‘Mini Lessons’ are a highly effective, transformative teaching method that bring the class together as a community of readers and writers, according to literacy experts Phil and Sharon Callen.
Both educators have experienced first hand the challenges that come from teaching ‘Maxi Lessons’ as opposed to ‘Mini Lessons’, and encourage teachers to take a similar approach.
“The struggle came with connecting my teaching of reading and writing with students actually applying what I was teaching. In fact, it was quite counter-intuitive to me to think of this notion of Mini Lesson, because I was thinking ‘surely the more teaching I’m doing, the more effective that is and how therefore can a short lesson be better?’,” Sharon said in episode 11 of The Teacher’s Toolkit for Literacy.
“What makes good readers and what makes good writers is how much time they are spending doing that every day. So if they need time every day to practise their reading and their writing, how can I make that practice more focused, relevant, motivating and purposeful? Let me lead students into their practice through a Mini Lesson. So if I want to give them 20 minutes of reading and time to practice, then I can’t give a 50 minute Maxi Lesson.”
Mini Lessons also live in partnership with what teachers observe and confer from their students, and therefore should be a time to actively engage students.
“We should be implementing practices that invite students to be active contributing members … the Mini Lesson isn’t just about me as a teacher choosing something. It is about the invitation now to be an actively participating community, whether it’s reading or writing,” Sharon said.
When it comes to deciding what to teach in your Mini Lessons, Sharon recommended a wide range of categories and suggested also utilising the Australian Curriculum.
“So for reading, it might be an early literacy concept. It might be a word solving concept. We might teach something about fluency or comprehension strategies. It might be how we can talk about our reading. It might be something to do with monitoring and correcting,” she said.
“We would also say for writing, there would be many lessons associated with how to write imaginative texts, informative texts, and persuasive texts, because that’s part of the Australian curriculum that we’re writing different types of texts.”
Sharon encouraged teachers to continually revisit their Mini Lessons to ensure students truly understand the actions they need to take in their reading and writing.
“The Mini Lesson would definitely be anchored on a good reading chart if it’s a reading Mini Lesson, or a good writer chart if it’s a writing Mini Lesson, because these are actions we are teaching to practise and to integrate into our reading and writing processes that we’re undertaking,” she said.
“Once that’s anchored in that way, students can revisit those regularly. I don’t have to teach a new strategy every day; I need to be teaching things so that they can be revisited … [therefore] the child knows what action they are needing to take in their reading and writing.”
She also discussed the importance of focusing on all aspects of literacy and integrating both reading and writing aspects.
“Reading and writing are in service to each other … so the power of it is that when we teach a Mini Lesson to our readers, there is also a transfer of that into writing. And conversely, what we teach in many lessons in writing empowers us as readers,” Sharon said.
“We don’t want to isolate. We don’t want to do a month’s worth of just comprehension strategies. We’re actually wanting to integrate all of these strategies. So we’re wanting to get a range of those across any week and across time.
“Mini Lessons will also guide us into knowing what to look for and what we’re looking for when students are reading and writing. So when we confer with them, [it] should be a nice checklist for us to say, ‘ah, I’m not seeing my students doing this’ – there’s the prompt in that list of saying, okay, this is what could be a Mini Lesson. This is what they’re ready for.”
Sharon and Phil explained that key models to use within a Mini Lesson are Read Alouds, Shared Enlarged Texts and Think Alouds. Using familiar texts with these methods will ensure students can further build on their learning.
“I don’t just want to tell them good readers or good writers do this because telling doesn’t work … so if I’m teaching what a good reader is doing, I’m modelling that or demonstrating that as I am reading a quality text,” Sharon said.
“Especially when we’re looking at word solving processes with younger ones or looking at what’s happening with the text, then I also want to have an enlarged text that I’m working with. Or if I’m wanting to show fluency … enlarged text is vital for all eyes on the page, and [I can use] my pointer to have students knowing where to look, what to be doing, how to be doing it and the thinking.”
Phil added: “[I can use] the Read Aloud that I’ve currently got on the go … because they’re already in that world of that Read Aloud and you are not taking them off to some other texts. You’re right in there with that one, and that’s more meaningful to them.
”If I’m using it as a new piece, then they’re struggling with the new understandings of that text. So that’s all done and we can now get onto the real strategy that we’re trying to learn, and we’re not distracted by other things.”
Once the actual Mini Lesson has been conducted, Phil and Sharon emphasised the importance of following it with independent practice and an opportunity for students to share.
“So if the Mini Lesson isn’t followed by the independent practice part, then I’ve just lost all my teaching power,” Sharon said.
“It’s the large part of your literacy block … it’s on the chart and they’re heading off knowing that that’s what they’re going to practise in their reading that day. And it’s a good time for the teacher to start conferring in that time. [For example] I may have a small group that I’m holding for a little bit, but then I don’t want to hold them for too long, for I can’t keep taking up their time for independent practice.
“[Finally] for the learning to really be fully transformative we want to bring the whole class back, not necessarily to the floor, but bring them back as a community at the end of the reading/writing time to have the opportunity to share. It doesn’t have to be a whole class share out, it could be through turn and tell, turn and show, turn and talk. And every child should have 60 to 90 seconds to be able to share and talk about or show someone else.”