What Do I Do During Independent Work Time?

I received this question by e-mail today:

Hello Mr. Needleman,  I was wondering if there was an Internet source or a book that gives ideas for Workshop?  My school is a “Ditto” and “Worksheet” IWT kind of school and I am scrambling for ideas.  I am starting IWT over today and am hoping for ideas soon.  I have asked fellow staff members but other than the worksheets, they have not been of help. I teach 3rd grade and my students reading abilities range from None-to 3rd.  Thank you so much.

And it reminds me of a question I asked my coach, “Where do we find all these fabulous activities to do during Workshop/Independent Work Time?

It took me a while to realize that it’s not about finding and adding additional material to your day.  It’s more about extending and expanding the work you are already doing in class.  If you agree that Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites then you probably agree that there are probably enough worksheets in the Open Court Reading Program that we don’t need to add any more while students are working independently.  Instead, this is the time that students get authentic experiences putting the skills the workbooks expose them to to good use.

Here are some program areas you can extend for IWT/Workshop:

  • Blending/Word Knowledge (students practice reading the words, complete word sorts, or use the letters to make new words—like Making Big Words books)
  • Decodables (partner reading, highlighting target sounds or high frequency words then sorting those words)
  • The Concept/Question Board (when do students have a chance to interact with the board, answer questions, and add to concepts?  If students have brought in artifacts this is when students can explore them, write about them, and ask questions)
  • Inquiry (not so much the Inquiry Journal but real inquiry and research…find the answers to your questions…read a book, find a web site…make a book, a poster, an oral presentation, a movie, a puppet show, etc. to present your work)
  • Writing (students complete writing projects you’ve started together, write a letter to the class pen pals, or write to (gasp) communicate perhaps a song, a poem, a play…if you’ve ever modeled it they can do it)
  • Reading (students can read for pleasure and explore books related or unrelated to the units…they can log books they read, prepare books reports, write a sequel, or do something else Beyond Book Reports.
  • Reader’s theater (it’s free and increases fluency according to research)
  • Over time you can add some of these activities as well which might be may do’s:

    • Listening center (students listen to tapes of the stories or other audio like famous speeches)
    • Multimedia center (a computer with headphones allows students to watch unit related movies or explore links
    • Games found at the 99 cent store, as you find them add them to your repetoire

    You may notice that all of these activities require very little preparation.  I was criticized on my post about differentiation for expecting all teachers to be superstars.  I don’t.  I admit I’m a lazy teacher and all of these activities will take you less time than running off worksheets with more engaging and beneficial results. It’s not about working harder but working smarter and letting go of an attachment to ditto machines.

    I invite my readers to post their own ideas and any questions you have below.

    For additional information on Independent Work Time/Workshop see related posts.

    6 Responses to “What Do I Do During Independent Work Time?”

    1. Gisele Lee Says:

      You don’t need to be a superstar to write a two-paragraph proposal to DonorChoose and most probably get the supplies you need (Tip: keep the total order under $320.) So far five proposals at my little school have been funded this month! (one for a laptop)

      – Spelling:
      quiz a partner with a white board, markers, and a old sock (from word wall)
      thirty-seven spelling pattern wheels (Write the families)
      techno: use OC Resources – online games
      Write the voc of the week with marker (eyes closed, left hand, backward, disappearing, pyramid, story, alternate colors)
      Tic Tac Toe Spelling
      Rubber Stamps
      Rhyming Words Sort & Match

      – Vocabulary:
      techno: OC Resources – online games
      make flash cards and quiz a partner
      Tic Tac Toe voc
      Spinner wheel for word wall

      – Must: R. W. Workbook,
      Editing cards
      TicTacToe Grammar
      Magnetic sentences
      Sentences game
      OC Resources – grammar (Check if Online games exist for this unit)
      Create a CST booklet/homepage
      Create a lesson to reteach the class

      Most of these supplies came from Lakeshore through DonorChoose.

    2. Mathew Says:

      Great ideas, Gisele,

      Just to be clear, the reading and writing workbook and comprehension language arts workbooks are intended to be direct instruction and highly structured guided practice i.e. whole group activities. They’re not meant for independent work time since they teach new skills…if students do them wrong they learn the new skills incorrectly.

    3. Dorit Sasson Says:


      Great ideas. Worksheets are good for passive work as a filler or to reinforce a concept. I try and use them sparingly. The trees will also be happy. 🙂

      The point is to find activities that really engage the students. A worksheet can be used for individualization as part of differentiated instruction as some students prefer to work independently.

    4. Kristen Walker Says:

      Workshop runs pretty much the same every week. I have a small pocket chart with each table (A,E,I,O, and U). Next to the table are 2 activities.

      A Listening Center (Students listen to a story and create a thinking map to go with it. This week, students are doing a listen and sketch. They listen to the story and sketch what they “visualize”. Then, students listen to the story again and summarize. When they are done with this activity, they choose a few of our academic vocabulary words (Manzo) and illustrate it or use clay to show the meaning.

      E Students use their word study words in a sentence. Then, they may explore new books in the classlibrary that is labeled by genre.

      I Students write to their Big Buddies in a special journal.

      O Students work on their Writing Process piece that always ties into the OC theme.

      U Students will play a phonics game (http://www.carlscorner.us.com/Games.htm Just print out the gameboard on cardstock and put in a protective sleeve. I write words with the weeks’ spelling on the gameboard in order to reinforce the new skill)

      Students rotate to each center throughout the week. I have Literacy boxes (clear boxes with materials inside) for the “may dos”. They include interactive journals, Handwriting Without Tears manipulatives, stamp or sticker story materials, etc. Students love reading the room. In that box, I may put bunny ears or a santa hat (depending on the month) that students wear as they read the room. Students also record themselves reading decodables.

      I have a million more ideas if you need them. All in all, I want my workshop to be meaningful and make it relate to Open Court and other units of study for that specific time.

    5. Lori White Says:

      How about some suggestions for middle school students? I am looking for ideas that can be done independently or pairs.

    6. Mathew Says:

      I am an elementary school teacher.

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