How to Plan a Minilesson from Scratch

Minilessons are actually really easy to plan, and fun to teach. What? You don’t believe me? Let me show you, right now, how to do it.

First, take this little quiz to see if this post is for you:

1. Have you ever spent more than a half hour to plan for a minilesson that (in theory) should only take ten minutes to teach?

2. Are you afraid to write your own minilessons, preferring to read straight from your Units of Study books, using them like a script?

3. If you do plan your own minilessons, do you sometimes have this sinking feeling that you’re doing something wrong? Like your lessons just aren’t going the way you’d like them to?

4. Are your minilessons too long? (Remember, the longer your minilesson, the less time kids have for actually writing!)

If you answered yes to any of the above, then you are in the right place.

First thing you need to know: Every minilesson can pretty much go the same way. Sure, there are lots of fancy innovations and methods you can incorporate, but there is a basic architecture (based on research, by the way) that you can fall back on time and time again.

It goes like this:

Connection: Remind kids of something familiar. Perhaps remind kids of some prior knowledge, or a story from your classroom, or an anecdote from your own personal life that will connect to today’s teaching point.

Teaching Point: Tell the kids exactly what you are going to teach them today. Don’t be mysterious. Don’t make them guess. Be explicit and direct. Just tell them!

Demo: Demonstrate the teaching point with one very clear example. Use your own writing, or a piece of student work, a class story, or a published mentor text–but not all four! That will take too long, and shouldn’t be necessary if you demonstrate very clearly. Act out all the steps of your teaching point, do some actual writing on paper, and think aloud as you do it.

Active Engagement: Make sure every kid tries the teaching point before you end your lesson. Invite them to try something quick and small. Just a sample is enough. Plan that this will take no more than one or two minutes.This is the one and only time all your kids MUST try it. After this, today’s teaching point will become one of many choices your kids can pull from as they work on their own independent writing. If there are a handful of kids having trouble, jot down their names and pull them together as a small group after the minilesson to follow up or make accommodations.

Link: This is where you make it very clear to kids what the choices are for their ongoing work. Today’s teaching point is now just one of the many strategies they can choose from. Often, you’ll add today’s minilesson teaching point onto a chart, so that kids won’t forget it come tomorrow.

Yeah, yeah, you say. I know all that already.

Great, I say! Now try this:

1. Think of something familiar that you are constantly reminding or teaching someone to do. For example, in my house, I am constantly reminding and teaching my daughter to put her dirty clothes in the hamper. I also do a lot of reminding about turning out lights. And then there’s hanging up her coat instead of dropping it on the floor in front of the door… my list could go on and on.

2. Now try this. Use the chart below to just say aloud a minilesson that teaches something silly and familiar. Just use the sentence starters and see what happens.

The language of minilessons.

The language of minilessons. When I was new to this work I used to keep a chart like this in my classroom, not for kids, but for myself! Now, as a staff developer, I often display this chart during my minilessons to help teachers follow along with me as I teach.

My minilesson for teaching my daughter to hang up her coat would go like this using the scaffolding language on the chart:

Connection:

“Now Lily, remember yesterday when I tripped on your raincoat when I was walking in the door? That was pretty scary for me! I almost dropped all the groceries I was carrying!”

Teaching Point:

Today I want to teach you how to help keep our house nice and neat by hanging up your coat on a hook every time you come through the door.”

Demo:

Watch how I hang up my own coat as soon as come in through the door.”

I put on my coat, and walk outside to the garage. Then I open the door.

Hmm… I’m taking off my coat. I’m thinking maybe I’ll just drop it right here on the floor. What do you think?” (Lily giggles, of course) “Nooo! That would be messy. Plus someone could trip on it! I’ll hang it up on the hook. See?”

I hang my coat on a hook.

Did you see how I thought about dropping it on the floor, but then I stopped and decided it would be better to hang it on the hook?”

Active Engagement:

Now it’s your turn to hang your coat up as soon as you come through the door. Go ahead, put your coat back on and go back outside to try it.”

Lily puts her coat on, and we step outside the door together.

“Okay, time to take off your coat!” She takes off her coat.

“Where will you put your coat this time?” She hangs it on a hook.

I noticed that you didn’t just toss your coat on the floor–you hung it on the hook!

Link:

Today and every day, for the rest of your life, you can always hang your coat on a hook when you come in the house. Don’t forget, you can also put your shoes on the shoe rack, and your hat in the basket too!

How long did it take you to plan a minilesson for an everyday, silly, teaching point? Not long, right?

Now, you see, minilessons aren’t that complicated after all. The consistency of the architecture and the scaffolding language is a tool that you can use for planning. Now try it with a reading strategy, or a writing strategy, and off you go!