Steal Back the Minutes! Finding Extra Time in Your Literacy Block

Fill in the blank: "If I just had ten extra minutes in my literacy block, I would            ." Here are your choices:
     A. not feel like I had to rush through everything.
     B. be able to meet with the groups I was actually planning to meet with.
     C. finally be able to fit in a brain break.
     D. not always feel like we were playing catch up.
     E. all of the above
     F. twiddle my thumbs.

If your answer is F, you may want to x-out of this post. Go ahead. The rest of us will wait. If your answer is A, B, C, or D, come on and saddle up. And if your answer is E, you may want to grab an extra cup of coffee. And a notepad. And a pen. Because we are going to...

STEAL BACK THE MINUTES! I want to show you ways that you can get those ten minutes back, without breaking the laws of time or even extending the bounds of your literacy block. Yep, that's right, I'm going to show you how you can gain time within the literacy block you currently have.

We're going to be sneaky. 

We're going to be clever. 

We're going to be bold. 

But let's be clear: none of these ideas will replace the time-conserving power of strong classroom management. And this is not a post strictly about classroom management. We are simply stealing minutes here, people. Now let the theft begin!

In regards to the materials students need...

Significant time can be lost to students gathering the materials needed for whatever is next.
  • Consider making the needed materials visual. For example, if you keep a daily schedule, you could add a list of materials over to the side of the subject.
  • Consider having an "Always Bring" list that students learn to be the standard, even without you saying so. For example, when I gather students at our meeting area for any shared reading lessons, it's expected that students bring a pencil and their reader's notebook, unless I say not to. We don't always use the standard materials... no big deal. We have it ready if it's needed.
  • Consider designating a place on the board to post a page number. Rather than repeating the page to the class five times, tell one student the page number, who proceeds to record it on the board in the known place.
  • Consider building accountability within table groups. Instead of me being the one making sure everyone has what they need, we practice taking care of each other in this way.
  • Consider the order of your actual words. Consider the difference between these two sets of directions: "Please go back to your desk and get out your reading anthology, notebook, and pencil." (Immediately after the word 'desk,' half the class begins moving, and only half of that half hears the word 'notebook.')  OR, "Class, I'm about to tell you what you need next. There are three things. Count them off on your fingers as I say them to you: reading anthology, notebook, pencil. Ready? You may go."

In regards to transitions...

Some might say the fewer the transitions from one setting to another, the more minutes saved. On the surface, yes, that seems logical. But we should keep in mind the ability of young minds (heck, old ones too) to concentrate and focus for only short periods of time, say... 10 to 15 minute stretches. I think we'll more than make up the time lost from an efficient transition or short brain break by having fresh brains.
  • Consider short, less-than-one-minute brain breaks to re-energize students' minds. Brain breaks don't need to involve a lot of hoop-la. The key is getting into one quickly, and getting out of it quickly.
  • Consider using a transition to read aloud a few pages from a novel.
  • Consider moving students' location, even if it's not necessary for the activity/lesson, in order to help students refocus (which saves time in the long run). I know there are times when I could keep students at their desk for one activity after another after another, but instead I will ask students to meet me at our meeting area on the floor for something, just to give them a change of pace.
  • Consider techniques to keep a transition efficient. Counting backwards aloud from fifteen is one I often use.

Okay, these are getting hard to quantify, I know. I'm just ballparking it here.

In regards to the whole group instruction scene...

We're getting into some heavy hitters now. Your whole group instruction time surely has some minutes waiting to be stolen back, particularly with mini-lessons. For goodness sake, let's keep them mini. (I'm talking to myself here too.) Oh, but how?
  • Consider pre-filling portions of an anchor chart that will be used during your lesson. When I have the time, I like to write the chart title, the learning target, and the basic framework of what will be on the chart, and then flip up the bottom and hold it up with a binder clip. It saves time during the lesson, and as an added bonus, it gives a little intrigue and anticipation to what we'll be doing.
  • Consider shooting for a 9-minute mini-lesson. Sure, 10 would seem to make more sense... it's a nice round number and all, but "9" is a single digit. It sounds WAY shorter than"10," don't you think? Just like $19.95 sounds so much cheaper than $20.00. A shorter lesson is going to require us to really get to the heart of the skill in a clear and direct way, and not try to do too much in one sitting.
  • Consider using student friendly learning targets. In my experience, not only do they get students to "share the responsibility" of learning, but it helps me focus my instruction on what really matters.
  • Consider a "Hook and Go" view to your mini-lesson, where you succinctly hook your students and then dig right into the teaching. My favorite types of hooks are to begin with an applicable personal story or to simply connect to a previous lesson that students have mastered.
  • Consider allowing students to move from the "listening" phase to the "practice" phase earlier, particularly when moving from a writing mini-lesson to the application of that lesson. After a nine-minute crack at a mini-lesson, instead of rambling on or fielding off-topic comments, try this: "Boys and girls, if you feel like you are ready to try this out in your writing, I want you to go back to your desk and do just that. If you are not ready yet, stay here, and I will help you get started." Within twenty seconds, I'm left with exactly the students I need to be left with, ready to guide them further.

In regards to the small group/workshop scene...

Whether you use a Daily 5 framework, a workshop model, a rotation with centers, or something else, if you meet with small groups and/or individuals, then I'm sure you feel spread thin at times.
  • Consider keeping all necessary materials at the small group table, including the texts to be used, sticky-notes, and pencils. Lots of extra pencils. If I had a nickel for every time I waited to start a reading group because half the group went back to their desk to get a pencil, well, you know.
  • Consider starting one small group, sending them off to read and/or practice a strategy, and meeting with another group in the meantime. Then check back in with the first group afterward, or at the beginning of the next small group session. I wouldn't do this all the time, but in some situations, it can save time.
  • Consider being a "mobile" guided reading teacher. When you camp out at the small group table, minutes can be lost transitioning from one group to the next. Members from the next group will be spread about the room, some of them actually deeply focused on what they are doing, and when they are called back to the table, it takes some time. Instead, ask the group you will meet with second to sit in a certain area on the floor. They can still continue to work on whatever independent work they would normally do, but now those students are already gathered in one spot. Now when you finish working with the first group, YOU get up and scoot over to the waiting group and get started.
  • Consider having multiple groups meet simultaneously around the room, while you move around and pop in with each group that is meeting. This takes quite a bit of training in order for students to be productive even when you are with other groups, but with certain types of meetings, like debating a text-based question, it can be both a powerful and an efficient use of time.
  • Consider holding one-to-one writing conferences during your writing workshop at the student's desk, rather than calling them back to a certain spot in the room. Again, time is saved during transitions because you are almost always a quicker transitioner than your students. But more importantly, conferring at the student's desk has the "spillover effect," where the peers sitting nearby pick up tips and strategies too.

In regards to the double dip...

When I say "double dip," I mean not always isolating each component of your literacy block. When you teach a nonfiction text structure during social studies, you are double-dipping. Or when you teach technical writing strategies during science, you are double-dipping. You can double dip just within your literacy time as well.
  • Consider tying in vocabulary instruction during reading lessons.
  • Consider tying in grammar and spelling instruction during writing lessons.
  • Consider the "real-life" connections to a double-dipping mentality. We don't isolate different skill sets from each other. We pull the skills that we need, when we need them. We don't lie on our couch reading and say, "Oh, I can't look up the meaning of that word right now because it's not time for vocabulary work."

There's some difficulty in being intentional and organized about double-dipping: planning for it and tracking what you accomplish is trickier, but integrating subject areas together, when it makes sense, can actually make them more meaningful to students. (And it steals minutes back.)

*   *   *

It's time to see how we did! Let's see... 1+2+5+3... carry the one... +2... that's at least 13 minutes we stole! Okay, granted, the number of variables involved makes it impossible to really know how much time we are saving, but it's safe to say we are on our way to a more streamlined use of time.

What else can we do to make the most of our literacy time? Lets' rise up together, my readers. Comment below with your ideas, and let's get those minutes back! 

WAKE UP Your Classroom Library!

Hello, Awesome Readers!

I'm writing again on the Who's Who collaborative blog, this time about a way to WAKE UP your classroom library.  It's a thought I mentioned in my Classroom Library blog series, but I've had a year to try it out in my own classroom, so I'm sharing what I've learned, as well as a BUNCH more ideas to go along with it.

Click HERE to go read the post.


How to Organize Your Reading Groups

Organize your small groups and set up a schedule that actually works! Especially helpful if you have guided reading groups. Tons of examples and all the forms are free, too! (Blog Post from The Thinker Builder)Imagine yourself on two separate trips to a popular tourist destination, let's say... to Paris.

Trip A is planned to the minute, maximizing your time, allowing you to see every landmark, statue, and sidewalk cafe recommended by your travel book. When you meet a few Paris natives who invite you out on the town for the afternoon, you decline because it doesn't fit into your itinerary.

Trip B is not planned. At all. You wander the streets all day shopping, soaking up the culture, and you sit outside all evening sipping wine and staring at the Eiffel Tower. On the last day of your stay, you realize you forgot to visit the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and the restaurant your friend recommended.

Do you see the pros and cons of both trips? Now let's look at the parallels between our Paris trips and organizing our Guided Reading Groups.

If we do it like Trip A, we are going to get a lot done. We're going to meet with the maximum number of groups possible. We're going to stick to the plan, come heck or high water. We're going to have a pretty-looking board that never changes because it's a house of cards. We're going to teach each group what's next on the plan, regardless of whether they are ready for it, and we're going to get stressed when an unscheduled school assembly pops up and dominoes start crashing all over the place.

But if we do it like Trip B, weeks will slip through our fingers like sand. We may not meet with our high groups until next week, because hey, they'll be alright. (And we'll likely say the same thing next week.) However, we will be responsive to our readers, teaching them what they need at that particular moment, partly because we've got nothing else planned. Soon we'll feel stressed because of the randomness and the lack of direction.

What we need is a balance of both.

We need structure to give us a big picture view and so our students know what to expect, but we also need flexibility to allow us to be responsive and to make changes without causing a flood of other problems.

I'm here for you. Let's walk through this together, so we can prevent the headaches caused by either extreme, and so we can get a system running that allows us to do what we were meant to do: guide readers.

Gather Data

Before we make any sort of weekly schedule for meeting with small groups, we need to gather enough information to feel comfortable with an approximate guided reading level for each student. I like to have multiple points to consider. These may include required district assessments and scores and levels from the end of the last school year, but definitely should include our own observations of each student reading, whether it be through a running record or an informal reading conference.

Form Groups
(Click for free download)
After two to three weeks of gathering data and listening to our students read, let's try grouping students. We'll start by placing every student on a guided reading level "spectrum," based on our data. If you'd like to use the planning templates I'll be using below, click HERE for a free copy. (Click HERE for a Reading Level Correlations Chart.)

I'll use a make-believe class of 27 third graders.

Across the top I labeled a spectrum of guided reading levels, from J to S in this case, and then I wrote each student's name underneath. You can see I felt like many students are split between two levels. That's okay.

Now let's group students with similar levels. Generally, we're looking for groups of 4-6 students, the lower level groups with the lowest numbers.

I broke my make-believe class into five groups. Let's just straighten it up a bit now:

Fill Slots

As a stepping stone to constructing a reading group schedule, next we're going to figure out how often per week we want to meet with each group. Remember that fair is not always equal here. We want to meet with below-grade-level groups more often than other groups, and our higher groups may do some of their reading "away from the table" to make up for fewer meetings.

I've assigned each group a color. Then I've drawn a box for each reading group "time slot" for a standard week. Use the literacy block schedule that you sketched out to help you determine how many time slots you'll have per day. (Need help making a literacy block schedule? Click HERE.) I'll use a 3-per-day model, which means I'll have 15 slots for the entire week.

Next we'll color in the rectangles to show how our slots will be filled. Here's one example:

I started with giving my lowest group five slots (one per day) and went from there. But now we need to remember the idea of balance. If a "standard" week has every slot filled, we are setting ourselves up for inflexibility and stress. So let's build in a few "flex" slots. We'll pencil-in a group meeting for these times, but we reserve the right to use them for other purposes. Here's an example with 3 flex slots.

Set a Schedule

Now we'll arrange our time slots into a weekly schedule. I keep a simple monthly calendar in a binder where each day is broken into three sections, one for each round of guided reading. On the board for display, I draw a grid for the weekly schedule, like below:

Did you also notice that the groups are all listed on the left? I put a colored strip of paper next to the names, to match up with the groups' colors, but I always write the names on the board itself (as opposed to writing or printing them onto the colored paper) to add flexibility. This way I can make adjustments easily by simply erasing names and rewriting them elsewhere. Also notice that I did NOT list the groups in the order of their levels. Let's not make it obvious, right?

Then we display in each time slot a colored card for the reading group with which we want to meet. Let's add in some extra flexibility too: let's plan to save 3-4 minutes of each slot for something else. I like to use these minutes to hold a brief individual reading conference. Just one, and just for a few minutes. We could also use these minutes to check-in with another reading group or extend the scheduled one if needed. Again, the point is, let's not make our "base model" all-filled-up. Below is a sample schedule:

Do you remember our three flex slots? Let's see what our schedule might look like if we incorporated them.

You can see three strategy groups in place of reading groups. These strategy groups are pulled together based on specific needs not necessarily related to reading level. For example, we notice Olaf, Mo, and Mark are having trouble understanding cause and effect, so we pull them together for a strategy group. Wow, there we go again, using the flexibility in our schedule to be responsive to students.

Displaying a full week's schedule of reading groups has its advantages. Another option, a little more towards the "Trip B" side, is to only display that day's reading group schedule. It could look like this:

Alternate Schedules

What if you plan to have two small group sessions each day instead of three? Why don't we walk through that scenario too. Here is one way to fill our ten time slots:

And then we create our weekly schedule, maybe like this:

Let's Change Classes...

If you feel good, let's call it a day. But if you want, let's take a different group of 27 kids through this process and see what changes.

Okay, we've gathered some reading data, and we place the students onto our spectrum:

You notice that overall, if this is a third grade class, we have more students reading below grade level than we did before.  Let's group them:

Did you notice Ravi way out there at level R/S? Sometimes that happens, where one student doesn't really fit with a group. What we'll do is go ahead and list Ravi with Pearl and Quincy's group, and he will meet with them sometimes, in order for him to have collaborative opportunities. But Ravi and I will also meet one-to-one (using our extra 3 minutes per time slot that we are saving) so we can use higher level texts.

Here are the groups straightened up:

We choose a color for each group, and we fill our slots. With more students below grade level, the sessions are spread a little more evenly.

Then we can put together a schedule. Notice how Ravi has three short individual conferences planned. And remember that a few of these slots can be flexible if we want them to be.

Just for good measure, let's create a schedule for a two-meeting-per-day week. Here is how we could fill our ten slots:

And here is a possible schedule:

*   *   *

Let's revisit the key point. Remember that in real "school life," there is rarely a perfect week. So when we set up our guided reading schedule with the expectation of perfection... absolutely no interruptions, perfect timing, and students soaking up our instruction like sponges: anything short of that begins to feel stressful. Can you sense the oncoming headache?

So let's design our small group schedule with enough flexibility that we can adjust our timing and teaching as needed. Maybe those perfect weeks will come, and if they do, we'll be ready for them, because we will be ready for anything.

Be sure to check out my entire series of posts related to the literacy block

Organize Your Literacy Block, Without the Headache

Take the headache out of organizing your literacy block. Step by step guidance to structure your time successfully! (A Blog Post from The Thinker Builder)Let me see how close I am... You woke up this morning, made a cup of coffee, maybe scrolled through your Facebook feed read the newspaper, stopped your children from chucking puzzle pieces at the cat watched your children build a puzzle together, even binge-watched four seasons of Parenthood on Netflix caught the tail end of a fascinating documentary on the History Channel.

But then you started thinking about how to structure your literacy block for the upcoming school year, because well, you are a teacher, and teachers can only not think about school for so long. So of course you go directly to The Thinker Builder blog browse through Pinterest, looking for some inspiration, and you click here.

How'd I do?

(Click to download)
Regardless, I'm here for you. Let me be your sounding board as you continue thinking about setting up your literacy schedule, and I'll help you stave off the headache from too-much-to-think-about-at-once. So grab a blank sheet of paper this free planning template and a pencil and let's get started!


What do you believe in your heart, grounded in best practice, about how best to teach children to read and to write? What do you value? If you are a seasoned teacher, think about your past experience... what works? If you are a new teacher, you might not have filled that place in your heart yet. Here, borrow some of mine:
  1. I believe the biggest factor in becoming a strong reader is to read. A lot.
  2. I believe the biggest factor in becoming a strong writer is to write. A lot.          (Pretty simple so far, right?)
  3. I believe in meeting each student where they are, as readers and as writers, and coaching them forward.
  4. I believe in using authentic, engaging texts.
  5. I believe in pushing students deeper into a text, both read and written, than they are comfortable with, in pushing them to challenge their own thinking and that of others (respectfully), and I believe in doing so by modeling these practices myself.
Jot down some key words and phrases inside your "Me" circle.


Take a minute and think about the influences surrounding the decisions you are about to make regarding your literacy day. This is going to help us approach from the right direction. Think about curriculum already in place, administrative/district demands, literacy frameworks (e.g. Daily 5, Reader's Workshop), state standards, but don't lose sight of your core beliefs about reading and writing.

Write down your influences at each arrow on your planner. Here are mine:


It's time to list the actual components that may comprise your literacy block. For now, don't think about how much time to devote to each part, or even if you have the time for it. Let's use a balanced literacy approach to get started, with pieces for reading, word study, and writing. I've pre-filled many components onto your planner.

Now let's think about the importance of each component. This will help us with how much time to give each piece, and guide us when we have to make the tough decisions on what gets the short straw. Let's use a 0 to 3 star scale:
  • 3 stars: Vital. Non-negotiable. Reserved time daily.
  • 2 stars: Needed. Important. Daily or almost daily.
  • 1 star:  Helpful. Two to three times per week, or integrate into other pieces.
  • 0 stars: Extra. Only do when needed.
Remember that once you get to know your students, your priorities could (and often should) change based on their specific needs. Also remember that many components can be done together or in parallel (e.g. hold small group sessions during independent work/reading). But let's go ahead and get a starting place. Here's mine:


Let's start filling in a possible schedule now. On the planner, I've laid out a flexible horizontal grid. Think of it like a football field, but instead of five-yard increments, we have five-minute increments.

First, draw a solid line to block off how much total time you have for your literacy block, as well as a double-line to show any breaks within the block, like for lunch, recess, etc. I'll show you how I did mine from last year:

You can see above that I had 140 of literacy, with a break at the 120 minute mark.

Alright, we need to get into the heavy work now, where we'll place components into the schedule. Here are some tips to think about as you are tinkering:
  • Think about the amount of time needed for each component in relation to other components. For example, keeping in mind my core beliefs, influences, and priorities, I know that however many minutes I devote to writing lessons, I need to devote more time to students actually writing.
  • Some components may not fit in every day. My biggest example is with "Word Study." While I do word study every day, I don't fit in every piece of Word Study. We may focus on grammar one day, while we focus on vocabulary another day. (This is where influences, like student needs and curriculum maps, play a role.)
  • Use your breaks as natural transitions. Does a component naturally fit into a certain slot?
  • What "pairs well" together? For example, I like to have a Small Group/Daily 5 session back up against my Whole Group Reading lesson, to set up an opportunity for students to apply what they just learned.
  • Keep in mind the number of transitions you create. Each transition takes time, especially if students get up and move to a different setting (e.g. desk to carpet), but it can also serve as a natural brain-break.
  • Don't forget about time for assessments. It might not directly change your daily schedule, but most of us give weekly, or at least bi-weekly assessments of some sort, which could affect the schedule for those days.
Below is how I filled in my literacy block, using three Daily 5 sessions.

The last step is to simply add in the actual starting times for each of your components. Here's mine:

I put together some alternate sample schedules for you to look at. This next one uses 140 minutes, but with a Reader's Workshop framework instead of Daily 5.

120-minute Sample Schedules

Here is a sample schedule for 120 minutes, using Daily 5. Another way would be to have two longer rounds of Daily 5 (20-25 minutes each) instead of three shorter rounds (15 minutes each).

And here's a version using Reader's Workshop.

90-minute Sample Schedule

Only 90 minutes for an entire literacy block is really short. I'm not sure how you would even fill the rest of your day. But even if you have more than 90 minutes, it's a great exercise to try filling out a 90 minute literacy block. It forces you to make some tough choices, even if they are hypothetical. Your core-beliefs really rise to the surface. Here is a sample I came up with:

Getting Started

Most of us don't dive right into a regular literacy block schedule the first week of school. My district uses a hybrid of the "First 20 Days" approach (a Fountas and Pinnell thing) to set up procedures and routines and build stamina (in a Daily 5 sort of way, for me), as well as work through beginning-of-the-year assessments.

So during those first couple of weeks, as you get to know your students, bounce that knowledge off of your schedule ideas. Do you have an extra wide range of abilities this year? Maybe decrease minutes for whole-group lessons and increase minutes for more differentiated instruction.

Once you get started with your regular schedule, time management can be tough. I have the most trouble being concise with my whole group lessons. No big deal every now and then, but running 10 minutes over can easily become the norm. My extremely low-tech solution to help myself stay on track with our schedule is to simply put sticky-notes directly onto our classroom clock.

I hope you got a good head-start on organizing your literacy block! In my next post, I'll zoom in to the guided reading component of the literacy block and share some ideas on how to organize and manage that. (Click HERE to be taken there.)

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