Questions About Independent Work Time/Workshop

After listening to the Independent Work Time CD, Julie, a third grade teacher in Los Angeles County, had these questions…

1. During the first week of setting up the IWT, what do you tell your students when they are done with their work since they do not have any May Dos? Do you just have them sit quietly or would you tell them to do a quiet activity like silent reading? I have some who work really fast.

In the first week, I think I’d try to have the 1 Must Do be an activity that can be worked on indefinitely. For example…reading a decodable book, revising a draft, practicing the word knowledge/blending, reviewing vocabulary words. Remember, in the first week, IWT is very short. In 3rd grade, probably 10-15 minutes at most. The focus in the first week is not the work students are doing so much as whether they’re following the rules of IWT which are:

1. Use a 6-inch voice
2. Do not interrupt the teacher
3. Clean up before starting something new (not important in week one since there’s only one thing to do)

A student who takes out a book to read if they’ve finished the one must do would be fine but one who asks you what to do would not since that violates rule #2.

2. During the second week, when you assign 2 must dos, do you find activities that would last them for the whole week or do you change the activities everyday?

I have no rule about this but generally it’s one thing that can be completed that day and then writing which takes a week or longer to complete.

3. During the third week, what do you do when you have the same students finish early and they always hog the listening station or the computer station? How do you manage the stations so that all students will get a chance to use it?

In week 3, the may dos should be ones that can accommodate everyone if everyone should finish early enough (though IWT should still be too short at this time for everyone to finish). I usually withhold the listening center until IWT is going really well because it’s a good incentive. I like to have them earn it.

As for listening center hogs. Some teachers have a rotation to make sure everyone goes to every center during a week or so. If that works for you, then do it. My feeling about this is a little different because I’m trying to teach students how to make their own choices. I know teachers want for everything to come out even but one of the things I’m teaching the students is to pick activities that are beneficial to them. I’ve never had a student go to the listening everyday because it gets boring after awhile.

However, Rosa, for example, would frequently go to the listening center at the beginning of the year. My first instinct was to get Rosa off of the listening center and make her do something else but then I thought about it. Rosa didn’t know how to read yet and no one at home was reading to her. As much as I wanted Rosa to practice from the fluency kit or do a vocabulary sort, Rosa wasn’t ready for that yet. Rosa was choosing what was best for her at that time. So sometimes if it seems like a student is making a bad choice, you have look closer at the choice.

If this gets to be a problem or you have students choosing may do activities that are not appropriate to their level or what they need, you discuss this in the debrief. All problems get worked out in the debrief. If students don’t know how to choose activities for their level, you discuss choosing activities for your level. I prefer to teach students how to choose the right activity rather than pulling them off an activity without teaching them anything.

4. My challenge this year is that I have a group of RSP kids, a group of non-english speakers, a high group, a middle group, and a low group. Because the levels are so different, I would have to give them different assignments and it was difficult managing, monitoring, and finding the time to meet with them before and during IWT. I know that there are some assignments where I can differentiate pretty easily but most of the time, I would have to come up with different things to meet their needs. I feel like I have neglected my RSP and non-english speakers. What would you suggest that I do? Is there an easier way to do this?

This IS challenging but every year has been like this for me in my classroom and many others in Los Angeles county. The differentiation really happens when you meet with small groups. The must dos that you assign should be activities that nearly every student can complete independently. (Writing, for example, everyone can do though each will work on it at their own level). By having students work collaboratively, you can have a lot more activities that the class can work on independently. I always have some non-readers at least at the beginning of the year, so I have to have students work together on some activities which promotes teamwork.

5. What do you do with students who never finishes their must dos at the end of the week? Do you have them carry that work over to the following week or do you have them start with the new must dos for the new week?

Must dos generally change every day except for longer term projects like research projects or writing. So things that carry over from one week to the next are those that are meant to carry over, as we’re working on one piece of the bigger project at a time. If you’re assigning one week projects that are meant to be completed by Friday then they need to be completed by Friday or else you need to adjust the assignment so that all students can complete it.

9 Responses to “Questions About Independent Work Time/Workshop”

  1. Julie Says:

    Thanks again for the advice on IWT. I’m taking it very slow with my kids.
    So far it’s going pretty well. What do you do when there are kids who don’t
    care about being praised?

  2. Mathew Says:

    In my experience, all students do care about praise but many of them have a hardened exterior that takes time to penetrate with that praise.

    Much research has been done to show that false praise does harm. So you do need to make sure that positive feedback is based on real achievement and sincere.

    With IWT/Workshop, the best reward should be the may do activities which are designed to be academic but engaging. If the may do’s are not a motivator then you may need new may do’s.

  3. Libbie Cole Says:

    I am asking a question. Is it true that OPEN COURT is not designed to be used for teaching reading to students 4th grade and above that are more than two grade levels behind in reading? I have been told by many OPEN COURT reps that this is the case, but our district people tell me I heard it wrong, or I misunderstood what the rep said. I went back and checked with my building rep and she said that is correct. I just want an official answer to this question that I can’t seem to get.

  4. Mathew Says:


    Please contact McGraw-Hill for an official answer on who the program was designed for.

  5. Janice Kunihiro Says:

    I am challenged to fit time into the day for IWT. I have the 2000 edition. It is a challenge to get through the green, red, and blue sections before lunch time; without carrying over into other time slots for other subjects.
    Someone said you have to pick and choose what you teach to condcense the time element. I feel strongly about keep the green in tact, and reduce the time in the red, are only do small parts of the blue. What do you suggest to make time for IWT?

  6. Mathew Says:

    Hi Janice,

    I wouldn’t skip components but I would make sure you’re moving quickly through them. You’re not reteaching to the whole group, that’s what IWT is for. If you’re going to skip something, however, don’t skip IWT. Move the workbook to another day and keep your 20-40 minute block for IWT consistently every day. Also see: It’s Not Easy Timing Green Article

  7. Brenda Says:

    I am in the same boat as some of you. IWT in my district is mandatory, yet I’ve asked my coach to assist me in finding the right activities to implement during this time. For some reason he is always busy or going in circles. Do any of you have suggestions?

  8. Mathew Says:


    You don’t need to come with a whole new set of activities for IWT/Workshop. The trick is to take the things you’re already teaching (blending, decodables, research and inquiry, writer’s workshop) and turn those into activities for IWT.

    I’d also suggest following up with your coach.

    If you have any specific questions, feel free to post them.

  9. Creating Lifelong Learners » Blog Archive » Questions About Independent Work Time Says:

    […] I’ve answered some questions about Independent Work Time before: IWT FAQ […]

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