposed to teaching reading. Workshop teaching allows for personalized learning; differentiation; and building profiles of students as readers. Conferring is a practice that allows teachers to customize feedback; set goals; model strategies; and inspire new learning. Perhaps those who have commented on this article do not know the true structure of conferring - or even the true definition of workshop teaching - as it does not only include independent practice - but also allows for responsive small group instruction.

There are other models of workshop teaching and conferring, and Lucy Calkins is not the only educator or researcher who promotes and writes about this form of teaching. Perhaps before condemning a practice, you should refer to and research all types of conferring and workshop practices. Most educators who use conferring 'well' would not start with a conversation about the book - but instead would begin by asking what the student is using as a reader - helping to build awareness and metacognition.

Jeni Sep 28, 2019 02:28 AM

Dr. Shanahan,

I am a supporter of workshops and the Units of Study, but as a learner, I try to get my hands on as much new learning and information as I can. I appreciate cognitive dissonance and recognize that the places that make me uncomfortable are where I learn. I appreciate your perspective and have sought out your blog and heard you speak at conferences simply to continue to challenge myself and stay informed. However, I am always dismayed at the tone of your writing, the sarcasm, and the disrespect. If your goal is to really influence teachers to listen to you and consider your viewpoints and question their own, being condescending and disrespectful is not going to accomplish your goals. It’s actually distracting from the points about literacy instruction you are trying to make.

I’m still not quite sure either what the instruction you are recommending looks like. Seems like more time is spent bashing balanced literacy/workshop. I’m sincerely interested, but feel like I’ve never gotten a clear picture of what you think would be better, particularly how to manage, support, and motivate students with very complex text who are not reading at grade level.

Thanks for your insight. Considerate reply only, please.

Emma T Sep 28, 2019 05:24 AM

It seems convenient that you presented your argument against the workshop model without acknowledging the many other components, beyond independent reading and conferencing, that do in fact provide students with ample opportunities to engage with very advanced texts. These components include read aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and strategy groups. They are all outlined in the curriculum itself.

I am a second grade teacher and I have seen the strides students can make within the workshop model. My students love reading, and, like adults, they get a large amount of choice in what they read. This prepares them to be lifelong readers. I’m not quite sure from your post what you envision as the ideal reading instruction practice, but it sounds a lot like forcing students to read things they don’t care about. Of course, students in upper grades should be exposed to a wide variety of influential texts (and they actually are in the Units of Study curriculum, through suggested mentor texts, read aloud, and shared reading). But young children who are just developing as readers should surely have the opportunity to explore and become excited about books.

If you have any innovative suggestions for how to help a class of second graders, ranging in grade level in reading from kindergarten to fourth grade, all make a year’s worth of growth or more in just one school year, please share it in a more specific, less sarcastic and negative way. Until then I will continue to use a balanced literacy approach, incorporating Units of Study as well as many other best practices.

KB Sep 28, 2019 10:15 AM

Denise- Someone learned how to copy and paste. Did you google “research articles to support reading workshop?” Many of these articles will not support the units of study, especially the brain researched ones. I also hear a lot of people throwing around the term “researched based.” Obviously we need curriculum that is backed by research, but more people should be asking if the units of study are evidence based, especially in high poverty schools. It’s interesting to hear how many people cite how NYC schools have embraced and grown from Calkins when there were numerous articles written by nyc teachers stating that the units of study were detrimental to their students and were producing kids who could not produce sentences.

Laura Sep 28, 2019 12:41 PM

I believe you have a profound misunderstanding of reading workshop, and furthermore, as a teacher at a TC Project school in the south Bronx, I find your assumption that TCRWP only works with affluent and mostly white schools offensive. 1 in 4 of my students live in temporary housing and nearly 30% have a learning disability. TCRWP pilots Units of Study in our school. Since starting with the Units of Study six years ago, ELA proficiency levels in my school have quadrupled. I find workshop to be especially helpful in working with IEP students-- the consistent teaching structures and gradual release provide consistent support, while small group work can be highly differentiated. Also, most of the reading Units are book club units--I hardly have 30 students reading 30 different books as you suggest. For example, instead of teaching "The Giver," I teach into the literary tradition of dystopian literature. We read several short stories as a whole class (The Lottery, Harrison Bergeron, Ponies) and then the students read several (2-3) dystopian novels in clubs. "The Giver" might be one of these books, but I can also incorporate more contemporary YA literature like "The Hunger Games" trilogy. It's pretty easy for a teacher to read six YA books and coach in with a couple clubs a day. The shared texts provide access to grade level text—and with such a highly differentiated class, this model allows me to support my below benchmark readers and provide enrichment for my above benchmark readers. Also, even if I haven’t read a book, the bands of text complexity allow me to provide students with some predictable “look fors” in their text. The Moby Dick conference you offer in your post demonstrates that you have zero understanding of how reading conferences go or how the bands of text complexity can inform a teacher—have you ever even visited a school that uses the Units? Or observed a teacher conduct a reading conference?

Finally, I believe in choice. The few times in my life reading was ruined for me was when someone forced me to read a book and/or made me dissect it for two months. You seem to believe reading is best taught through a teacher centered approach, in which the teacher slowly and painfully guides an entire class through a novel. I believe this simply promotes fake reading--what Beers and Probst call, “aliteracy.” Kids who are able to read, but uninterested in doing so. As such, I prioritize helping kids become avid, thoughtful, lifelong readers. The Units of Study and TCRWP are assisting me in that powerful work. I hope you will consider visiting some Project schools so you can actually know what you are talking about—no curriculum is perfect, but your dismissive attitude while clearly being so ill-informed is very disappointing, especially considering the breadth of your audience.

Harriett Sep 28, 2019 03:56 PM

Some history from Natalie Wexler's The Knowledge Gap, page 96:

"The pilot (of the Core Knowledge Language Arts) lasted three years, folowing a thousand students from kindergarten through second grade. In 2008, the same year the pilot began, Klein rescinded his mandate that all schools use Calkins's curriculum. When the results were released in 2012, they showed that students in the Core Knowledge schools scored significantly higher on reading comprehension tests than those in the comparison schools. They also came out ahead on tests of social studies and science knowledge. Calkins objected that she hadn't personally worked with the comparison schools, and there was no way of knowing how faithfully any of them adhered to her model. Nevertheless, after the results of the study came out, the city's Department of Education omitted her program from its list of recommended curricula."

Annalisa Hardy Sep 28, 2019 08:11 PM

Please compare your Moby Dick reader’s “conference” to this one, approximating what I heard in classroom this week:

Teacher: What can you tell me about your main character?

Student: Katniss is about to leave home, where she lives with her mom and her sister. She’s just volunteered to take her little sister’s place in the Hunger Games, which she might not survive. I think she’s really brave.

Teacher: Can you turn to the moment in the text you discovered she was brave? Read me this part?

Student reads a page or so aloud-

Teacher: Nicely done. Last time we conferenced we set a goal for you, remember? You jotted it here. We worked on attending to end punctuation, letting it affect the reader’s voice you hear in your head. I heard you do that here...and here...you have been attending to that goal, keep that up. Now, can you tell me about about how the author showed “brave” on this page?

*brief discussion of textual evidence*

Teacher: I notice that here, in these few lines, Katniss doesn’t exactly seem brave...what do you think I noticed?

Student: Well, she’s thinking about the doubts she has, she’s thinking about being afraid, and even imagines running away. That doesn’t sound brave.

Teacher: But you still think the author wants you understand she’s brave?

Student: Yes, because even though she’s not feeling brave in the inside, she overcomes that feeling and does the brave thing.

Teacher: Whoa, that’s important thinking. Maybe we should work on setting a new goal. As you read on, keep a critical eye out to notice the moments characters are conflicted, more complex than a single simple trait can describe, ok? Maybe a character will behave in a way that’s surprising, because it’s out of character. Jot that goal down, and if you notice that, will you write about it, and flag it in your text, so in our next conference, we can discuss it?

I have seen workshop not work, I’ve heard conferences like your Moby Dick exemplar. Regarding TCRWP curriculum, I’ve seen that not work mostly when teachers were ill-prepared to teach it, due to lack of training, or because they couldn’t handle the rigor themselves, because they were neither readers nor writers. Happily, I also hear targeted, goal-centered, teaching conferences. It seems like any framework for teaching workshop can be done well, or poorly. My own GT eighth grader was in a non-workshop room last year. Classics, tough text, whole class novels. You know how many books he read willingly? None. He hated Fahrenheit 451, and the class spent a month on it. Many of the students in my best workshop rooms read upwards of thirty novels. Engaged, moving straight up levels of complexity, while receiving whole group instruction and experiencing discussion of appropriately challenging shared mentor texts.

Possibly dismissing the whole workshop framework, every classroom and every component, as equally ineffective is not fair? Research aside, have you visited many workshop classrooms, heard many conferences, listened to mini lessons?

Elizabeth Sep 29, 2019 02:54 AM

I’m curious about your thoughts on teachers that do both small group guided reading that is highly focused on deep comprehension AND conferencing with students on self selected reading or skill based instruction.

Sam Sep 29, 2019 11:24 AM

Any feedback on American Reading Company?? This sounds similar and my school wants to adopt it. I haven’t been able to find any real information.

Harriett Sep 29, 2019 03:42 PM

From Ed Reports https://www.edreports.org/compare/results/ela-38
ARC (American Reading Company) Core (2017)
Published By: American Reading Company | Date Published: 9/17/2018 | View These Reports
Third Grade
Meets Expectations
Fourth Grade
Meets Expectations
Fifth Grade
Meets Expectations
Sixth Grade
Meets Expectations
Seventh Grade
Meets Expectations
Eighth Grade
Meets Expectations

Ann Sep 29, 2019 09:33 PM

Myth 1: Teachers think Lucy Calkin's Workshop works and that's why they use it.

Teachers who like it are the ones most willing to speak publicly and the rest don't want to have a big red bullseye painted on their chest for speaking out. I think the majority of teachers of elementary students who are currently using the Units of Study in Reading would trade it in for a program that had some high quality texts that were worth reading and made it easier to move students to higher levels of comprehension. Almost every lesson Lucy has would be better if there was something students could read where that particular aspect of reading is evident. Learning is easier when responsibility is gradually released as in, "I do. We do. You do." Lucy is "I do. You do." Lucy spends thousands of words telling you what to think and feel and how to emote. She should have spent that time writing a few stories instead because she's certainly never at a loss for words. Maybe someone should offer teachers some alternatives and see what they would actually choose.

Myth 2: The workshop approach is so powerful because it capitalizes on the power of choice. Students are more invested because they choose their texts.

First, this exaggerates the impact that choice can have. Choice has an impact but nothing like the impact of someone teaching you something. I’m pretty sure that’s been explained by John Hattie and probably others. Second, I question how much choice exists in the workshop. There are always constraints put on kids. Students are often counseled away from material deemed too hard or material deemed too easy. They need to be reading something from the genre the class is currently working on and/or something from a new genre because they should be stretching themselves. I would argue that many kids would prefer just to read something in class that the teacher has chosen and then be given the liberty to read whatever they want when they’ve finished their work or when they’re at home. When you are a workshop teacher, you become the reading police. It might be worth asking kids which scenario they would prefer because right now kids are being robbed of instruction so they can have this gift of choice and they may not think it’s much of a gift.

Myth 3: You can do everything within the workshop approach. Guided reading, close reading, partner reading, independent reading, book clubs.

Well, maybe myth is the wrong word. You can do all of that but since you have to invent all of it on your own, you’ll work 14 hours days and quickly burn out. There are schools that do what Laura described and have specific texts and in some cases a system of teaching the Units of Study that is so altered it only has a passing resemblance to what actually came in the box. In some cases, this is because Teachers College has done a bunch of extra work in creating all these new accompanying documents and even sends people to work in certain schools to make all of that magic happen. Of course this costs additional money which makes it a great business model. Create something that can’t be successful without your paid help. It still surprises me that this flies. Nobody would put up with this in any other area of their lives. In addition, once all of this adding on is done, is it still the workshop described in the Units of Study or is it just its own curriculum that allows for some amount of self-selected reading that the most struggling readers rarely get to because they are in need of the teaching that the teacher is doing.

For some reason, “workshop” has become the “fresh air and sunshine” of education. It’s as if there’s something about it that is so magically wholesome and full of vitamins that only people who hate children would deprive them of it. I know I am not alone when I say that if I’d realized that education was so steeped in “feel facts,” I might have chosen a different career. Tim, you calling a spade a spade and shutting down the “feel facts” is one of the few things that gets me through that frustration.

Denise Oct 03, 2019 02:04 AM

KB- SO much of that research supports the theories behind Reading Workshop. Are you a teacher or emergent and/or beginning readers? Or perhaps higher level readers? Intermediate grade levels? Middle school?

Christine Oct 03, 2019 02:29 PM

I am a parent of a first grader who is attending a public school in Houston that is using the Lucy Calkins program. She attended a Reggio Emilia philosophy play based kindergarten where reading was not taught. My daughter is expected to draw pictures in class and write stories about them. I'm wondering if this is appropriate for her ability when she doesn't know how to read yet. She is crying a lot and dreads going to school. Does anyone have any suggestions?

Sharon Kane Oct 06, 2019 01:45 AM

I suggest starting with the thorough research by Gay Ivey and Peter Johnston. They provide a quantitative analysis of scores on achievement tests; and the dozens of rich quotes from authentic conversations about books between and among students and teachers will sound far different from the Moby Dick scenario presented in this post.
Ivey, G., & Johnston, P.H. (2013). Engagement with Young Adult literature: Outcomes and Processes. Reading Research Quarterly, 48(3), 355-375.
Ivey, G. (2014). The social side of engaged reading for young adolescents. The Reading Teacher, 68(3), 165-171.
Ivey, G., & Johnston, P. (2018). Engaging disturbing books. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 62(2), 143-150.

Philip Mirci, Ph.D. Oct 07, 2019 11:45 PM

I doubt that we could engage is a discussion given the unexamined assumptions present it your condemnation of Readers' Workshop ... What you have described as Readers' Workshop caused me to wonder if we had the same understanding of it. I am concerned about appeals to research related to literacy because the "research," as you seem to use it, is the end all or final word. The rebuttal by Lucy Calkins evidenced a depth and specificity missing in your blog posting. My hope is that your future work will reveal that you've "done your homework."

Kerry Oct 17, 2019 03:14 PM

Tim - I appreciate Jeni's comment on tone. My school uses TC Units in reading as well, and as a reading interventionist, I do have reservations about the lack of direct instruction and support my students are making.

I *AM* really interested in what you recommend - either specific curriculums or methods of teaching - as an alternative to the workshop model. I think this would really help the skeptics to know what the alternative is.

Thank you!

Deb Oct 17, 2019 05:22 PM

I use the workshop model for teaching reading (grade one) and find this structure is excellent. A short mini lesson and then students are off practicing the strategies taught. Individual conferences are used for differentiation. Yes, students choose some of their books and teachers choose other books. In a true workshop model, other very important lessons, especially on comprehension, are done during read-alouds as well. Interactive read alouds are also used for instruction. There is no one model that reaches everyone, everyday, but add in guided reading and skills groups and this method is jammed packed with reading instruction. I'm really unclear as to why some folks are against it but my guess would be that some teachers are not using all the components or the observers do not either understand what they are seeing or do not see all the componets. When I look at the researched used in the Units of Study by TCRWP, I see a significant amout of research from experts in the field of reading.

Lisa Force Lang Oct 28, 2019 12:14 PM

Interesting food for thought and reflection. If independent reading and conferring were all that was happening in literacy instruction, I might agree. However, with balanced literacy, there is also guided reading, shared reading, read alouds, interactive reading (and the writing instructional models paired with those). All those are also important opportunities for richer deeper discussions with teacher and peers and where expert teachers are also teaching whole group, small groups, and individuals for deeper comprehension and the integration of literacy processing skills and strategic activities. Just like I would not give my children only a honey lemon cough drop for strep throat, I would not give them only independent reading and conferring. However, I would give them that honey lemon cough drop along with rest, plenty of liquids, antibiotics, chicken soup, and read them a good book. Independent reading and conferring provide important teaching and learning opportunities but are not the only models for instruction.

Elizabeth Nov 02, 2019 12:57 AM

Thank you for writing this article. I currently work in a TC school and find the program and PD somewhat “cult like”. I am not surprised by the angry supporters of this program. It seems that anyone who speaks out against Lucy Caulkins is immediately criticized so they learn to be quiet. Teachers in my district have been publicly criticized and generally condescended to by TC trainers. I find it interesting since the majority of these PD leaders have had very limited classroom experience. I have been teaching for 20 years and enjoy learning new approaches. But TCRWP has been offensive to veteran teachers. Whatever good they can offer has been overshadowed by insulting and aggressive PD.

Lara Handsfield Nov 11, 2019 03:55 PM

I agree with what you’ve written regarding the value or lack thereof for using reading conferences to teach reading skills. There are indeed plenty of other structures for doing that. My “yeah but” here is that for many teachers, such conferences provide windows into students’ likes, dislikes, reader identities, and affective dimensions of readers’ literacy development. Reading conferences can be a really valuable time and space for learning those things.

MJ Harwood Dec 21, 2019 08:49 PM

Tim - I agree with Jeni and Kerry's comments: what guidance have you provided for reading comprehension? I just read your November 12, 2007, post "The Chicago Reading Framework." In conclusion, you say that teachers "know what to do." On the contrary, I think teachers are looking for guidance on how to best teach reading comprehension, especially given the Reading-Wars debate that goes on and on, and the documented lack of teacher education on how to best teach reading. What specifically do you suggest as an alternative to Reading Workshop? What have you contributed to teachers' toolbox?

Sylvia Pabreza Jan 22, 2020 05:16 PM

It seems like the definition of Reading Workshop in the article is narrow and leaves no room for teachers taking small groups of readers and guiding them through challenging text they could not manage on their own. In our district, our Readers Workshop includes this component. Each group of students works at least twice a week in a small reading group. Some of the independent activities, such as writing a reading response, are spun off the small group lessons. There is rigor and differentiation. There is also choice (for some, the choice is guided to a degree), which lends itself to engagement. I wish there was mention of the fact that a workshop model is flexible, allows for differentiation, and doesn't prohibit the teacher from imposing some assignments. It is preferable to teachers who put all students in one book, regardless of reading level, and teach using "packets". It can also be used for some, but not all days of the reading block, leaving room for longer strategy lessons (such as QAR or the Comprehension Toolkit) to be integrated.

Jenn Jan 25, 2020 11:55 PM

I would argue that what is being described in this article is very inaccurate picture of a workshop model. Conferences should be designed to inform instruction. Allowing children choice makes a huge difference in many students’ willingness to engage in a book. The ability to pick up a book that’s “just right” is a skill that should be taught. Students who have been shoved into a “color” or “level” do not have a clue how to choose books that are right for them. It is the teacher’s job to guide students in the right direction and encourage books that are accessible, engaging, and challenge the reader/student. Exposure to literature is important; something else that should be done by the teacher. Read aloud, group novels, lit circles, explicitly taught skills reinforced through whole class novels are all part of it. My students not only receive choice, but are exposed to quality literature. Everyone always throws the baby out with the bath water. Giving my students time to read choice books in class and discuss them with their peers has been a complete game changer in my classroom instruction. I have observed growth in my students reading levels and higher level thinking skills that I have never seen in my over 20 years as a teacher. And yes, the teachers need to know their library and shouldn’t conference with a student about a book they haven’t read. Doing so is about the stupidest thing I have ever heard. I have made a point to read through my personal classroom library to help inform my instruction and guide my students in the right direction. All this being said, I have never taught Lucy caulkins and I teach upper elementary. Sound reading instruction is balanced. The only way students become better readers is by reading. I suffer from dyslexia and have had students who have as well. Struggling readers can find books that they love too. They just need help and support. I try to help my students find a love for books and reading. Just because a child struggles doesn’t mean they can’t love to read- they simply have to find the right teacher and or book to start them on this path. I am an example of that.

Daniel Bo Feb 10, 2020 01:09 PM

I've never used the reading workshop method, but it seems very similar in the surface to "extensive reading" which is popular in the language-learning community and well supported by research. What is the major difference in your opinion that makes reading workshop less effective than ER?

Paul May 14, 2020 03:37 AM


Bravo! You hit the workshop / nail on the proverbial conferencing / head. I've been in the reading trenches for over 30 years and I had all of these concerns and more the first time I was forced to implement the Caulkins method. I applaud all educators that seek to further the discussion and understanding of literacy. However, it behoves us as educators to thoughtfully choose and implement sound practices that we can explain to our families and colleagues, defend when needed, tweak, revise and discard as we grow, and continuously refine to strengthen our craft, and ideally gather to grow capable young readers.

Literacy education is both an art and a science and though I fully respect the need for standardization of practices. Tho we know that time, experience, and research consistently show that knowledgable teachers with a broad understanding of literacy, implementing a range of researched based best practices, with passion and care for literacy, and a genuine concern and understanding of their students, will grow competent and engaged readers, writers, and thinkers.

I've longed said that there is no possible way that teachers can understand, challenge, and guide students through text that they themselves are unfamiliar with. Say this out loud in a Caulkins training and you'll be banished to the woodshed. Caulkins neither welcomes robust discussion nor does she, or her proponents, realize that need for respectful critique.

As a writer and story teller I have additional concerns regarding her writing curriculum. It forces teachers to both view and teach writing in a method that allows students to flounder in an instructional model that is all too confining and often ineffective. It is definitely a topic for another blog post that I hope and trust you will pursue. Thank you for your thoughtful, respectful, and courageous work in challenging the status quo.

We don't want to be wrong any longer than we need to be and we don't want to be led those that believe that they can do no wrong. I look forward to more of your posts, they are needed now more than ever. Please continue your work and share your voice. In a word it is refreshing!

Stacey Drescher Jul 29, 2021 05:40 PM

There are so many resources out there that use a readers workshop approach and it is very appealing for busy teachers who need to find a work-life balance. Many teachers use these resources because everything is included, very little prep is required, and you can meet with individuals and small groups in the classroom. Where are the resources that don't use this approach, but are still prepped for you? Also what is the difference between 'Readers Workshop' and 'Shared Reading'?

Timothy Shanahan Jul 30, 2021 04:06 PM


In reading workshop, students read independently and meet with a teacher one-on-one occasionally and for brief periods to discuss what they have been reading. In shared reading, the teacher (or other person) reads a text to students.



M. Tomczak Oct 06, 2021 08:24 AM

Like any teacher who has worked with every level reader, I find myself seeing good in every system of reading and writing I have been engaged in. Sadly, the critics of each of these approaches were also making valid points, it must be acknowledged. No one approach matches every student. As a parent, I observed the precisely wrong approach presented with my children as well and had some interesting conversations at school. Recently I taught three sections of Reading and the same of Writing using Lucy Calkins materialS for a semester while a colleague dealt with extended health issues with her child. I learned so much. With 33 children in a group, it was impossible to be effective. Those groups had many problems that could not be addressed in my limited time, both educational and behavioral. One child didn’t yet speak, another was planning how to attack his family before his suicide, another had been ripped away from the grandmother who raised him by his father who finally got out of jail, so nothing about academics had value. There were others. Individual discussion to set the individual goal and monitor that the child had worked on it with deep comprehension? Please. Lucy’s wordy scripts made prepping time even more inadequate. None of the sections handled the materials the same way, every day, every section was feeling like never ending failure. So I picked three items that I insisted I put more time to and dropped Lucy’s chatter, while still using her buzz words and basic structures, just allotted differently and with more relevant example texts. I was shocked when the papers I found barely acceptable impressed their teacher as being well done. The following year, the teacher caught me in the hallway. Of the 15 fifth grade classrooms in the district, only the three “we” taught improved significantly on our state tests. Tests were taken the first week she was back. Given a reasonable class size and some freedom to not adhere to the precise workshop set up, I could see value in the Lucy Calkin’s approach. But experience and informed resource people are really necessary. The person training teachers for this had never taught with it, her advice was well meant, sincere and useless. She’d been flown to work with trainers at the source but it was still just theory to her and her job was to be the cheerleader, which she did well. It angered most teachers but no one was listened to.

Karl Androes Jan 22, 2022 05:54 PM

Hey Tim,

Two quick notes, having only read the first intro, so far. One, the re-issue date has 2019, but I’m pretty sure you mean 2022. Might matter in 2025 when you repost again! Second, are there no new studies since 2019 that provide any new evidence, one way or another. Seems like there’s been a certain amount of debate since then, but nobody has seen fit to study it in that time, or had a study in the works in 2019 that has since been published? If not, might that be relevant for your readers to know, also?

Joan Sedita Jan 22, 2022 06:04 PM

Thank you for posting this again at the start of 2022! Let’s also keep in mind the issue of equity and access to high-quality instruction for all students. A culturally responsive approach to reading instruction should communicate and hold all students to the same high expectations and provide instruction so all students can access the same skills and grade-level content. When teachers limit students to texts that are “at their level” rather than teaching them how to read challenging, complex text, they deny many students with racially, culturally, or linguistically diverse backgrounds the opportunity to develop higher-order, critical thinking skills. As Zaretta Hammond points out in her book “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Divers Students” (2014), when teachers do not have high expectations for students, they become dependent learners who rely on teachers to guide them through complex tasks.

Lanny Ball Jan 22, 2022 07:00 PM

Wow, with all due respect, so much to disagree with here, Tim. Let’s begin with there being “no research to support” providing calibrated feedback to readers. The reading conference is highly researched-based, as John Hattie and others have shared multiple benefits to learners who receive feedback in the act of doing something. The reading conference is designed to balance instructional feedback with compliments/affirmation, thereby moving readers forward while simultaneously nurturing a reader’s reading identity. Also, this post seems to denigrate the value of practice. Perhaps Dr. Shanahan doesn’t believe reading is a skill by which we can improve through independent practice? That isn’t clear here. But it is clear that Brian Cambourne and others have correctly pointed out that we get better at what we actually do- which, as a professional musician, I can attest to personally. Let’s move on: Another point made in this post seems to be that kids should only be reading books that teachers “know.” Otherwise, goodness knows what the kids might be “understanding” or not, right? They might even grow some of their own original interpretations!? I would respectfully assert that if kids are only reading books familiar to the teachers, they aren’t reading enough. And the point that teachers need to make sure kids are understanding what they “should” is problematic in that it privileges teacher-sponsored interpretations over student-generated thinking. And what of this notion that there’s no way a teacher can tell if a student is or isn’t employing a reading skill if you “don’t know the book?” Again, I would respectfully assert that relying on such tools as our knowledge of the features of text complexity, story structure, genre, etc. allows us to meaningfully provide feedback and guidance to readers. I’ll end with two last thoughts here: (1) Personally, I find it offensive to pull out a decontextualized quote from someone like Dr. Lucy Calkins and use it to undergird such a problematic post. My humble suggestion would be to contact her to gain a broader understanding of the power of the reading conferences. (2) As Kelly Gallagher points out, when book selection is completely controlled by teachers, we run the very real risk of killing reading for kids. Choice is a huge factor when it comes to engagement. But maybe engagement doesn’t matter?
Thank you for bringing to light this conversation. I find many of your posts helpful— just not this one.

Debbie Jan 22, 2022 07:10 PM

I was happy to read this blog post - thank you for posting it again! I have worked on a relationship with a curriculum director in a district in the region of Ohio that I serve. She and several of her teachers attended summer workshops at Teachers College in NY for conferences with Lucy Calkins. They were using the Units of Study with fidelity. And they loved it. And they looked at their data....they added a specific phonics curriculum and it yielded some improvement, but not enough. They added some specific phonemic awareness instruction AND that group of leaders went through an in-depth OG program and began to use that to work with their most struggling readers. They also changed the "script" for their guided reading time to harmonize with their phonics instruction. Their data is improving and they learned so much through the OG program that they're now engaging in LETRS training for all their K-2 staff and their 3rd and 4th grade ELA teachers. And I'm helping them plan to change curricula in the next year. She listened to me for 2 years in meetings share about the science of reading instruction, but didn't change until she and her colleagues understood how much more their children needed. They cared more about students than their own opinions! I totally enjoy working with this district and they're happy to share their journey with others.

Cindy Mcbride Jan 22, 2022 08:35 PM

I’ve been an educator for more than 25 years now and I can’t tell you how many times my thinking has been vindicated by your blog. Reader’s Workshop, Writer’s Workshop, Guided Reading etc.. have the been drive of several schools I have taught at . I’ve always questioned the approach and have been made to feel less than adequate when I questioned the typical procedures of these programs. Thanks for all the research you do to make sure education has the real facts about literacy!

Timothy Shanahan Jan 22, 2022 08:45 PM


You couldn't be more wrong about these points. First, conferences do NOT provide feedback WHILE students are engaged in reading. They come after (which is very different than what they were talking about in the studies that you refer to). Also, the feedback from conferencing is often meaningless since the teacher who doesn't know the book has no idea if the student did it well or not. Second, I didn't say that kids's reading should be limited to what their teachers have read. I said the opposite. The books that kids are being taught from should be read by the teachers. Imagine trying to coach someone to play the violin better when you can neither see what they're doing or hear the result (you'll only find out later that the player thought he was doing pretty well). Good luck to that. Third, nothing unfair at all about taking an accurate quote from somebody's "for sale" materials. If it makes you feel any better, I have observed in classrooms that Lucy Calkins has invited me to visit and I have discussed various instructional matters with she and her team (I assure you my characterization of this aspect of her program is quite accurate). Fourth, I think you misunderstand the research on the benefits of practice. Typically, a teacher or coach through some kind of guidance or instruction would make sure the student was doing properly whatever was to be practiced. That is hard to accomplish in an environment in which kids are given little direct instructional guidance. Music teachers will tell you that having a student practice something incorrectly does little to improve student skills. One key thing to remember: research on reading shows that kids working with a teacher learn 4-8 times as much as they do reading on their own. You seem to believe that working with text structure or other features of text will allow you to guide kids' reading appropriately -- even if you don't know the structure of the text you are guiding and can't be sure whether the students recognized it or not. Ignorance is a weak platform from which to teach.


Jennifer Martin-Hawkes Jan 23, 2022 02:25 PM

There is a compromise here. I’m a Sr High Resource Teacher and the Gr 9 English teacher has an extensive classroom library of books she lets her students choose from when she teaches her Dystopian Genre (not her classics - that is prescribed by her). She has read every book in that library - so she has the knowledge - but she allows choice. If a student has interest in a novel above reading level, she allows them to read the audio book as they are likely receiving daily structured reading instruction from me - so she allows them to have this choice. However, if after a couple of weeks they want to switch books, she allows it. By the end, everyone is usually reading an accessible text. There really are some students whose comprehension of story is quite high and need far more challenge than their actual fluency allows and those exceptions have audio copies - she weighs out what she is assessing against the task - is it a reasonable adaption. Can she assess decoding comprehension in another way and another time- absolutely - she is assessing their ability to dig deeper into a story and discuss. She knows the books and they are all engaging in deeper comprehension and they have all had choice. (If they want to read a book outside her library, she does a quick read for appropriateness - approves it and downloads a kindle copy to read on the weekend. If it’s awesome, she orders 4 and they are added to her library for next year).

Stephanie Jan 23, 2022 06:03 PM

So if you don’t like reading workshop, what DO you like?

Timothy Shanahan Jan 23, 2022 06:12 PM

I like teaching. I like demonstrating to kids how to do something and then guiding them to do it and to do it better. I like deep conversations with a group about what a text means and how the author has accomplished his/her affects -- with kids thinking hard about those things and gaining from the interchange with the other kids (and from what, I the teacher might be able to add). I like seeing kids puzzle over vocabulary (getting at both the meaning and the sense of the word), and learning how to break a complicated sentence down so that it makes sense, or linking the references across a text to gain its meaning, or asking questions that get kids to think about aspects of the text that they'd speed past without noticing if they were left to their own devices. In other words, I think teaching needs to get kids further than they could do on their own.

Lori Jan 23, 2022 06:15 PM

it pains me when I read how you simplify the workshop model to only instruction in a conference. I taught 1st grade for 16 years and readers and writers workshop were times of direct instruction along with practice of skills and strategies by the students. I was also trained in Marie Clay's work and incorporated that into my teaching. I had many students gain significant amounts of growth and they loved writing.

Kimberly Entzminger Jan 24, 2022 12:36 PM

Thank you so much for this blog. A few years ago, teachers at my school came back from a conference super excited about Units of Study and how it fit into Readers Workshop. As a Literacy Coach in a Title One school, I'm always happy when teachers are thinking about how to teach reading. I am NOT a fan of Readers Workshop. As an Early Childhood Educator for the first part of my career and a Reading Interventionist for the middle part, I know that struggling readers need instruction and was concerned about the amount of "free choice time" that seemed to be replacing direct instruction. We purchased a Units of Study kit and I looked at it. My conclusion, it would be great for 3rd - 5th grade GT, or those students who already know how to read and write proficiently, but I would not support its use in PreK-2nd or for 3-5 grade struggling readers. I go back to a saying a music instructor drilled into his students, "Practice makes permanent, not perfect." If students are not proficient, and if they are making mistakes and do not know how to resolve those mistakes, they are practicing it wrong. I recall a 2nd grader who came to us from another school and every time she say the word "my" she said "the". By this point that incorrect response was so habituated that it was nearly impossible to correct.
My Opinion:
*I do not have an issue with students choosing books to read on their own.
*I do object to limiting student choice to only books that are "easy" as determined by some arbitrary test.
*I do object to students spending large amounts of time reading in lieu of instruction.
*A mini-lesson may be great for clearing up a confusion or reviewing a previously taught concept, but it is highly unlikely
that most struggling readers will find a mini-lesson helpful or that teaching a new concept can be covered in 3-7 minutes
with good understanding.
*In order to facilitate "close reading" and work on comprehension, you need repeated reading, guidance, and solid
questioning from a teacher who actually knows what the book says.

Interestingly, we piloted a 2nd grade class using Units of Study and a 4th grade class using Scholastics Independent Reading program. Neither produced results that even came close to the results we had in classes with direct instruction based on student need. In addition, both teachers had concerns about what they weren't able to do or cover based on the amount of time students spent working independently. We recently adopted a structured language approach, unfortunately right as COVID came to town. However, last year was the first group of 3rd graders who had some of this instruction in 1st and 2nd grades, though the years were cut short due to COVID. We had hoped to gain 10 percentage points on our state reading assessment. They didn't make 10 percent, they made 20 percentage point gains. When I pulled data for the students who had been with us in 1st and 2nd, almost 90% were meeting or exceeding grade level expectations.

Here's an idea! Let's teach kids what they need to know, support them through instruction and responsive teaching, and use data to drive our instruction with research and evidence based practices. I'm really not sure why this seems to be a radical idea!!

Max Jan 24, 2022 09:15 PM

First of all, I want to mention that I find it honorable to let the discourse stand in the discussion, rather than deleting posts that don’t fit the narrative of your initial post. So, no echo chamber here but much reverberation. I’ve been in education for 25ish years, having taught Kindergarten through University, monolingual and bilingual education. I’ve read the entire thread so far, and as an instructional coach, I think about teachers at all levels all trying to do right by their students, and I find myself feeling really badly for educators.

In many responses, even your own, I can hear the frustration. Many of our colleagues here write from a position of real lived experiences, either of success or failure (and probably a lot of both on the journey). Our educators experiencing repeated success with students are probably feeling very confirmed or conflicted depending on the comments and/or references to “reading experts”. Those experiencing repeated failure or stagnated progress with their students, I presume, are desperate to do the right thing and are probably feeling confused, frustrated and angry at the lack of consensus or clarity of the experts in education.

This thread, being a small representation of the larger ongoing debate outside, makes me think about the exodus of teachers from the profession and how this post-pandemic traumatized, anxiety-filled group of students will be relying on this system to help them recover. I see a lot of similarities between the science of covid and public health response debate and the science of reading and child literacy health response debate. Many voices here and outside of here think they have the correct interpretation of the research and professional publications. When it devolves into sesquipedalian versions of, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” or “my background sources are valid and yours are not,” and yes, when infused with condescension and sarcasm or just statements of belief and opinion, it just becomes a dumpster fire that discourages or drives teachers away from the profession.

I thank you for sharing your thoughts and expertise and for leaving the debate unedited and open, and now re-opened.

Harriett Janetos Jan 24, 2022 10:35 PM

"A mini-lesson may be great for clearing up a confusion or reviewing a previously taught concept, but it is highly unlikely
that most struggling readers will find a mini-lesson helpful or that teaching a new concept can be covered in 3-7 minutes
with good understanding."

I totally agree with Kimberly! Even with the time-frame often suggested to me--6 to 12 minutes--the mini-lesson is problematic, and I have participated in many PD sessions where I've made the case for the maxi-lesson. Along with 3-cueing, the mini-lesson is one of the most counterproductive instructional practices inflicted upon teachers.

Heather Jan 25, 2022 02:50 PM

I agree with you, Tim. Reader's Workshop/ "Balance Literacy" are shams. Fancy titles we give for incomplete approaches to teaching literacy. I am no longer a classroom teacher. I am a Special Education Reading Specialist. I see small groups for reading intervention, and give in class inclusion support. I see teachers way too often blowing through their most important literacy lessons to hurry into Guided Reading groups. Read alouds and classroom discussions too often get the short end of the stick. My biggest issue in the world of teaching literacy is that there is no complete approach to teaching it. Even when we talk about 'The Science of Reading' interpreting that, and how it carries over into classroom instruction is a bit of a mystery. We need an approach that is not as complicated, makes sense, and lends time to all the crucial components of good literacy instruction. My last year in the classroom I started dividing my 2 hour literacy block into two parts. The first was devoted to word study, and reading fluency. The 2nd was devoted to comprehension/ vocabulary/ responding to text. I felt that was the best use of my time. I have refused to do "guided reading," which has gotten me in trouble with certain school districts, because I think it's not challenging enough for students. It makes literacy teaching/ learning a chore, and I despise leveled reading.

Mat Feb 02, 2022 12:26 PM

Hi Tim,
This blast from the past was most appreciated! I often learn as much from the comments as I do from the actual article as so many learned folks join in the conversation. As I was reading through the comments, I noticed one that stood out from 'a concerned teacher'. I have pasted the comment below and was wondering what you thought about this. The way reading workshop is described here seems to be offering much more than conferencing and importantly does include small group work with hard texts. Is this a fantasy or something achievable with a readers workshop?

I think if a reading workshop has
1 whole class focus
2 time for independent reading (where picking a best fit book OR book provided where needed because that child needs something picked for them - there are tasks to do during this time)
3. A guided lesson of some kind happens (such as reciprocal reading, fluency based, phonics based or guided reading or other explicit teaching with a small group or 1:1 - dependent on needs of that group)
4. A short chat 5mins - 7 mins about children’s goals when reading - or conference.
^^^then I’m not sure what you’d think wouldn’t work about that. Explicit teaching. Time to consolidate skills. Reading time, books with challenge for guided or explicit teaching, whole focus that links to reading skills is exactly what should be taught. Not sure what you’re advocating for in a classroom in that case.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 02, 2022 01:39 PM

This is a common experience. You criticize a widely adopted practice (paying close attention to the written descriptions and prescriptions that exist) and teachers respond that you don't understand the practice -- that isn't really what they are doing. Some of this can be real (for example, Units of Study does have some very brief mini-lessons and in the latest edition (unlike in the previous 17 years of its life) it now includes, for older kids, some group work (and they'll even sell you some brief phonics lessons that they assumed teachers were always teaching as part of Readers Workshop). Criticism has the power to get people to change practice -- and it is best to allow them to save face when they are scrambling to make those changes.


Marylen Massen Feb 09, 2022 03:06 AM

I am so grateful for your insight on this important topic. I am a reading specialist and a mother to a 3rd grader slogging through the horrible Readers Workshop “stop and jot” exercises each evening. The reason this comprehension method “works” is because I read my child’s book baggie books myself after she goes to bed and create a complete analysis with notes. The morning and for the rest of the week, I engage my child in deep discussions as she reads the book herself. I tell her about the features of the narrative, why a particular element should get the readers attention. I teach the book instead of letting her flap around in the breeze.

Cathryn Brennan Dec 21, 2022 04:34 PM

Thank you for this post and for your blog in general. I am learning so much by reading it. I am a mom of three elementary students who go to a school that uses the Units of Study Readers and Writers Workshop. I have been very frustrated with much of it since my oldest two entered kindergarten. I specifically recall trying to do assigned comprehension activities that clearly did not fit with my children’s selected texts during remote learning. It was hard for even my husband and me to generate decent responses.

With all of the recent coverage, our school district is now talking about their elementary ELA curriculum with parents a little bit. I have been trying to learn as much as I can so that I am able to contribute in a meaningful way. I was wondering what you think about the study Lucy Calkins cited in her recent EducationWeek article “Lucy Calkins Revisits and Revises Her Reading Curriculum” from November 9, 2022. (https://www.air.org/sites/default/files/Teachers-College-Reading-and-Writing-Project-Jan-2021.pdf) It does not seem to be published in any peer-reviewed journal. She states that it shows that schools that adopted the Units of Study curriculum outperformed schools that did not adopt the curriculum in statistically significant ways.

Timothy Shanahan Dec 21, 2022 11:29 PM


That study is what I think of as an advertising study. It would not be able to pass peer review. The study doesn't show that kids who are taught to read with Units of Study do better than other kids, but that schools and districts that purchase it, tend to be higher achieving. It is akin to finding that more rich people drive Maserati's and concluding that if you want to get rich, you should buy a Maserati.

In fact, many well-heeled school districts serve wealthier families, and those kids often enter school at higher levels of achievement than average (money does confer its educational advantages). Often such schools do not want to use a typical program because those are aimed at average kids and their average kids are, well, above average. Units of Study might make sense for some of those kids, since they are reading above average it might be okay to not offer more teaching, but just to get them reading more on their own (the central feature of the program). Of course, any kids with disabilities or who happen to come from a low income home despite being in such a district, might not do particularly well -- but the district would still have high achievement.


Jennifer Anne Feb 28, 2023 09:08 PM

It is certainly a long shot that you will even see this, but what are your thoughts on American Reading Company?

Timothy Shanahan Feb 28, 2023 10:40 PM

Jennifer --

I usually don't make comments about companies or programs. That is both because I work on programs with various companies and I have friends and colleagues at various companies. That presents conflicts of interest that should render my opinions useless to you.


Dorey Sep 05, 2023 10:51 PM

I think everyone should listen to the podcast "Sold a Story". The reporter discusses the problems of reading instruction far more articulately than I and she discusses Lucy Calkins's writing program as well.

David Hirzel Sep 09, 2023 07:32 AM

Gosh! I never used my teacher's credential (went into another field entirely) but have conveyed my love of reading (thank you Mrs. Barrett, Mrs. Gloss, and Mrs. Harbert) into a life well richly spent absorbing the vast panorama of literature in the English language. Many of these texts are not easy to assimilate (that's the glory of the scope of literature), that require some effort and some thought and some intelligent back-and-forth conversations--all the more important and useful between a good teacher and a probing, enquiring student.

This idea that, "let 'em choose what they want, they'll figure it out without any input from a real teacher" just baffles me. What then, I must wonder, is the point of having a teacher of literature at all?

I'm glad I grew up in West Virginia in the 1960s where I got the best secondary education a person could hope to have, and was given challenges in literature that have since enriched my entire life. The popular literature of the day then has vanished into the ether of all churning media while Shakespeare, Donne, Melville, Keats and a whole galaxy of authors in our language remain bright in my firmament, alongside the best writing in history, science, and social commentary.

What Are your thoughts?

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

Comment *

What Do You Think of the Reading Workshop? or How Not to Teach Reading Comprehension


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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