What’s with Reading Workshop in high school?

  • amount of instruction
  • 25 March, 2017

            Lately, I’ve run into a lot of teachers and school administrators who are all pumped up about the Reading Workshop or Readers’ Workshop.

            They tell me that they don’t want to use textbooks anymore. Don’t want to teach novels. Don't seem to really want to teach much of anything.

            They believe that the trick to teaching reading is not teaching it—or at least not teaching it very much. Mini-lessons are in the saddle and independent reading is how they want students to experience the English class.

            I’m skeptical. If this were a new idea, I’d probably be more accepting. However, this influential notion has been around for a long time now (e.g., Atwell, 1987), without any real research. Proponents of Reading Workshop may feel strongly about it, but not so much that they have bothered to find out if it is effective. That tends to give it a religious cast… you just have to believe.

            Above all, Reading Workshop proponents seem to believe that they are teaching students to love reading. They provide a lot of great books. They let kids read what they want to. They get out of the way and devote class time to kids reading on their own. They conference. They minimize teaching. And, the theory is that if you focus on pleasurable reading instead of academic reading, then reading achievement may rise, but love of reading certainly will. Hallelujah!

            But is that really the case? There is little direct evidence, so the musings that follow are aimed at exploring questions more than drawing any firm conclusions.

            1.  If reading workshop is so effective, why don’t kids like reading?

            The increase in use of Reading Workshop provides a kind of natural experiment. Personal experience tells me that Reading Workshop is more widely used now than 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. That expansion must be having some positive impact on this generation’s reading habits, right?

            Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The various reading census results suggest that teens may be reading less for pleasure than they used to and that situation may be getting worse (Scholastic, 2013)—despite more schools adopting these reading-encouraging approaches. At best, reading data (NAEP, 2010; OECD, 2009) are showing no impact whatsoever on recreational reading. 

            Of course, drawing conclusions about instructional practices based on general data is fraught with problems. There could be alternative explanations for adolescent apathy about reading. Perhaps if so many schools weren’t adopting Reading Workshop things would even be worse. But, still…

            Shirley Brice Heath has documented how in the 18th century readers took their institutional literacy skills and turned them to their own pleasure—novel reading. One wonders what the impact of institutions setting aside academic literacy in favor of an emphasis on pleasure reading. Instead of being able to turn their academic skills to personal use, we seem to be appropriating those personal uses to the institution. Agency matters to adolescents; if we take pleasure reading hostage in our academic programs, don’t be surprised if they reject it as part of their “youth cultures.” 

            2.  But aren’t there benefits to having teens making book choices?

            Generally, psychologists support the motivational power of choice. Choice tends to make us happier. But I wonder what such choice makes kids happier with? Does it make them think reading is great fun so they will want to do it on their own? Or, does it make them tolerate their English class since it’s so much easier than what they may be asked to do the rest of the day? Making one happy for a daily school period doesn’t necessarily change the likelihood that they’ll choose to read independently. (If students connect choice to reading, perhaps; but if they connect it to the English class or teacher, then maybe not so much.)

            Some authorities argue that Reading Workshop is valuable because it teaches students to make good reading choices. But what texts should students be authorized to read for pleasure? 

             Many of my friends are voracious readers of popular novels (e.g., Stieg Larson, James Patterson, E. L. James, George R. R. Martin). I tend towards Library of America volumes and Man-Booker prize winners. And, I have grandsons and nephews who adore books on dinosaurs, snakes, natural anomalies, and the like. Which of us have to change our tastes to be properly Workshopped? Who decides? Remember we’re not talking about which literature to teach, but what students’ personal choices should be for a recreational activity. At least with textbooks and classroom novels, the prescriptions are positive and they are aimed at academic rather than personal reading.

            Adolescence is a time of “no.” It is a time when teens start to push back on adult infringements on their autonomy. Nevertheless, most kids don’t have too much trouble with English teachers selecting books to be read in English—or at least no more resistance towards the games and exercises set by the Physical Education teacher or the experiments set by the science teacher.

            But, telling teenagers that they are supposed to like reading, and that they should devote their personal time to it might be a bridge too far. 

            The benefit of student choice, then, could be a vague positive inclination towards reading (or, perhaps, less than that). While the downside could be that students will not gain sufficient experience in meeting academic reading demands in the kinds of texts in which they are likely to require scaffolding and support.

            Let’s face it. The college professors, employers, and armed forces aren’t complaining that kids don’t like reading, but that they lack the skills and experiences that would allow them to meet reading demands. Apparently, the most widely required books in college include those by Plato, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Aristotle… as well as more recent offerings like the Clash of Civilizations and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions. My hunch is that reading The Hunger Games on one’s own, even if supported with mini-lessons in reading skills of questionable value, will not prepare one for Civilization and Its Discontents or the Canterbury Tales.

            Of course, just because Reading Workshop, as usually conceptualized, is unlikely to prepare kids to effectively carry out the kinds of reading that they’ll be expected to do, that doesn’t mean that the novels or textbooks chosen by teachers will do this any better. Reading Workshop typically promotes the idea of guiding students to texts that won’t be overly challenging, but that is often true of textbook selections, too.

            The issue isn’t whether students’ have reading choices, but whether what they read is demanding and valuable enough to develop greater ability and power. I trust those kinds of decisions to teachers more than to kids, since teachers should have a better understanding of what is coming later.

            And, if those kind of demanding texts are going to make up a significant portion of instruction, I think students would be better served by working together under the guidance of a skilled teacher, rather than trying to teach themselves.

            3. Can’t Reading Workshop be structured so as to meet your concerns?

            Of course, Workshop could be restructured in various ways to address the kinds of concerns stated above—and even unstructured it might have a place in instruction (possibly). However, the more it is restructured—letting content and quality drive text selection rather than student choice; focusing on guided text interpretation instead of mini-lessons on skills; intentionally going for text that stretches student abilities and sensibilities rather than texts that can be read comfortably—the more it resembles traditional instruction.

            Over the years, I’ve encouraged teachers to intersperse guided group textbook lessons, with more independent activities. For instance, in my classrooms I would teach skills and strategies with a textbook for some number of weeks, but then would have students select their own books to apply the same skills; interspersing like that throughout the year. Likewise, I have often encouraged teachers to allow students a free choice of books in place of one of their classroom novels; with a lot of attention to the differences in the books the teacher selected from those selected by the students. 

            However, most of the arguments for Workshop are philosophical, and this kind of eclectic purposeful mixing and matching is offensive to that philosophy. If you believe that kids will learn more on their own, that all texts are equal when it comes to their value in reading experience, that choice is more important than quality and that enjoyment should have priority over proficiency… my suggestions are offensive (though, certainly not meant that way).

            I was a high school student in the 1960s. The Vietnam War was raging and the country was deeply divided. High school and college instructors didn’t want to flunk boys, because the alternative was turning them into cannon fodder. Accordingly, we had few reading assignments—and certainly none that we couldn’t blow off without consequence.

            That wasn’t explained to us, however. I dropped out of high school believing that the adults were idiots without any kind of standards. If adults can’t tell you what they think you need to read, they just aren’t trying. I wonder how many kids, even those who enjoy the reading break during English class, think the same about their teachers?

            Just wondering.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Jo-Anne Mar 26, 2017 07:02 PM

Utter nonsense!
Stuff that hurts kids..it`s incredibly irritating to even read it!

Jo-Anne Mar 26, 2017 07:02 PM

Utter nonsense!
Stuff that hurts kids..it`s incredibly irritating to even read it!

Michael Grimaldi Mar 27, 2017 12:19 AM

Hello Tim,

While I value your point of view and expertise, your statements can be misleading since many educators define "reading workshop" differently. The more general or loose their definition, the more they may agree with, or be influenced by your words. Interpretation matters.

I was drawn to this portion of your post..."For instance, in my classrooms I would teach skills and strategies with a textbook for some number of weeks, but then would have students select their own books to apply the same skills; interspersing like that throughout the year."

This is precisely how I define a true "reading workshop" with the exception of using a textbook. I would substitute "textbook" with "mentor text." Transference is the key point to your comment above, and transference is a crucial component to my definition of a reading workshop. Based off my definition, I can make a strong counter claim that reading workshop is an appropriate pedagogical approach at the high school level (any level for that matter). Of course, teacher capacity and expertise matters, as well.

My point is that your recommendation of effective instruction at the end of your post is in direct alignment with my definition of a "reading workshop." There lies the paradox.

Regardless, thank you for your body of work and initiating this conversation.

My best,

Lb Mar 27, 2017 03:17 AM

It's a matter of balance. Whenever anyone speaks of instruction through one avenue, and one avenue only, it does a disservice to teaching and learning. It's interesting that the love for reading seems to have dipped right around when common core came to be, and when many schools dumped current curriculum for state presented curriculum. Reading workshop doesn't ask that you abandon novels… It just asks that you allow students to have choice during their independent reading time. Lots of meaningful and important discussion and learning takes place through the shared reading experience of novel. Even in the elementary grades, reading workshop asks that there are shared readings and read alouds to explicitly teach specific skills and strategies. It sounds like your definition of reading workshop may be a bit skewed.

Missy Krufka Mar 27, 2017 04:36 AM

As both a student of Atwell's and a middle school workshop teacher myself, I could not disagree more.

One particular piece that struck me was that workshop teachers "provide a lot of great books. They let kids read what they want to. They get out of the way and devote class time to kids reading on their own. They conference. They minimize teaching." While I pride myself on my classroom library, I do not allow my students to "read what they want." Yes, they have choice, but I collaborate with them in making the best decision based on their reading level and interests, as well as what I know they need to work on. I push them to challenge themselves, to try genres and authors that are new to them. And while I do devote time to reading in class and conferring with each child weekly, I definitely do not "get out of the way" (and I am quite sure my students would agree, much to their chagrin). I plan specific lessons for individuals or small groups. I respond to each of their weekly reading responses. I choose supplemental texts based on their independent novels for them to consider and respond to. I plan book clubs with ability and interest in mind. And every week, my class comes together to read a shared text (a poem, an article, a short story, a novel) to practice skills and analyze themes, all while they continue to enjoy their independent novels. Some of the titles currently making the rounds in my 8th grade classroom are Omnivore's Dilemma; Guns, Germs and Steel; 1984; Othello; and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Hunger Games is something they may read as a guilty pleasure in between more challenging choices.

I know that some may view the workshop teacher as not wanting to "teach much of anything," as you say, but my experience has shown me that could not be further from the truth. I encourage you to visit a successful, effective workshop classroom - my door is open anytime.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 28, 2017 09:04 PM

thoughtful response... why can't a textbook be a mentor text? I don't know any textbooks for reading/literature instruction K-12 that are not anthologies of previously published texts.



Timothy Shanahan Apr 28, 2017 09:06 PM

LB--I'm willing to accept that what I see in classrooms may not match up with your definition of Reading Workshop, fair enough. But where did you get the idea that including independent reading time within class time is good for kids?


Corey Sep 01, 2017 12:07 PM

Stephen Krashen's _The Power of Reading_ is a meta-analysis of reading workshop (what he calls Free Voluntary Reading or FVR). The evidence in favor of FVR is pretty staggering! Check it out.

Corey Sep 01, 2017 12:08 PM

Stephen Krashen's _The Power of Reading_ is a meta-analysis of reading workshop (what he calls Free Voluntary Reading or FVR). The evidence in favor of FVR is pretty staggering! Check it out.

Chan Dec 07, 2017 08:06 PM

I understand exactly what Dr. Shanahan is saying. I get to visit lots of schools all around my state that are utilizing a specific program (the name I shall not speak) for their readers workshop, and it's exactly as he states. The schools I'm thinking of are so adamant that all you have to do is allow students to read a bunch of books and, not only will they will love reading, but they'll also ALL miraculously learn to read! For some students this method may in fact work, but for many it doesn't, and yet I see students falling through the cracks in districts that refuse to teach phonemic awareness and phonics or used leveled books because they only use "authentic reading" in "their" district. And so, poor and minority students continue to under perform their counterparts when what's really needed is a balance and common sense when one thing isn't doing the trick. While I know it's a badge of honor for some people to say, "I NEVER use the literature book," the fact is that most textbooks contain some good quality literature, and it's a way for you to have enough copies for everyone in your class when copies are at a premium. The book itself is just a resource. I truly feel sorry for teachers who have learned to teach by only using a program. The best teachers pull from everything they've ever learned because we know that all students are different. I too used a "modified/blended" readers workshop model. There was time for my students to choose their own texts to apply the skills I'd taught them during a mini lesson. However, there were also times when I selected challenging relevant texts that my students needed to be exposed to. Based on student surveys I had my students complete each year, I NEVER had anyone leave my class disliking reading more than they did when they came to me at the beginning of the year. In fact, the vast majority said they liked reading more and planned to continue reading for leisure during the summer.

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What’s with Reading Workshop in high school?


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