Structure: Writing Workshop Fundamentals

Writing Workshop Fundamentals Blog Series - August 2017 - #TWTBlogI used to run in college. Sometimes we went for a quick mile, and other times, we planned a longer route–sometimes up to five miles. I learned that if I geared up for a short run, any extra steps beyond that one mile felt hard. On the other hand, I could make a five mile run happen as long as I was expecting it. (Full disclosure: the last half mile was hard.)

This relates to writing workshop because we all program ourselves, and a lot of the time, we function best when our program coincides with our expectations. One of the critical aspects of a well running writing workshop is its predictability. That predictability provides clarity and structure for both teachers and students, offering a format for instruction and for paying attention and working.

A pie graph works well for me whenever I think about the component parts of a writing workshop. In most classrooms, the pie graph represents sixty minutes, but the graphic representation applies to longer and shorter workshops as well.

chart (1)

What are the Structural Components of a Writing Workshop?

The Minilesson

In general, minilessons should last approximately 10 minutes, and they should contain four distinct parts. Tomorrow, Stacey will elaborate even more on each part in her post about this important aspect of a writing workshop.

  1. The Connection: Students learn why today’s instruction is important to them as writers, and they learn how it connects with what they have been learning and practicing.
  2. The Teaching Point and Demonstration: The teacher states exactly what will be taught during the lesson. “Today I’m going to teach you” is a useful phrase to streamline instruction. This is the part of the lesson when the teacher shows students how to use a specific skill or strategy.
  3. The Active Engagement: Students have a chance to practice what has just been taught or to share noticings about the lesson. They might also “turn and talk” about how they could use the strategy in their writing. They might even “stop and jot” in their writer’s notebook.
  4. The Link: The teacher reiterates the teaching point, and students are challenged to include it into their repertoire of growing skills within their practice of writing.

Independent Writing Time

For about twenty minutes following the minilesson, students should be engaged in independent writing time. Mid-workshop interruptions offer students a shorter teaching point, and then students should have another segment of sustained independent writing time for a total of about 40 minutes within a 60 minute workshop. Early primary students may have shorter segments, working toward stamina and sustaining longer sessions.

During independent writing time, students should be working on their own writing, and they may very well be in different phases, focusing on a variety of goals. Yes, they should be trying out the skill from the minilesson, but they should be developing a growing repertoire of skills within genres and as writers. Independence and repertoire are important goals of writing workshops.


Conferring with individual students and/or partners and Small Group Work

Conferring and small group work target specific students and skills. Conferring especially is often called the heart of the workshop. A strong conference also has discernible components: a compliment, research on the part of the teacher, and a teaching point. Small group work at its best involves 4 students who are working on the same skill. They may be of different writing levels, but the teaching point pertains to the work all of them are doing.

Mid-workshop Interruption

It is difficult to sustain writing, and students are usually ready to handle a break in the action. Therefore, the mid-workshop interruption is just as it is described. Students usually stay at their desks, but the teacher folds in an additional teaching point that may or may not relate to the minilesson. The MWI could involve honoring a student, or it could relate to a skill that the teacher knows pertains to several students in the class.

Lucy Calkins emphasizes the importance of having students’ attention during the mid-workshop interruption, and a line she uses is “Writers, can I have your eyes?” She then waits for everyone to stop what they are doing and look at her. While we can all coin whatever phrase works in our own classroom, I have to say that Lucy’s is really effective!

Teaching Shares

Shares come at the end of the workshop. Like the mid-workshop interruptions, shares might be a time to honor students’ work, but these five minutes can also be a time to directly teach one more concept. Either way, shares should involve student work, and they should create a sense of closure for the day’s writing work.


Just like when I’m preparing for a run, when I’m preparing to give or to participate in any sort of lesson or presentation, it helps me to know how long it will be; that way I can pace myself. As your workshops become more and more predictable in terms of structure, I bet you’ll find that you engage and even empower your writers!
Quick Tips

  • Use a timer! Hold yourself to a ten minute limit for a minilesson. If you find that you are going over, try to establish which part of the minilesson is taking too much time, and target your revision.
  • During independent writing time, challenge yourself to get to one individual conference, one partnership, and one small group. You won’t believe how many students you can reach.
  • Think of your mid-workshop interruption and share as teaching points and add bullets to the charts that are in progress.
  • Create charts with your students of what your role and responsibilities are, as well as what their roles and responsibilities should be. Refer to these charts as needed.

Next Steps

  • Google Forms is a fabulous resource for setting up record keeping systems. Consider using it as a tool when you are conferring with individual students or even more than one student at a time.
  • Try asking students to set a goal for themselves at the end of your mid-workshop interruption. Often, this helps focus them for the remaining minutes and provides a sense of purpose.
  • Veer from the classic minilesson structure with an inquiry lesson. Sometimes inquiry lessons take a little longer, but challenge yourself to not stray too far from the 10 minute time frame.

Link Roundup

Anna Cockerille writes about the components of a minilesson:

Beth Moore writes about routines:

Beth Moore writes about more than one way to teach a minilesson:
Suggested Reading




Giveaway Information

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Renew! Become a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader. (If the winner has a U.S. address, you may choose a paper or eBook. If the winner has an international mailing address, then you will receive an eBook.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of Renew! Become a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Monday, August 7th at 5:00 p.m. EDT. Beth Moore will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Tuesday, August 8th.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Beth can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship your book out to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Beth will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – RENEW BOOK. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.