One question that I get a lot about reading workshop is this: what should my mini-lessons look like? There is no one-size-fits-all approach to crafting these bite-sized presentations, but there are some steps you can rely on. So, read on to get my five steps for a great mini-lesson.
What goes in the lesson?
Before we go over what makes a great lesson, I want to give you an overview of what my mini-lessons are based on.
The lessons I plan during the first weeks of any semester are designed to introduce our routines and the elements of fiction that we will study. These are the building blocks that students will need to analyze and discuss any of the texts we read during our time together, so my first few weeks focus on an overview of each element, as well as the ways that writers play with words.
Then, I plan units where we take deeper dives into each of those elements and the techniques authors use to tell their stories. These are the usual English class topics like the importance of setting, point of view, and symbolism, and how all of these elements play an important role in characterization and thematic development.
However, as the semester unfolds, my mini-lessons often stem from what I note when I take in student work. So, when I see a pile of fragments or comma errors, or read assignments that are lacking detail or transitions, I’ll deliver short lessons that target those problem areas. We fix what needs fixing for student success.
But how do I create these lessons? Here are the five steps I follow:
ONE: The lesson IS mini
Resist the urge to “do all the things” in one lesson. Yes, there will be multiple layers to the topic you want to cover, but studies show that most people have an attention span of ten to fifteen minutes – and I’d aim for the shorter part of that range. You can be delivering amazing stuff in your most engaging manner, but if the students have drifted off, it’s all for naught.
That doesn’t mean that you don’t give them that info later – you just have to chunk your lessons.
If you need more than five to ten minutes to give students the content or teach the skill, present more than one lesson throughout a class. There is no rule saying that you can have only one per class, so you can do one part of the lesson at the beginning, and another part later on. (Click below for specific examples)
TWO: A great mini-lesson is focused
Because it’s mini, the lesson needs to pack a punch. To do that you need to focus on one skill at a time. This could be something new or a sub-skill/extension of what you worked on during a previous class.
So, for example you might be focusing on word choice one week. Monday you focus on avoiding tired words. Tuesday, it’s vivid verbs. Wednesday you discuss tone and voice – and so on.
Or maybe you’re working on teaching students to use research in their writing. On the first day you do a lesson on how to select the right quote. The next day (or later in class if it’s a long one) the lesson is on how to embed that carefully chosen quote. Later in the week you do that thrilling works cited mini-lesson.
The best thing about doing all of this via mini-lessons is that students have time to absorb and learn one or two things at a time, rather than getting overwhelmed and shutting down – or frustrated and acting out.
To choose the focus for my mini-lessons, I ask myself these questions:
✔️ Which skills or content will students need to be successful in the unit/assignment?
✔️ What common errors or missteps am I seeing in their work?
✔️ Are there lessons that can I link back to or scaffold? What reminders do they need?
THREE: Effective mini-lessons are engaging
You only have a short time to capture students’ attention, so you need to make each minute count. That doesn’t mean you need to stand on the table or create some amazing learning experience (I rant on the problems with that concept here). No, you just need to plan a short lesson that students will pay attention to.
I know…easier said than done.
Or is it? A short, engaging lesson may be simpler than you think. For example, one of the key components to creating one is that it’s organized; it has a beginning, middle, and an end.
Open with a short hook – a question, a quick story or analogy that relates to your topic. BUT…whichever you choose, make sure it relates to the topic, It should also be designed to show your students why the lesson matters and how it will help them or connects to what they’ve already learned. Have you ever had a teacher write AWK all over your papers? Well, we know that no one wants to be “awkward” and this week we are going to learn how to avoid it in your writing! How cool is that? Let’s start with how a misplaced modifier… You get the picture?
I’m going to talk more about the middle and the end in the next two steps, but before we move on, there are two other key components to engaging students during the mini-lesson:
Deliver with confidence: Sell this lesson like you mean it. Use a strong, clear voice that has inflection and excitement in it (within reason here, folks. Dangling participles aren’t ice cream cones 😉). Use hand gestures and pauses for effect. In short, present in a way that students will want to listen – even if the subject matter isn’t the most exciting thing they’ve ever encountered.
And, the best way to learn to do this is to practice. Really. Do it in front of the mirror, to your dog, in your head as you go for a walk or drive to school. You can’t do this every time, of course, but a few practices until you get the hang of it will help you deliver with confidence most days.
Keep even a short lecture active: The reality, whether we like it or not, is that attention spans have waned. Students of twenty years ago could sit through longer lectures. There’s no question.
However, it’s not twenty years ago and, if I’m being perfectly honest, a more active lecture then would have made things more interesting for those students too.
But what’s an active lecture? Isn’t that kind of an oxymoron? Not at all. And it’s also quite easy to make a mini-lesson active. One way is by asking questions during it, even if it’s one that students answer in their heads rather than aloud (like my question above about AWK on their papers).
You can also ask short questions as you teach: What happens if I do this? Suggest a more active verb that we could use. Instead of saying Joni walked into the room, what could she do instead?
I’m not suggesting that you include full class discussion or debate here – that would be part of the active learning part of a class. Instead, just pepper your lesson with opportunities for students to engage and keep their brains active as you teach.
FOUR: Show more than you tell during your lesson
This is particularly important if you are teaching a skill. For example, if you are teaching students how to close read, have a short paragraph that you project or hand out, and model your own process of analyzing the author’s moves.
Or, if you’re teaching students how to use transitions, present a variety of sentences and ask them to choose from a list, so they can suggest effective transitions for the sentences you project (this makes the lesson active AS you show).
When you want students to try different writing techniques, show them mentor texts where writers have used them.
If you are teaching them about symbolism, show the students a passage that contains some and model your thought process as you try to figure it out – and never be afraid to model your failure or struggles. When students can see you make mistakes and be ok with them, they will be much more willing to accept their own.
FIVE: Follow the lesson with active learning
This is an important step for two reasons. First, the active learning component of the class will allow your students to apply what you’ve just taught them. You’ve modelled active reading, and now they get a chance to try. Or you’ve shown them the ways that authors use dialogue to develop character, and now they get to look for examples in the text they are reading.
The activity that follows is not actually part of your mini-lesson, but it’s still super-important, especially if it’s carefully chosen to flow from what you’ve taught the students.
If, somewhere around the ten minute mark, you switch things up and allow students to use what they’ve learned, you will keep them more focused and on task than if you kept teaching. You might use this time to get the students collaborating, so they can discuss and share what they have learned, or work together to practice the skill you just taught.
So, there you have it: my five steps to a great mini-lesson. If you’d like more detail – as well as a bunch of examples of how I structure a class around some actual mini-lessons, click below and I’ll send them your way!