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Dedicated to Teachers

How the Essentials of Reading and Writing Workshop Do—and Don't—Change with Virtual Teaching

hubspot announcement email banner imageAdapted from A Quick Guide to Virtual Teaching for the Units of Study (included in the Units of Study Virtual Teaching Resources), written by Lucy Calkins and Teachers College Reading and Writing Project coauthors.

To teach reading, writing, or phonics, you need to establish the structures and expectations that ensure that all students will work with engagement and tenacity. Otherwise, your entire attention at every point along the way will be focused on keeping kids working—and you therefore won’t be able to devote yourself to the all-important work of assessing, coaching, scaffolding, and teaching. Yet teaching young people to work with independence is no small feat, and it’s so much harder when the kids aren’t in your physical presence!

You can start by recognizing that you need to give careful thought to how you will institute the systems that make it likely that your students will sustain rigorous work. This means planning the management structures and systems that make it possible for children to carry on as writers, working productively with independence and rigor. We know from brick-and-mortar teaching that when workshops have simple and predictable structures and systems, we as teachers are freed from choreography and are able to teach—this holds equally true in virtual and blended environments.

This blog post captures some of what we are learning from the innovative powers that teaching through a global pandemic has unleashed—but the most important thing to say is that the structures, systems, rituals, tools that underlie every day in a reading and writing workshop, that provide consistency and structure, matter.


As you know, workshops open with the teacher teaching everyone a minilesson that usually includes a quick demonstration of a powerful strategy. The minilesson is meant to equip learners with a strategy they can use not only that day but whenever they need it. This resource includes minilessons that have been revised with the lens of virtual learning in mind. This means first that we’ve aimed to deliver clear and concise instruction. To do that, we’ve tried to study minilessons asking that question that we teach kids to ask all the time: “What’s this really about?" We’ve learned to value that skill of determining importance so that we can highlight, by intonation and by allocation of time, that which matters most to a particular minilesson.

We’ve found a few things that we hadn’t realized before. One is that charts that match the flow of a minilesson, that illustrate the steps that teachers take in a minilesson, are very helpful. Those charts that almost require the flow of the lesson to be paused so the teacher can present (and kids can digest) an array of options work less well within a minilesson. We tend to see those charts as best shared in small groups.

We also find that keeping kids engaged is the sun, the moon, and the stars. There are countless ways to do that—some silly, even—but one small thing we try to remember is to always make those little asides wherein we tell kids their role. So if we are going to demonstrate something, we try to tuck in a comment such as, “Watch this and as you watch, be thinking how this pertains to your writing.”

Traditionally, the architecture of minilessons remains largely the same from day to day—and contains a connection, teach, active engagement, and link. For virtual minilessons we keep the “connection” and “teach,” but often combine the “active engagement” and the “link” as a way to set kids up to practice the strategy demonstrated. So instead of kids trying the work during the minilesson—hard to do virtually, especially with recorded instruction—after the teacher demonstrates, we set the kids up to go off to work.

Partnerships and Groups

Usually for a minilesson children sit in the meeting area alongside a long-term partner, clustered as close to you as possible, creating an air of intimacy. We won’t be doing this during the 2020–21 school year, but you can still plan for kids to work together with a partner. Whether kids use the chat feature of online learning to jot notes to each other, or you set them up to meet in virtual meetings, or they FaceTime each other, or they sit apart in a classroom and then trade their writing and jot each other notes, or record themselves talking, kids need to connect with each other. They need the intimacy and the interdependence and the friendships that come through reading and writing together.

Kids have also responded to virtual learning in interesting ways. Some children, who found the gregarious pressures of the classroom challenging, have found their voice in virtual environments, and they are speaking and interacting more. Pay attention to those introverts who are finding their way, and think about how to create environments where quiet voices are honored. Other kids find the challenge of tech as well as language to be overwhelming during all-class virtual experiences, and they’ll particularly need you to set them up in small, carefully chosen groups where they will meet “live” with each other and with you. And kids need you to meet with them one-on-one. Taking the time to call or meet virtually with a student shows them how much you care, how committed and how interested you are. They’ll respond.

Work Time

The most important words of a minilesson are “Off you go!” This is an invitation for students to put into practice the strategies demonstrated in the minilesson within their own independent book or piece of writing. Reading and writing are skills, and like any other, it takes time and work to improve any skill. Your students will be most apt to work with independence if they are doing work (or even trying to do work) that they can envision doing, want to do, and believe they can do. If your children all seem utterly dependent on you or other members of their household, it may be that the bar is too high, for now, or it may be that the work needs to feel more relevant to kids’ lives. Either way, listen to your students, find out what they want to do and can do, and build from what you learn.

The only way you can manage the class so that you are freed to teach is for you to provide students with highly motivating, not-too-scary work for them to do. Engaging students in a sequence of steadily more challenging work is a critical part of any good curriculum, so those of you who rely on these units of study should be in good stead. But it also important for you to always keep in mind that when students appear especially needy, it may be that you’ve just asked them to take a giant step forward, and they may be signaling to you that they need an interim step.

You’ll want to think through how to introduce choice in what kids are reading and writing, and the platforms they are using to do that reading and writing. Chances are that some of your kids will write more, and more fluently, on a device, and some will write more fluently on paper. Set kids up to figure this out, and make the surface kids write on, and the implement they write with, a choice that helps them get the most writing done. Some may want to use voice-to-print transcription. Some of your kids will be reading paper books, and some will be reading almost exclusively digitally. That means making sure that these systems are working—that kids have plenty to read, they know how to get more books, and they love the books in their hands. That is, when kids are working virtually, you have to make sure they can work, and that they can each work confidently and with pleasure.

Conferring and Small-Group Work

When responding to kids as writers and as readers, go to great lengths to convey your confidence in each child as a learner. Say things like, “A writer like you, with your talents, needs to think of sending your writing out into the world. There are so many people who need to hear this story of yours.” Say, “Oh my gosh. Your ideas about this book are giving me goose bumps.” Tell a child that you tried his strategy in your own reading or your own writing and it worked! What other ideas do you have for my reading?

And then, yes, give direct candid feedback in which you assume that kids are eager to get worlds better as readers and as writers. Go for the stars. Ask a lot of kids. There isn’t a one of us who doesn’t want to work heart and soul on projects of importance. Research by John Hattie (Visible Learning, 2008) and others shows that one of the methods of teaching that accelerates a learner’s progress more than almost anything is feedback. If learners receive feedback that contains both acknowledgement of what that learner has begun to do that really works and suggestions for next steps toward an ambitious but accessible goal, then learners progress in dramatic ways.

Teachers need to spend the bulk of their time planning and delivering one-to-one conferences and small groups. Those can be messy, imperfect, but the important thing is that teachers are connecting with students and providing them with feedback that moves them forward in big ways. With rapid pivoting everyone has done, and with teaching and learning happening in our crowded home environments, we have to embrace all our approximations. Don’t let anything stand in the way of making real personal contact with your kids.


The workshop typically ends with a small amount of time for children to work collaboratively with partners. This time is framed by a teeny bit of teacher talk, and this sometimes takes the form of celebrating what a few students have done in ways that apply to other students in other instances, providing you with a chance to balance instruction. You may feel tempted to let go of this portion of the workshop in the virtual setting, but we strongly encourage you to reconsider.

The share provides an opportunity for reflection, goal-setting, and community building. Those minutes set your children up for the work they’ll continue. It’s often a perfect time to reinforce transfer, agency, and independence. You might choose to conduct shares live with your class or you might choose to film these portions and children can play press play once they complete their independent work time. Or still, you might choose to do a combination of shares that are live and shares that are pre-filmed. Whichever you choose will provide closure to the day’s work.


Finding places across the year to celebrate authentically makes the work that students do more relevant for them, and increases engagement. We recommend having a celebration at the end of each unit, and in a few instances at the end of a bend. You might choose to celebrate by having your writers record a TED Talk teaching others about their research project, or maybe readers will record themselves reading their favorite storybook, or maybe your middle schoolers will create a TikTok video. However you celebrate, be sure to remind your students of all they have learned and the ways in which this learning will serve them in the future. Celebrations have the power to infuse your virtual teaching with the energy to continue and with a sense of appreciation.


First and foremost, we want to make sure our assessments find students’ strengths. We want to resist honoring some students over others, and some ways of being over others. This is crucially important always, and now, as we enter the 2020–21 school year with the backdrop of COVID-19 and unemployment—both of which are affecting the lives of people of color at a disproportionate margin. With virtual or blended learning, you’ll want to plan how you will assess children’s strengths and progress. You might think that the time to assess is at the end of a unit, but in fact, it is wise to mark several checkpoints within the unit as well, to tailor your teaching accordingly. When assessments are only done during certain assessment windows, they can begin to act as a gatekeeper—keeping kids from moving up levels. Ongoing assessment and regular data collection are one way to remedy this.

You’ll want to prioritize your time in the brick-and-mortar classroom to administer assessments if your school is working in a blended model of learning. If your school is completely virtual, you’ll want to be sure to communicate with families the purpose of assessments—that they are a time to learn about where their child is and how you can adjust your teaching to meet their needs. We believe assessment should propel teaching and learning. It should drive teachers’ daily instruction. We believe assessments help teachers give thoughtful feedback, form small groups, adapt minilessons, and make choices about teaching within all components of balanced literacy (read-aloud, shared reading, and phonics). We hope in communicating these purposes with caregivers to build a bridge of understanding that will lead to a low-stakes environment and transparency, and in turn more accurate data. 

One way to assess is to use the checklists and rubrics we have included in the Heinemann Online Resources. You might use them on your own (or with colleagues) to think about where each child falls along the learning progressions we’ve provided. Or you might want to recruit students to join you in assessing their progress—setting them up with their ongoing work and the checklists most appropriate to their development, asking them to see for themselves where they are strong and set goals for where they can aim to grow. You might also look back at their work at the beginning of the unit to see what teaching has taken hold since then. In a narrative unit, are they writing about focused events, organizing their narratives chronologically, and storytelling rather than summarizing? In a nonfiction reading unit, are they able to identify the main idea and supporting details in their independent text? If not, you’ll need to plan and devise new sessions or small groups and conferences accordingly, so you will want to leave some time and space for the instruction you’ll create as a result of these assessments.

Of course you will also want to be sure you continue to assess kids’ reading levels. To make this easier, TCRWP has made running record assessment forms and texts available digitally on their website. These running records have been updated based on the latest research by Linnea Ehri, David Kilpatrick, and Wiley Blevins. In addition to the assessments typically administered at the beginning of the year or unit, we recommend a few additional assessments, such as an environmental assessment. By this we mean checking in with kids on the resources and materials they have, who they share a home with, where their learning space is. This information will allow you to be more responsive in your teaching.

—excerpt adapted from A Quick Guide to Virtual Teaching for Units of Study, included in the Units of Study Virtual Teaching Resources

For more information about the units of Study Virtual Teaching Resources, visit UnitsofStudy.com/VirtualTeaching

Topics: Units of Study, Lucy Calkins, TCRWP, Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Writing Units, Reading Units of Study, Units of Study Phonics, Remote Learning, virtual, Remote Teaching

Date Published: 10/14/20

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