What to Do with the Rest of the Class during Reading Workshop or Rotations

The question I get asked by teachers more than any other is what to do with "the rest" of the class during your reading block, while you are meeting with small groups or holding one-to-one conferences.

I've written a lot about your literacy block schedule, organizing and managing your small groups and tracking your students' reading progress, so I wanted to take some time to focus on the rest of the class. Because, as you know, the most amazing small group lesson you have planned will fail if "the rest" of your students are disengaged and disruptive.

"What to Do with the Rest of the Class during Reading Workshop or Roations" Blog post from The Thinker Builder with info, ideas, and tips for how to structure your time so while you meet with small groups, the rest of the class is engaged in meaningful tasks. With free download of editable slides and student sign-up forms.

I don't intend to be all-encompassing about your options, because, well, there is plenty of stuff out there that doesn't meet my essential criteria. But there is plenty that does, and it can be difficult to choose a system that jives with your particular group of students and with your own style.

So what are my essential criteria? The system you implement should:
  • be student-doable. (Students need to be able to become independent about the expectations and procedures so that they don't need you.)
  • be teacher-doable. (The framework and tasks need to be manageable. Not a ton of set-up. Not a ton of prep. The idea is to support what you are doing with your small groups, not make your life more stressful.)
  • include engaging, meaningful tasks. (Not just engaging. Not just meaningful. Both of those words.)
  • have the flexibility to adapt and evolve. (As students grow and change over time, as sticking points arise, as needs change, you're going to want to be able to adjust expectations, tweak procedures, layer in new pieces or remove old ones.)

Since we need a way to organize our options, I've chosen to zero in on two key factors: framework and tasks.


We're going to look at two frameworks, one more structured and one less structured.

A rotation framework is more structured, where the block of time is broken into chunks. When you as the teacher meet with your first group of students, the rest of the class is involved in their first rotation. When you transition to your second group of students, the rest of the class transitions to their second rotation, and so on.

A workshop framework is less structured, where students are given a span of time within which to work on tasks. When you as the teacher meet with a particular group of students, the rest of the class does not necessarily need to transition to another task.


And we're going to categorize student tasks into two main types: one more controlled in which student tasks are assigned by the teacher; and one less controlled in which tasks are chosen by students.

We could sort tasks in a number of other ways, like independent/partner/small group tasks, reading/writing/word study tasks, or one-sitting/week-long/never-really-finish tasks. But for now, let's stick with assigned tasks and chosen tasks.

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Let's look at each combination created from our two frameworks and two task types.

Take a minute to look at the graphic below:

Our tasks are represented on the x-axis, and our frameworks are represented on the y-axis, with the most structure and control in the lower-left quadrant, and the least structure and control in the upper-right quadrant.

Rotation Framework - Assigned Tasks

In this combination, you have a set number of rotations each day, and students rotate at the same time to different assigned tasks. During the first rotation, you meet with a small group of students, and the rest of the class works on an assigned task, often in the form of a station or center. (Students may or may not be working on the same task at the same time.) When you transition to a second small group of students, the rest of the class transitions to a different assigned task, and so on. On a day with three rotations, for instance, students work on three different assigned tasks, unless they meet with you during a rotation, which means they would have two different assigned tasks.

Rotation Framework - Choice of Tasks

In this combination, you have a set number of rotations each day, and students rotate at the same time, but students have a choice in which task they rotate to. These choices might be made on the spot, when it's time to rotate, but more likely these choices are made at the beginning of the day or week, chosen from a list of possible tasks that have already been introduced and modeled.

Workshop Framework - Assigned Tasks

In this combination, you have a span of time in which you meet with small groups. Because the rest of the class need not change tasks when you change groups, you have more flexibility with the groups you meet with and for how long you meet with them. Meanwhile, students (who aren't currently in a group with you) work on assigned tasks, be it one or several. You might give a set list of tasks to complete during the workshop time, or you might give a set list of tasks to complete within the week.

Workshop Framework - Choice of Tasks

In this combination, you have a span of time in which you meet with small groups and/or individuals. Meanwhile, the students not meeting with you have chosen tasks on which to work. The options available to students are known and understood, and students most likely have made their choices beforehand.


Though it's nicely organized to separate the four systems above in isolated quadrants, it's much more realistic to consider hybrid versions. 

A hybrid framework pulls from a rotation model and a workshop model (and/or others). For example:
  • You might have all students working/reading in small groups simultaneously, and you rotate to different groups to facilitate or teach. 
  • Or maybe you have certain small groups you want to meet with in a day, but the points at which students change tasks are flexible and don't necessarily line up with you transitioning to a new group.

A hybrid set of tasks contain some sort of mix of assigned tasks and student choice. For example:
  • You might assign the tasks but students can choose the order in which they do them. 
  • Or maybe you have certain tasks students must do first, and then proceed to chosen tasks thereafter. 
  • Or you might separate types of tasks into groups and students must choose a certain number of tasks from each group.

Okay, so we've laid down some heavy groundwork. Now let's get into specifically, what might your "system" look like? How will you manage it? And what exactly are the "rest" of the students going to be doing?


Since we can't go through every scenario, let me show you the system I prefer and why I prefer it.


I prefer to begin with a rotation framework. As the year progresses, the goal is to evolve to more of a workshop framework (with elements of our original rotation framework).

The two key reasons why I want to evolve into a workshop are:
  1. It's inherently more flexible, particularly for me. 
    • In a workshop, I'm not constrained as much to specified time allotments, allowing me to be more responsive and immediate in my small group and one-to-one interactions. And it allows more freedom, if I want it, to vary the types of interactions I have: Need to meet with half the class for five minutes about a particular need? Sure thing. Is it more important to check in with individual students working on a particular workshop task than meet with a guided reading group today? No problem.
  2. It gives students valuable practice with time management.
    • In a workshop, since we don't all rotate at the same time, students must manage their time in order to be successful with their tasks.
"What to Do with the Rest of the Class during Reading Workshop or Roations" Blog post from The Thinker Builder with info, ideas, and tips for how to structure your time so while you meet with small groups, the rest of the class is engaged in meaningful tasks. With free download of editable slides and student sign-up forms.

So why not just start out with a workshop model? For me, the answer is simply about a gradual release mentality, where we gradually release responsibility over to students.

At the beginning of the year, I cannot expect students to be able to work for such a lengthy period of time, as much as 45 minutes or more, managing and prioritizing multiple tasks, and budgeting their time for different tasks appropriately. Heck, I can't even do it very well.

A task list or organizer of some kind will help, and we'll get to some options soon. But beginning with a rotation framework, with shorter chunks of time (15-20 min) and tasks appropriate for those chunks of time, can really ingrain good time management habits.

We then gradually evolve into more of a workshop framework:
  • As students become accustomed to 15-20 minute chunks of work time, we continue using them as time landmarks. For me, when I'm finished with a small group and am ready to transition to another, I do a "check-in" with the rest of the class. It might sound something like this: "Okay class, I'm ready to meet with my next group. If you are not meeting with me now, please see if you are on track: You've been working for __ minutes. Are you still working hard? Are you ready to move to your next task? Do you need a few minutes to finish up? We have __ minutes remaining." Students check their task sheet to see how they planned to spend their time today and self-assess and make decisions about what remains.
  • As the days and weeks go by, I'm personally checking in with students during the transitions between small group meetings, following up about their self-pacing and productivity.
  • Eventually, I signal our landmark transition times with a bell. Less-intrusive. Releasing responsibility. But the same meaning: Check yourself. Are you on track? 
  • Setting up a timer on my phone or computer app with an auditory signal (like chimes) every 15 minutes or so (rather than personally ringing a bell upon finishing a small group meeting) further moves the class into a workshop framework by separating the timing of my small groups from the landmark chimes of students working. The automatic chimes not only help keep "the rest" of the class on track, but me as well!

And guess what.

The same "gradual release" reasoning applies to the control of tasks. I prefer to start the year with more control of students' tasks, with some choice built in. And as the year progresses, more and more choice and options are layered in.

So let's get into the tasks.


This is a big section, because the most important ingredient to what the "rest of the class" is doing while you are meeting with small groups and individuals is what they are actually doing, right?

So first I'm going to flood you with lots of tasks that fit that essential criterion of being both meaningful and engaging. Then I'll show you ways to organize the tasks for students and how the control of the tasks might evolve.

At the heart of any strong reading workshop or rotation framework is reading. So I like to include plenty of options that involve reading.

Independent Reading is a foundational task, one I like to have students do every day, or at least several times a week. I like to give students time to read good-fit books just for the sake of reading. But I also like to balance that time with having students respond to their reading, whether with sticky notes, their reader's notebook, or with more structured response pages like you see below.

Assigning a response page to complete during independent reading or Partner Reading gives a measure of accountability. However, giving students two or three options from which to choose builds in a layer of choice. And those 6"x9" clear plastic envelopes you see in the photo make it easy and organized to stick stacks of half-sheet response pages inside and lay them out on a counter.

The reading response pages mentioned above can be done while reading, before a book is even finished, which makes them highly versatile. But I also like having some post-reading options, for when students finish a book.

The Top-3 List pages featured above get students thinking critically about the book they've read. These pages are particularly powerful for partners to complete upon finishing a book they've read together, as it brings in an element of discussion and negotiation. (You can read more about my Top-3 List response pages in this post later.)

Research Projects, whether independent or in partners, involve massive amounts of reading and are highly motivating to students if they are choosing their own topics. Research projects have their challenges, though: students need to be able to find and use resources on their own, stay organized and focused on their topic, and create some sort of end-product that doesn't overtake the entire classroom. Using a guided research notebook like in the photo below can really help.

Also, my post on helping students become independent on Student-Led Inquiry Research Projects might be one to bookmark for later.

Book Clubs are a highly valuable source of reading and discussing texts among peers. Students love making schedules and holding their own meetings. It takes some front-end training on how to have a productive book club meeting in which everyone included participates and pulls their weight. Using notebooks with the group's reading schedule on the front can help considerably.

Research projects and book clubs would not be the first tasks I introduce to students, but as the year progresses, they are two highly engaging options to incorporate.

Your workshop or rotation framework might also include word study activities, related to spelling, vocabulary, and/or grammar.

The Making Words activity above is my favorite word work task to use because (1) it's simple and straightforward (the letters are even right there at the bottom of the page for students to cut out), (2) lots of spelling patterns are included, and (3) an element of competition can be used to heighten the engagement even more.

Infusing your workshop/rotation time with a few engaging writing options gives students more variety, as well as valuable "low-stakes" writing practice. (And by "low stakes" I don't mean "not important," just that the writing pieces produced during this time can be different than the key pieces being written and worked on during your actual writing instruction.)

Writing tasks might be more open-ended, like journal writing or free-writing in students' writer's notebooks. Or they might take on the form of writing centers or stations that include a variety of creative, interchangeable writing activities.

The writing centers shown in the picture above are "housed" within folders so students can take a folder back to their seat to work. Having 3-5 available to students (out of the 17) to sign up for, and then simply swapping them out each week or so, gives a layer of choice and keeps the options fresh.

Each center itself also includes easy ways for the teacher to change it so the same center can be used again in the future. For example, with the center "Writing Battles, one week students might be planning and writing a persuasive piece about why gum is better than a sucker, and another week it might be why video games are better than board games.

Story Starters are another favorite writing task because it adds a bit more structure and predictability, but with the right ones, is still highly engaging.

In the story starter sets shown above, which have fascinating photos paired with compelling prompts, you can see two different methods of organization I've used: (1) On the left, each photo is clipped together with its four story starters on a ring, and then each set hangs from a hook for students to grab. (The hooks are attached to the inside of a binder for portability's sake, but could also attach to a cabinet or board.) The writing paper with the matching photos are organized nearby for students to choose. (2) On the right, the writing paper for a particular photo is inside a manila folder, with the photo attached to the outside of the folder, creating a little pocket for the prompts.

A student can choose a set based on the photo they are drawn to, and then can choose from the four prompts that go with each photo. It's another example of choice being layered into students' tasks during this time.

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Are you teetering on idea overload?

Our huge pile of engaging, meaningful tasks must be paired with a clear, organized method for students to select, start, and be held accountable for them. (And I have a free file for you of all the slides and forms I'm about to share. Let's look at them together first.)

I like to have a visual way for students to see the tasks. If we're starting out with more of a rotation framework, I might have the following slide displayed on the overhead screen:

You can see three sections:
Meeting, where I display which group I'll be meeting with during each rotation;
Must Choose, which shows the tasks students must do that day; and
You Choose, which shows additional tasks students can choose.

The level of choice is limited early on as we're still introducing new tasks and giving students plenty of time to set good habits.

Students have a simple sign-up sheet at their desk, where they can use sticky-notes in each square, or if it's covered with clear tape they can write-on with a dry erase marker and wipe-off for the next day.

The rotation slide might evolve into something like the following, in which the "Must Choose" list has just one task, and the "You Choose" list has grown to include more options.

Some teachers might prefer students to keep a more detailed record of their daily tasks, like with the half-sheet sign up form below.

You can see the choices are listed on the right side, and students sign up with the appropriate code on the left side while noting any relevant details. That day's small group meetings and/or must-do assignments are simply listed on the board somewhere for student reference.

The daily sign-up sheet might evolve into a weekly sign-up sheet, where students have more choice in when they schedule their tasks, like in what you see below:

As we move through the year and evolve into more of a workshop framework, a daily slide like the one below, displayed for students during the workshop time, helps keep students on track.

And we might even evolve into a weekly workshop slide like the one below that lists all the must-do assignments for the week, moving even more time management and responsibility to students.

We might not need or want to use all of the visual slides and sign-up forms. It really depends on your particular group of students and how they handle the transitions into additional responsibility, choice, and independence.

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To help you out, I've gathered all of the student-task resources I've mentioned above into a special bundle geared for grades 3-5. Check it out HERE, or click the image below.


The bundle includes my:

AND, I've also gathered all of the rotation and workshop slides and student sign-up forms into two editable PowerPoint files for you, for FREE when you sign up for my free email newsletter. Use the sign-up box below the following image.

Wow. That was a lot to take in. We've looked at several framework and task combinations, some hybrid, some intentionally evolving into others.

But don't let all of it overwhelm you.

Start small, with a few things that make sense to you and your particular group of students, and build from there. It's just that now you have a more detailed blueprint of what you are building.