Independent Work Time
A well-planned and thoughtful Independent Work Time does much more than just keep children “busy” while you teach small groups of readers.
Children should be engaged in meaningful work that gives them the opportunity to apply and transfer skills, strategies, and content that has already been taught during whole group and small group instruction. New readers and writers need plenty of time for practice. Through differentiation in activities, you can ensure that children find tasks that meet their academic needs. When you explicitly model these tasks and give children the repeated practice they need to be successful, Independent Work Time can flourish. Additionally, you can promote responsibility when you teach children how to use their time effectively and have routines in place. Children’s stamina for independent work grows when they are working in a classroom where clear procedures have been taught, modeled, and practiced.
Research indicates that independent work and literacy stations must be guided by the following principles:
- The work should relate to current instruction
- Children should work on tasks and activities with which they need more practice
- The activity or task should be something the child can complete successfully
- Teachers should provide children with choices of relevant, interesting, and appropriately challenging texts
Therefore, when planning for centers, keep in mind: children should be practicing what they are currently or have recently learned in reading and writing. This is not a time to introduce anything new. It’s an ideal time for children to get the practice they need with what has already been learned in whole group and in small groups - and particularly a good time to review things for which they have a demonstrated need for additional practice.
Effective Independent Work Time
Independent Work Time is an essential component of the balanced literacy block during which important work is done for the purpose of strengthening all areas of children’s language and literacy development (listening, speaking, reading, and writing). Independent Work Time also supports children’s abilities to self-direct their learning. Whether you call it centers, stations, or literacy work stations, this is the time when children are purposefully engaged in literacy tasks that help them solidify their understanding of key literacy skills and strategies. You are also supporting children in learning how to work and act more responsibly and independently.
This time requires thoughtful planning on your part. You must to consider the needs of your particular group of children and your curriculum goals, as well as child engagement. However, while this time may look different depending on what grade you teach, there are certain universal elements you must consider.
Introduce one center at a time. Be sure to model what children are expected to do and how they should behave and give children repeated practice. Introduce more centers over time in accordance with your curriculum theme, what is developmentally appropriate for your children, and your assessment of children. Recognize the value of starting out slowly. Build momentum only after you’ve established strong routines.
Model, Model, Model
Extensive and repeated role modeling is the key to successful center management. This helps the children develop a clear understanding of what is expected of them. Establish routines for who visits which center, how many children can go to a center, what to do with finished work, etc. Review these routines often. Take the time to observe your children during Independent Work Time to assess what they are doing well and what needs tweaking. Reteach or review any routines that seem problematic.
Create Centers That Are Neat, Organized, & Attractive
Each center should be attractively organized with all of the materials and supplies easily accessible for the child to engage in successfully and independently. Label everything clearly. Make clear signs for the center and materials. Labeling materials and storage spaces allow children to self-manage the activity and return materials to their assigned place.
Create Center Tasks That Are Both Task & Process Oriented
Some center activities should have products that will result from completing the activity, while others should celebrate the processes of reading together or playing with words and should not require a product for assessment. Whatever the goal, consider how the activity either motivates children or serves as a record of accomplishment.
Keep Some Activities Constant & Rotate Others
There is no set time for keeping activities in a center. When children need time to revisit activities and master them, they will stay in the center for a longer period of time. Other activities are rotated according to themes and areas of study.
Gradual Release of Responsibility
Time to work independently is an opportunity to apply and transfer what has been taught. It allows for both academic and social and emotional growth. One way you can support transfer is through the gradual release of responsibility, a model for teaching and learning. In this model, we show children how to do something, then guide them in how to do it, and then slowly withdraw our support, over time and after multiple exposures, until they can do it on their own. Finally, we allow them to do it on their own, giving them time to practice, and the tools they need. The importance of independent practice with skills, strategies, and content that children have learned in large and small groups is clearly essential and that’s why the tasks that populate your centers are important.
Reflect on Your Independent Work Time
What are you currently doing to meaningfully and productively engage children during Independent Work Time? Use the following questions to help you reflect on your practice to determine areas of strength and areas to enhance.
How do you currently plan your Independent Work Time?
- How are your Independent Work Time tasks differentiated to address your children’s instructional needs, language needs, learning styles, and interests?
- How are you providing opportunities for children to read, write, listen, and speak during Independent Work Time?
- Do you make time at the end of Independent Work Time for children to self-assess their own learning? What resources do you have for them to self-assess? Checklists? Rubrics?
- What is it about each of the Independent Work Time tasks in your classroom that will help your children become better readers and writers?
- What opportunities have you provided for your children to explore new vocabulary and language during Independent Work Time?
- Which skills and strategies that were taught through mini-lessons, guided reading lessons, and Intentional Read Alouds are your children getting an opportunity to practice during Independent Work Time?
- What type of visual supports are in place to support children in understanding the expectations and procedures of Independent Work Time tasks?
- Are the directions clear enough for the children, including those children who are English language learners? Do they understand your expectations?
- How are you providing opportunities for children to work alone, with a partner, and with small groups during Independent Work Time?
- What procedures have you created around noise levels to help independent learning continue?
- What supports have you provided to help children engage in meaningful and authentic conversations?
- How will the tasks evolve over time to meet children’s changing instructional needs?
How does the literacy environment and classroom culture support Independent Work Time?
- Which procedural lessons have you taught to support children in successfully engaging in Independent Work Time?
- Do you have anchor charts to support children in using and storing materials? Are they posted so the children can easily access them? How do you encourage the children to access the anchor charts to problem solve?
- Is the furniture strategically arranged to support Independent Work Time? Are noisy work spaces separate from quiet ones? Are there private spaces for individuals to work alone and other spaces for more collaborative work?
- Have you explicitly used the language from the “The Power of Three” to set expectations for Independent Work Time? Have you discussed responsibilities in terms of taking care of ourselves, taking care of each other, and taking care of the classroom?
Frequently Asked Questions
My children make a mess at the work stations. How do I get them to keep things neat?
When you find that your work stations are in a state of disarray, step back and take time to observe and reflect. Observe the children during Independent Work Time to find the cause of the disarray. Do you need to change or revise an existing procedure? Do you need to add additional routines? Is there a problem with the materials or the storage capacity? Once you have gained more insight into what is causing the problem, make it a teachable moment. Convene a meeting in the large group meeting area. Use the Responsibilities and Procedures Template to explicitly review or teach the behavior or routine that will smooth out the problem. Model or demonstrate what you expect and give the children rehearsal time. Additionally, call the children’s attention to the “Take care of the classroom” section of your Power of Three display. Be sure that you are allotting sufficient time for cleanup.
My children are too noisy during Independent Work Time. I can barely hear the children in the small group in front of me. How can I get them to work more quietly?
Reflect on your expectations. When children are engaged in tasks such as buddy reading, buddy sorts, or book clubs, there is going to be some “buzz.” However, the buzz should be reflective of children being on-task and engaged in their own work. Revisit your procedural lessons. Consider co-creating an anchor chart to help your children reflect on what it looks like and sounds like in a classroom where they can successfully work independently. Demonstrate what this means. Create a silent signal when the noise level gets too high. Take a look at where your stations are located. Find an area away from the Guided Reading table for the noisier tasks like buddy reading. Perhaps you might reconsider the number of “noisy stations” you have. A great way to take care of each other is to encourage children to help each other keep a thoughtful tone in the room. Finally, allocate some time during sharing time for the children to self-assess their noise level.
There are several children who never seem to get anything done during Independent Work Time. How can I get them to do the tasks?
Take a closer look at the tasks. Are they differentiated enough to allow each child to successfully complete them? Do you allow the children to have a voice about the task they work on? Are the tasks sufficiently engaging for the children to enjoy doing them? Are the tasks reinforcing skills they have already learned? Take a closer look at the specific children who are not very productive during Independent Work Time and think about the answers to these questions; adjust the work time tasks as necessary. Consider which tasks specifically the students are able to complete and think about tasks that can be replicated. Create opportunities for partner work. Have a conference with the children who are experiencing difficulty. Work with them on setting an achievable goal. Help your children to identify what a successful independent work period might look like for them. Have the child chart a reflection of their daily success until this is no longer needed and the child can set a goal for the day and then identify if he/she met this goal. Celebrate when they reach it.
If a child finishes a task at a station, can she change to another station?
Ideally, each station has enough for every child to stay engaged for the 15-20 minutes that are allotted to it. A child suddenly arriving at a new station is likely to be disruptive. The movement is also likely to distract children working at other stations, the children at the Guided Reading table, and you. Equip each station with a number of options. In particular, include both reading and writing tasks at all work stations. For example, if the children are building words with the CVC pattern at the “Word Work Station,” include copies of books which offer the opportunity to practice that pattern in actual reading, such as Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss or Cat on the Mat by Brian Wildsmith. Also include mini blank books at the station, so the children can write and illustrate stories using those CVC words. Make sure that all children carry their book baggies with them during Independent Work Time, so they will always have something meaningful to do.
While I am working with small groups, my children keep interrupting me with questions about what they should be doing. What should I do?
Consider the variety of reasons children are likely to need or want your attention and teach procedures for each of them. Co-create an anchor chart that offers options for what to do when you are working with a small group. Highlight what constitutes an emergency and what does not. Address common problems before they occur (bathroom breaks, broken pencils, etc.) and help children learn how to problem solve while you are teaching your small group. Post the anchor chart near the Guided Reading table. Review station procedures before you start Guided Reading each day. Consider creating center buddies so children have friends they can rely on for help when problems arise.
Creating centers is so time consuming! What can I do?
Creating centers doesn’t have to be very time consuming. Keep them simple. Resist the urge to create mini children’s museum exhibits. Focus on tasks that give children the opportunity to read, write, and do word work. Gradually build and add on to centers over time. Start with centers such as independent reading and buddy reading. They require only a child and a book. Have children “shop for books” weekly. Open a big book center. Display the books that you’ve read in shared reading lessons along with a pointer for children to reread and enjoy. Add a listening center. The listening center can feature a book for an entire week, but remember to change the book once a week. K-2 children get a lot of benefit from “Reading the Room.” The text changes gradually as you add and remove charts. Make use of tablets and laptops to have children work with your favorite software and websites. Post anchor charts to show/remind children how to access the software/websites. Although today’s children are unlikely to encounter logistical problems with such tasks in view of their ability to quickly get up to speed with anything digital, create a class job (“tech assistant”) to support anyone who is struggling.