How to Support Primary Students Who Struggle to Work Independently

Do you have a few little friends in your classroom who have a HARD TIME working independently?

As in…you get everyone started in centers or independent work, and these little friends just can’t seem to get started…or stay engaged and on-task?

If so, you are not alone!

It seems like I always have at least 1 or 2 kids in my class (if not more!) who have a very hard time working independently. And I’ve talked to SO many other teachers who are facing the same challenge!

In my opinion, it’s just as important to teach kids independent work skills as it is to teach academics!

It’s easy to get frustrated when we’ve prepared great independent work activities and thoroughly modeled them—and some kids still don’t get on board. BUT we have to remember that, like any skill, teaching independence takes time.

So in today’s post, I’ll share 3 things I do to help K-2 students improve their independent work skills. (There’s a little freebie for you, too!)If you have students who struggle with their independent work skills, this post has 3 ideas and a freebie to help! These ideas work great in Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade.

Photo Credit:  Dragon Images, Shutterstock

1. Look for possible causes of the behavior, and adjust your strategy accordingly.

If you have a child who is really struggling to stay on-task during independent work time, it’s important to figure out WHY that might be happening.

Consider setting aside 5-10 minutes to observe the child from a distance.

Ask yourself:

  • Is the work too easy or difficult for the child?
  • Does the child know what to do?
  • Is the child seeking attention from peers or me?
  • Does the child struggle with sitting still or attending to one thing for a long period of time?

Based upon what you learn, you might:

  • Adjust the difficulty level of activities for the child
  • Use small-group or one-on-one reteaching to ensure the child knows how to do activities (or involve the child more actively during whole group demonstrations)
  • Teach the child how to appropriately get attention from you and/or peers
  • Offer different options to the child to help him/her focus, like allowing the child to stand up to complete activities, use a timer, or allow frequent drink/stretch breaks

2. Track students’ behavior with them, and encourage self-reflection.

If the ideas in #1 don’t yield results, try tracking students’ behavior on a daily basis.

If you’re familiar with the PBIS behavior system, then you might already use “check in/check out” sheets with students.

I know that all schools implement these sheets differently, but if you’re not familiar with them, they are daily sheets that certain students carry with them throughout the school day. After each subject or block of time, the teacher rates the student’s behavior (with student input). These sheets are sometimes used to improve overall behavior, or to focus on a specific goal like participating more in class, or using a quiet voice.

Anyway, the reason I bring up check-in/check-out sheets is because the concept can be applied to helping kids work more independently during centers or other independent work times.

Even if a child doesn’t need a check-in/check-out sheet for the entire day, a simple behavior chart might be helpful for independent work time.

Get this FREE self-assessment form for literacy centers in the blog post!

There are lots of ways to implement these, but here’s one strategy:

  1. Give students their independent work sheets at the beginning of centers. Provide a little reminder about what you expect.
  2. During centers, keep an eye on these students as much as possible (or get help from an aide/volunteer).
  3. After centers, have each student come to you individually. Ask the student how he/she thinks it went. With the student, rate his/her behavior. (Have the child mark it on the actual paper, if possible.)
  4. Do this on a daily basis, until the student reaches a certain goal, like 5 days in a row of smiley faces (you would share this goal with him/her beforehand).

As you can probably guess, this procedure can become unmanageable if you use these sheets with more than 3-4 kids. These behavior sheets are designed to be a support for a small group of students. (If you find that many more of your students are struggling, you might want to adjust your overall approach/strategy for centers.)

Also, if you choose to associate rewards with a behavior sheet, I recommend selecting prizes like getting to eat lunch with you, a special note or phone call home about the excellent behavior, or something along those lines.

We want to develop intrinsic motivation in our students. When I discuss kids’ progress with them, I say things like, “Wow, you must really be proud of yourself” or “You got a whole lot of learning done today because you were so focused!” I try to emphasize their OWN feelings of pride in their accomplishments, rather than communicating that the goal is to make me (the teacher) happy.

If you’re interested in this type of chart, click on the image below to get my free literacy centers toolkit (the chart is included in the download).

3. If all else fails, forget the whole “independent” thing altogether (temporarily).

Let’s say that you’ve tried all of these strategies, and you’re still not getting anywhere. And maybe the child is a) harming other students, or b) distracting other students so that they aren’t getting any work done.

I have been in this situation before, and it’s a tough position to be in—especially if you don’t have an aide or other adult help in the classroom.

On one hand, you want to give the child an opportunity to learn and practice independent work skills. But at the same time, you can’t compromise other students’ rights to safety and learning.

I don’t do this often, but in extreme situations, I will temporarily take away the privilege of independent work.

I’ll explain to the child, “I know that you want to work on your own, just like all the other kids. I want you to do that too. But getting to work on your own is also a privilege. And you’re not showing me that you’re ready for that privilege yet. So for right now, you will be doing your work right by my table. And we will work together to help you practice _________ (staying focused/keeping your hands to yourself/whatever the child’s main problem is). I know you’ll work hard so that you can be with everyone else again!”

Then, I have the child complete the same (or similar) independent work activities—but while sitting on the floor near my guided reading or small group. I have the child face away from the group, so that they don’t distract us. But the student is still close enough for me to supervise.

I hate to isolate kids, so I make sure that this is a temporary intervention. Again, I use it sparingly, and only when other kids’ safety and learning is being affected.


These are my 3 main strategies for helping kids learn to work more independently. What are yours? You can leave your ideas or tips in a comment. I’d love to hear them!

Why Your Students Need Free Time At School (And How You Can Make It Happen!)

I am fascinated by how education works in different countries around the world. But learning about foreign schools is more than just interesting. We can learn a lot from studying the successes of other education systems.

A couple of years ago, I read a book called The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley. The book (which I highly recommend) describes the lives of different students and the schools in which they are enrolled. One of the students is from Finland, a nation known for its successes in education.

One interesting component of the Finnish school day is free time. Children are given lots of time to play outdoors and socialize with their friends. I’m not claiming that this free time is the sole reason why Finnish schools are so successful, but I do think that they are on to something here. Keep reading to learn more about free time in Finnish schools, and how to maximize your students’ learning by providing free time in your own classroom!

Finnish schools give students LOTS of unstructured free time and recess, and they have some of the most successful schools in the world!  Read this post to find out how to find time for free time in the school day.

In Finland, students have 15-minute recess periods between lessons (typically every 45 minutes). Kids go out to play even in very cold weather!

But free time in Finland seems to go beyond just outdoor recess. When I watched the documentary “The Finland Phenomenon,” I noticed students standing in groups and socializing (indoors) between classes. They weren’t tardy or misbehaving – they were being given time to relax and chat!

So why do Finnish schools allow students to have free time? From what I’ve read and watched, here are some of the main purposes of providing free time at school:

  • Serves as a “brain break,” so kids are focused and ready to learn when they begin a lesson
  • Teaches responsibility (not every minute of the child’s day is planned out for him)
  • Encourages development of social and communication skills
  • Supports students’ physical healthy and motor skill development

Unfortunately, free time is a foreign concept in many American schools. Recess is typically brief (once a day, twice if you’re lucky). And students are rarely, if ever, given unstructured free time indoors.

We often give our students brain breaks, and my kids have always loved participating in movement activities like GoNoodle. But can these brain breaks truly be considered free time? In my opinion, not really.

After learning a lot about Finland’s education system, I didn’t toss rigorous instruction or whole class brain breaks out the window. But I did decide to incorporate free time into my second graders’ daily schedule.

That year, my schedule was planned out for me by the school where I worked. We had to stick closely to the schedule, because students switched classes frequently. I definitely didn’t have a lot of “wiggle room,” but I made time for a 10-15 minute break each morning.

During that break, students were allowed to eat a snack and socialize in our classroom. I didn’t require them to complete work or do anything in particular. They could use the time as they pleased, as long as they were being safe.

It was such a simple routine, but my students LOVED having their 10-15 minutes of free time each day! They talked in groups, ate their snacks, and some even chose to read. It was their time that belonged to them, and they loved having that privilege and responsibility.

In addition to just plain making my kids happy, the break kept them focused during the morning. I taught all of the core subjects between 8:45 and 11:45, so having a break in the middle was essential. My kids still had outdoor recess after lunch, but that break helped keep them focused in the morning. We also still did whole group brain breaks, because these are also a good way to keep kids focused (and they’re fun!).

So how can you incorporate free time into your classroom? Well, just prioritize it. It’d be nice if you were able to convince your administrators about the importance of free time (show them this article!), but I know that’s not always realistic.

If you’re struggling to find time in the day (who isn’t?), rethink your bathroom breaks. Do you have all students use the restroom at once? If your restroom is close to your classroom, could you stand in the doorway and monitor kids using the restroom while the others enjoy free time in the room?

Or, do you spend a lot of time on morning work? Could you assign more jobs to students to cut down on your responsibilities in the morning? If you reduce the time kids spend doing morning work, that might free up more time later in your day.

If you’re really struggling to fit in free time, start timing your daily transitions between activities/lessons. Motivate students to spend less time goofing off – tell them that will be able to take a free-time break if they trim time off their transitions!

I know there’s so much that we have to squeeze into each school day. But I’ve seen firsthand that students learn better when we make time for them to have unstructured breaks.

Do you agree? If so, how do you fit free time into your day? Comment below – I’d love to hear from you!

If you’re a Kindergarten teacher, you might also like this post about how I fit 45 minutes of free choice centers into our daily schedule.

Happy teaching!


Disclaimer: This post contains an Amazon affiliate link.

How I Start Centers At The Beginning of Kindergarten

If you teach Kindergarten, centers are probably a part of your day. When I taught Kindergarten, I incorporated centers into literacy, math, and free play, as well as occasionally during science and social studies.

Centers are a great way to get students actively involved in their learning. I’ve heard that Kinders’ attention span is about 5-6 minutes, which is incredibly short! That means that we need to try to minimize whole group sitting and listening time. In turn, we need to maximize hands-on, independent learning time. Having students work in centers gives them important independent practice time, and it also allows us to give children more individualized attention as they meet with us in small groups.

Although centers are a great addition to your Kindergarten daily schedule, getting them to work (and work well) is challenging. Something that has always been difficult for me is getting the kids who are working independently to…well…do their work!

I think that lots of routine-teaching and patience at the beginning of the year are essential for getting Kindergarten centers to work. My students have typically not attended preschool, so I always ease them into centers very slowly at the beginning of the school year. In this post, I’ll share with you a 6-step process that I use to introduce centers at the beginning of the year. At the end of the post, please comment with any additional ideas or suggestions that you have!

How I start centers at the beginning of Kindergarten

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Rido

Stage 1: Sitting and completing “pencil-and-paper” work.

Depending upon the population of students that you work with, it may or may not be a big deal for your kids to have to sit in chairs, stay put, and work on their own. For my kids, it was somewhat of a big deal.

At the very beginning of the year, as I introduced each alphabet letter, I had my kids complete handwriting sheets to practice forming the day’s letter. Having all students sit and complete the same worksheet like this is not something that I did often. However, at the beginning of the year, it was a simple activity that served a purpose: teaching students to stay in one place and complete work.

And honestly, I wasn’t really that concerned about their letter formation at that point in time. I viewed the handwriting sheets as a means to an end (having students work successfully in centers). We spent time discussing how to remain in one spot, use a quiet voice, independently use the restroom if necessary, etc. Although it was a good chance for them to practice letter formation, the main goal was to teach students basic procedures for completing seat work.

Stage 2: Sitting and completing “hands-on” work.

During Stage 2, we focused on the same skills (staying in one spot, working independently, solving problems with peers), but with hands-on activities rather than worksheets. The majority of my centers involved manipulatives of some kind, so I needed students to learn how to use materials appropriately.

Again, the activities in this stage were very simple. Every child in the class was doing the same thing, more or less. Some of the activities I used included: playing with pattern blocks or using them with pattern block mats, making letters/numbers/shapes from playdough, sorting magnetic letters, etc.

I was very intentional about what materials and activities I used during Stage 2. The activities I chose would ultimately become centers that students visited during the next few stages. That way, when it was time for the kids to begin physically rotating through centers, students were already familiar with the center activities so that they could focus on learning the routines.

Pattern Block Sorting Mat

Stage 3: Working without any interference from me.

During Stage 3, students were still completing either “paper-and-pencil” or “hands-on” work at their seats. However, I challenged them to work just like “big kids,” without any help or support from me. I stood at the back of the room and watched them work, but I expected them to solve minor problems on their own. If you have spent time during Stages 1 and 2 teaching independent work skills, transitioning into Stage 3 should not be difficult at all.

Stage 4: Rotating through non-academic centers.

Finally, in Stage 4, I set up different centers around the room and had students rotate through them. When you start Stage 4, it’s best if you have already decided how you’ll group your students, so that these groups can remain the same for a little while. Your groups will change, of course, as the year goes on – but it’s helpful if you can provide a bit of consistency at the beginning.

I’ve used a few different strategies to show students what group they are in and/or what center they should be working in. For a couple of years, I used kids’ photos on a pocket chart. I’ve also used photos on an interactive white board, including photos of the actual center locations and activities.

An important part of Stage 4 is teaching kids how to rotate between centers. Many teachers use two timers: one to indicate that students should clean up, and another to indicate that students should move to the next center. To maintain order, I only allow my students to switch centers when the entire classroom is quiet. Students must be sitting, pointing with one finger to the center where they will go next, and keeping another finger on their lips to show that they are quiet. When the entire classroom is ready, then they can switch centers. This procedure takes a while to teach, but it’s time well spent because it will save you instructional time later on!

During Stage 4, I placed one center activity at my small group table, so students would get used to working at my table as a center. However, I did not sit and work with a small group yet – I was rotating between groups and observing (though trying not to interfere unless it was absolutely necessary).

I also think it’s important to keep the centers relatively simple at this point (non-academic tasks like in Stage 2), so that students can focus on learning the routines.

Stage 5: Rotating through simple academic centers.

Stage 5 is pretty simple – continue practicing switching centers, but introduce academic activities into the mix. I prefer teaching students how to use one new center every couple of days, so as not to overwhelm them.

Stage 6: Rotating through academic centers, including a teacher center.

Getting to Stage 6 is the ultimate goal – having students rotate through academic centers, including a teacher center! However, something I had to remind myself was that just because our class got to this stage once did not mean that they would always be ready to remain in this stage.

In other words, during different times throughout the year, I had to back things up and re-teach. If students needed to go back to practicing center rotation with non-academic tasks, then that’s what we did. Sometimes I got a little peeved that we had to backtrack, but it saved instructional time and frustration later on.


I wish I could tell you that using these stages works like magic and you’ll never have any problems with behavior or work completion in centers. 🙂 However, that was certainly not the case in my classroom (kudos if it is in yours!).

If I noticed that my kids were having problems during centers, I tried to find the root cause. Here are some possible reasons why students are not following routines or completing their work:

  • The work is too difficult
  • The work is too easy
  • More practice with routines is needed
  • Students are having difficulty working together
  • Students don’t feel that they are being held accountable for their work
  • Students are only 5 years old 🙂

Although I don’t think that we should lower our expectations because our students are young, we do have to keep in mind that immaturity can play a role in behavior during centers. I definitely don’t mean that we should give up on our kids or let inappropriate behavior slide! But I do think that we need to give them time and lots of explicit teaching so that they can be successful.

What are your thoughts about introducing centers? I’d love to hear from you! And if you’re looking for seasonal math and literacy centers for Kindergarten, click here or on any of the images below.

Bundled Math & Literacy Centers Kinder.001

Kindergarten Winter Math Centers PREVIEW.001

Kinder Spring Bundle Cover.001

3 Fun Classroom Ideas for Teaching Kids About Friendship

At the beginning of the school year, I tend to focus on the fact that I don’t know my students. I do all sorts of activities to try to get to know them better, both personally and as learners.

But sometimes I forget (or at least don’t think much about) the fact that the kids don’t know each other, either! This is particularly true when you teach preschool or Kindergarten. Your kids may know a handful of other students in the class, but they rarely know all of their classmates before school starts. In order for students to feel truly comfortable in their classroom, it’s important to support them in building positive relationships (friendships) with their peers!

Starting on the very first day of school, I try to promote friendship and kindness above all else. Even if it means taking away time from academics, I spend time talking with my kids about treating others nicely – especially as conflicts or other incidents arise. Addressing these issues is important for the kids’ social development, and doing so allows you to spend more time on academics (rather than managing problems) as the year goes on.

But speaking of conflicts, I actually try very hard to focus on the positive, especially at the beginning of the year. When I see a child exhibiting kind behavior, I drop everything to point it out to the rest of the students. The “spotlighted child” loves the positive attention! And my preschoolers and Kindergarteners always love to give a round of applause to their friend.

In addition to making a big deal out of kind behavior, I have also taught my “Our School Family” friendship unit in preschool, Kindergarten, and first grade. The purpose of the unit is to teach kids about positive social behaviors and help them understand that our class is a kind of “family.”

Through readalouds, writing/drawing, and class activities, we build a positive community and develop kid-friendly classroom rules. Click on the image below to read more about this low-prep unit:

Friendship Unit Cover Image.001

And if you’d like to focus on friendship at the beginning of the year (or your kids need a little refresher mid-year!), here are 3 friendship activities you can try out in your classroom:

Read this post for 3 classroom activities that will promote friendship and positive social skills! These are perfect for preschool, Kindergarten, or first grade.

1. Friendship jar: Designate a small jar in your classroom for keeping track of kind deeds. As you talk with students about what it means to be a good friend, explain that friendships are built on lots of kind behavior over time. Then, when you (or a student) notices kind behavior or hears kind words, add a marble to the jar. Always talk to the class about why you are adding a marble. Another alternative would be to actually write down the behavior on a sticky note. It might take up more time, but how much fun would it be for the kids when you go back and re-read the notes to them a few months later? When the friendship jar is full of marbles or sticky notes, have a “friendship party” to celebrate kind behavior in your classroom.

2. Craft stick people role-play: Make craft stick people by gluing people cutouts onto thick craft sticks (or have the kids make their own). Explain to students that even friends have problems and argue at times. Use the craft stick puppets to role-play various situations that your students might find themselves in. Some example scenarios to try are:  feeling left out at recess, two children trying to play with the same toy at the same time, being bothered by someone humming, pushing in line, etc.

When you introduce the activity, take two craft stick people and use different voices to model how two friends work out their problem. Then, role play a different situation. This time, have a child come up to the front of the class to do the voice for one of the craft stick people. When (and if) kids are ready to try it on their own, give each child a popsicle stick person and have them do their own role-playing in pairs (you should still specify particular social situations to act out).

Not only is this fun (and pretty funny when you listen to what kids come up with), but it gives students a chance to try out kind words and positive behaviors outside of challenging situations. It’s one thing to tell your students repeatedly to “say stop” when someone is bothering them, and it’s another to actually let them try out those words in a pretend scenario.

Click through to the post to read about 2 more friendship activities perfect for 4-7 year olds!

3. Friendship book: With parent permission, take a photo of each child in your class. Then, use a word processing program to type out each child’s first name (1 name per page). Place a small thumbnail image of the photo next to each name. Leave a large amount of blank space on the page. When you’re done, create a cover, and print the book single-sided (each page should have one child’s name and photo) and staple the pages together. Show the children the book.

Place the book in your writing center. As children visit the center, they can draw small pictures (or write, if they are able) on the back and front of their friends’ pages. Model how to draw special pictures – for example, if Bradley knows that Liam likes soccer, Bradley can draw a picture of a soccer ball on Liam’s page. Monitor the book to ensure that each child is receiving drawings and messages on his/her page, so no one feels left out.

The kids will LOVE taking a peek at their own pages to see what their friends drew for them! If you notice that the kids’ drawings are large and they are filling up the book quickly, consider making another copy or using large white construction paper to make a second book.

When the book is finished, place it in your classroom library or reading corner. The kids can practice reading each others’ names and looking at the class creation!

Do you have any go-to friendship activities that you love using in your classroom? Comment below – I’d love to hear your ideas! And if you need some ready-to-go lessons on friendship for your classroom, check out my “Our School Family” unit here.

Happy teaching!

How to Help Kids Feel Confident in Kindergarten with a “Student of the Day” Routine

Talking or standing up in front of a whole class of children can be scary for some kiddos. Especially if they’ve never been to school before! Today I’m going to share with you a simple routine that I used to help Kindergarteners overcome that fear at the beginning of the school year.

The routine I’m talking about is called “Student of the Day.” I learned it from another Kindergarten teacher about five years ago, and I used it each year I taught Kindergarten. However, with a few slight adjustments, you could use it in almost any elementary grade!

The reason I love this routine so much is because it serves many different purposes. I used it to teach letter knowledge, concept of first and last name, counting, asking questions, and responding in complete sentences (in addition to helping kids overcome their fear of talking in front of the class). So how do you do “Student of the Day?” I’ll walk you through it, step-by-step!

Some kids feel shy and uncertain at the beginning of the Kindergarten. Use this simple routine to help them feel comfortable talking in front of their peers!

1. Write each child’s name on a craft stick at the beginning of the school year. I had a cup full of students’ names at the beginning of each school year. Every morning, during our Morning Meeting, I would pull one name out to be the “Student of the Day.” I’ll let you in on a little secret, though…I definitely rigged the “random” drawing process. 😉 For the first couple of weeks, I purposely chose the students who were a little braver and more outspoken. After the shy kids had seen how fun it is to be the Student of the Day, I then started pulling their names. I think I had a child refuse only once, and then I just put his name back into the cup for another day.

2. Hang 2 pieces of large chart paper on a bulletin board or wall near your whole group area. I used the primary lined kind. You’ll need enough space to write each child’s first and last name in a vertical list (you’ll write one child’s name each day).

3. Teach students the routine. I didn’t start this routine on the first day of school. In fact, I probably didn’t even begin Student of the Day until the second week of school. The first couple of days were so overwhelming for the kids (and, honestly, for me) that I didn’t want to stress anyone out by asking them to get up in front of the class right away.

To teach the routine, I sat everyone down on the whole group rug. I explained that we would be starting something VERY special that would last for a few weeks. I asked if there were any volunteers who wanted to try out this special thing first. Then, I chose one of the more talkative children who volunteered.

I had the child stand up and come over with me to the chart paper. I said something like, “Today is your special day! You are the Student of the Day. Everybody in the class wants to know more about you. Will you tell them your first and last name?” I had the child tell the class his first and last name (and gave reminders about using a loud voice, if necessary). Then, I wrote the child’s first and last name on chart paper. If the child knew how to spell his name, then I’d have him dictate the letters to me (or at least the first letter). If not, I did it myself, naming each letter aloud as I did. Sometimes I’d spend a minute talking with the class about the letters and/or sounds in the child’s name.

Students' names on an anchor chart for the "Student of the Day" routine in Kindergarten!

We then counted the letters in the child’s first and last name (later on, you can use this part to talk about the concepts of “more” or “less” – as in, does the first name or last name have more letters?).

Last, it was time for the “interview.” For the first few days, I would model asking the  questions. I’d start by saying something like, “Now I’m going to ask _____ some questions so that we can learn more about our Student of the Day.” I’d model asking questions about favorite foods, favorite toys, people in his family, pets, vacations, TV shows, movies, sports, etc. After a few days of modeling, I’d have the other kids ask the Student of the Day questions – and they LOVED this! It taught them to ask questions very early on in the year. I also used it as an opportunity to teach kids how to respond to questions in complete sentences, using a loud voice.

After the “interview” was complete (about 5-6 questions) we applauded for the student. For the rest of the day, if I needed a special helper or had something special for a student to do, I selected the student of the day.

4. Repeat with other students and help students make connections. Unless you have a tiny class, this routine will last for multiple weeks. I changed things up as the weeks went on to keep things lively (hunting for certain letters in a child’s name, suggesting different questions to ask, etc.). I really encouraged the kids to make connections between their names by asking questions like, “Who else has a name that starts with the letter ‘R’?” or “Who else has a last name with only 4 letters?” The kids eventually learned to do this on their own, without needing my prompting.

I also encouraged my kids to make connections with each other. They were eager to point out when two students had the same favorite TV show, or when three kids all liked pizza. I think this helped them form friendships and relate to each other a little better.

That’s really all there is to the routine! It takes so little prep, and my kids really enjoyed it (so did I!). The beginning of Kindergarten can be kind of chaotic, but fun activities like these also made me love those first few weeks.

If you decide to try out Student of the Day, let me know how it goes! Happy teaching!

Fitting It All In: How to Schedule a Balanced Literacy Block for Second Grade

**Looking for 1st grade literacy block schedules? Click HEREOr for Kindergarten literacy block schedules, click HERE.**

When I began teaching second grade, I struggled a bit with my schedule. I was moving up from Kindergarten and just wasn’t sure what a daily literacy schedule should look like for second grade.

After some trial and error, I figured out how to structure my literacy block in a way that worked for my kiddos and me. In this post, I’ll share with you the components of my second grade literacy block and some sample schedules.

Before I get started, I do want to say that there’s no one “correct” way to set up your balanced literacy block. The best schedule is the one that meets the needs of you and your students. Also, I love hearing about how other teachers schedule their days, so please comment at the end of the post!

This post has ideas for creating your balanced literacy block in 2nd grade, and some sample schedules to try out!

Components of a Balanced Literacy Block for Second Grade

Literacy can and should be integrated into all subject areas – it doesn’t have to be restricted to a few hours in the morning! Even so, I did reserve time in our schedule for a dedicated literacy block. Here were the components of the block:

Shared Reading (20 minutes): This is when I read aloud a text that students could all see clearly and follow along with. Most of the time I used a grade level appropriate picture book and projected it under the document camera. Students sat on the rug so that they could clearly see the words. Other times, I used a story from the old basal reading series, and students each had a copy of the textbook in front of them. We typically didn’t get through an entire text in a single shared reading lesson. I paused frequently to discuss ideas, comprehension strategies, and vocabulary with students, and I tried to include lots of “turn and talk” opportunities. Click here to read more about the shared reading lessons I use.

Guided Reading and Independent Work (40 minutes):  During this block of time, I met with students for guided reading (2 groups total) while the other students worked independently. For my guided reading instruction, I provided students with scaffolding so that they could read texts at their instructional levels (slightly harder than what they could read independently). The students who were not meeting with me responded to the shared reading text in writing. They read or worked on other seat work when they were finished.

Readaloud (10-15 minutes):  Typically, I read aloud part of a chapter book or an entire picture book to my students.

Reading Workshop Minilesson (10-15 minutes): I taught a decoding, fluency, or comprehension strategy (just one per lesson) that students could apply as they read independently. This was a very brief, focused lesson. I used the book from shared reading to teach the day’s strategy, so that students would already be familiar with the text. (This can also be combined with shared reading if you’re short on time – you can read about combined shared reading / reading workshop minilessons HERE.)

Independent Reading (25 minutes +5 for sharing time): Students read independently, while I conferred with kids individually. Sometimes, I met with a small group of readers who had similar needs. After independent reading time, we came back together as a group, so the students could share about their reading with a partner or the class.

Writing Workshop Minilesson (15 minutes): I taught a brief, focused lesson on a writing (or grammar / language arts) skill that students could use in their own writing. I structured my writing units by genre, so whatever skill I taught was related to that genre.

Independent Writing (30 minutes + 5 for sharing time): Students wrote independently, and I conferred with kids individually. After independent writing time, we came back together as a group so students could share their writing with a partner or the class.

Word Study (15-20 minutes):  I taught Words Their Way or another phonics program in small groups. I typically met with 1 group per day to introduce a phonics/spelling pattern. At the same time, other students worked independently with their assigned words. It takes some time to set up, but differentiating word study has been super effective with my kids in the past.

Sample Schedules for a Second Grade Classroom

So what would this look like in practice? Below are some sample schedules:

Second Grade Sample Schedule A

This is one sample schedule for second grade with a balanced literacy block - the post has 3 other sample schedules to check out!

This is one sample schedule for second grade with a balanced literacy block - the post has 3 other sample schedules to check out!

Even though I generally followed one of these schedules, our school day didn’t always look like this throughout the entire year. I love to teach integrated thematic units that engage kids in learning content area material through literacy activities (i.e. reading about and writing about insects). At the beginning of the year, it’s great to establish a routine that provides kids with consistency. But as the year goes on, I think it’s completely fine to deviate from that schedule. Literacy learning doesn’t always fit nicely and neatly into a box!

I hope this post gave you some ideas about how to schedule your literacy block in second grade! If you’re looking for literacy lesson plans to cut down on your planning and prep time, click on any of the following images to find out more:


Happy teaching!

3 Ways To Get Your Students to Use Math, Writing, and Reading Strategies Independently

Have you ever seen one of your students do something absolutely BRILLIANT…and then never do it again? I’ve seen some of my kids come up with awesome strategies on their own, only to completely forget about them the next time they’re tackling a similar problem. I’ve also seen kids apply a strategy to one particular task, and then not even attempt the same strategy in a slightly different context.

This can be super frustrating, especially because we spend so much time trying to teach kids strategies. We teach decoding strategies (“Look for a part of the word that you know”), comprehension strategies (“Picture this scene in your mind”), math computation strategies (“Try to make a ten”)…the list goes on.

We can teach strategies until we’re blue in the face, but it makes no difference if our students aren’t using them. So how can we get our kids to a) remember strategies and b) apply them in a variety of contexts? Here are 3 things I do to help my kids hang onto and apply strategies:




Explicitly State The Strategy At The Beginning and End Of A Lesson

When I plan minilessons (whether for reading, writing, or math), I try really hard to distill them to one key point. I ask myself, “What is the one strategy I really want kids to take away from this lesson?” This helps me focus my lesson and focus my students’ attention. I come up with one phrase or sentence that states, in a kid-friendly way, what I want my kids to be able to do after the minilesson. I try to keep it short, too. (I teach primary-aged kiddos!)

Once I have my strategy “catch phrase,” I make sure to explicitly state the strategy I’m teaching at the beginning and end of the lesson.  The rule of primacy states that people tend to remember best information that they hear first and last. I structure my lessons like this:

  • State the strategy I’m going to teach very clearly (Example:  “Today I’m going to show you how I solve two-digit addition problems by turning one number into a ‘ten’.”)
  • Instruct students in how I use the strategy
  • Restate the strategy again (Example: “Today I showed you how I add two-digit numbers by making one number a ‘ten.'”)

I almost always use this structure of, “Today I want to show you how to (accomplish said task) by (using said strategy).” This structure tells kids not only what strategy they should be using, but when/why they should be using it.

Another great activity to add into this structure is to have the kids restate the strategy in their own words to a partner. This is a quick way to get kids talking and see how they understood the lesson.


State Aloud What You See Students Doing, Right After They Do It

When your students are working independently (and hopefully using the strategies you’ve taught), closely watch what they’re doing. When you see a child use a strategy, instead of giving generic praise, restate what the child just did.

As a reading specialist, I do this a lot to reinforce my instruction of reading strategies. The other day, I saw one of my students blend two sounds to make a syllable. This is something I absolutely want her doing – it’s one of the key foundational skills for reading in Spanish! I didn’t stop her mid-book, but after she was done reading, I returned to the page where she used the strategy. I said something like, “When you got to the word ____, you weren’t sure what it said. So you made the sounds for these two letters and put them together to make __. Then you knew the word was _____!  Blending the sounds together really worked for you.”

Sometimes kids don’t realize that they’re using a strategy, even if they’re using it brilliantly. Stating aloud what you see them do can help your students become more aware of their strategy use (and hopefully repeat the same behavior in the future).


Make Kids Aware of How Their Peers Are Using Strategies

Catching kids being good and pointing it out to the entire class is something that we do quite frequently. You can also apply this same technique to help kids learn and use strategies!

When I notice a child using a particular strategy effectively, I try to point it out to other students. I also try to help my students make connections by saying things like, “Do you remember the ‘get to a ten’ strategy we practiced when adding numbers?  I just noticed Samantha using it to subtract! She took the same strategy and used it in a different way.”

If my students are working at their seats and I’m walking around the room, I might say, “Wow, Colin, I see you are (achieving goal) by (using strategy). That’s really working for you.” Then, other nearby students overhear and can try the strategy too.

Sometimes if many kids in the class are struggling with a task, I pause and ask for their attention. Then, I state a strategy that one particular student is using successfully. Or…confession here…I tell a little white teacher lie! If all of my kids are totally stuck on something, I’ll say, “You know, I saw someone try ______, and that was really working for them!” (even if I haven’t seen anyone trying the strategy!) Yes, I know, shame on me for fibbing, but this has helped my kids get back on track on more than one occasion!

The “wrap up” portion of a lesson is another great time to draw kids’ attention to strategies their peers used. You can point out what you noticed, have kids share about their own strategies, or even have kids share what they saw other students doing.

Other IdeasReadingStrategyCardRingsEdited

There are tons of other great ways to get kids using strategies. Anchor charts and strategy card rings (like the one pictured, from my 2nd grade reading workshop units) also work really well.

What would you add to this list? How do your get your kids to actually use the strategies you teach them?


Why I Don’t Use Sentence Fixing with My Students

Do you give your students sentence fixing activities to complete?  You know, the ones where you provide a sentence that’s written and punctuated incorrectly, and they have to fix it?  Sometimes these activities are referred to as D.O.L. (Daily Oral Language).  D.O.L., sentence fixing, or whatever you want to call it is a pretty common way to teach grammar.  I have done these exercises with my kiddos, and I actually remember doing lots of them as a student, too.  But…bad news, friends!  Sentence fixing is not an effective way to teach grammar!!


Let me back up a little here.  This past summer, I finished packaging my writing curriculum series for first grade and for second grade.  My writing units follow a writing workshop model.  Each unit focuses on a single genre, and students are often free to choose their own writing topics.  

I know that some other writing workshop programs really don’t advocate teaching grammar at all, because they don’t view it as an “authentic” part of writing.  Which, honestly, I don’t completely agree with.  I am not a grammar junkie (it’s not my favorite thing to teach), but the fact is that kids need practice with grammar skills.  (By the way, when I say grammar, I am lumping together teaching kids about capitalization, punctuation, parts of speech, etc.)  

I am all about integrating grammar instruction into authentic writing activities.  For example, if you’re teaching kids how-to writing, teach them how to include commas in a list of supplies that the reader will need.  However, a minilesson here or there isn’t really enough to give kids the extended practice that they need to master a skill.  So when I created my first and second grade writing units, I knew I wanted to include grammar exercises to reinforce the skills taught in the minilessons.

When I wrote the grammar exercises, I included lots of sentence fixing practice.  Now, I’ve gotta be honest here – the little reading specialist alarm that I have in the back of my mind was going off while I did this.  I knew that sentence fixing wasn’t the very best way to teach grammar, but I wasn’t entirely sure what else to do instead to help supplement the grammar lessons in my writing series.  So I included sentence fixers in my grammar activities, and I published the units.

Fast forward a bit to my district’s reading specialist professional development at the beginning of the school year.  One of the topics we touched on was (can you guess?) sentence fixing!  The literacy director in my district (who I really respect and admire) shared this document with us.  It’s all about why traditional grammar exercises (like sentence fixing) do not work, and what we should be doing instead.  Here are my major takeaways from that document and what the literacy director said:

– Sentence fixing is not effective for several reasons.  First, we want to show our students examples of good writing, not bad writing!  Second, it’s not engaging.  Third, research shows that using sentence fixing activities does not result in students applying these same skills in their own writing (and that’s what really counts, right?!).

– Students need to see examples of good grammar, good use of capitalization, and good punctuation, and they need opportunities to apply these skills to their own writing.  We need to point out how and why published authors choose punctuation marks in the context of real texts.  We need to talk to them about why published authors follow grammar rules and what effect it has on us, as readers.  And we also need to give our kids opportunities to go try out grammatical structures, different punctuation, and capitalization in their own writing.  Basically, kids need to see and use grammar in real contexts.

Okay.  So as you can imagine, I started feeling a teeeensy bit guilty about all those sentence fixers in my writing units.  Our literacy director did point out, however, that doing some sentence fixing is completely fine – we just need to show kids examples of correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar before we ask them to fix incorrect usage.

With that in mind, I’ve revised the grammar/language arts exercises in all of my first grade and second grade writing units.  I still do have some sentence fixing in those exercises, because I know that kids do need to practice their editing skills.  However, I created a format that forces kids to take note of examples of correct usage in correctly written sentences, and only then are they asked to fix an incorrectly written sentence.  Here’s an example from Second Grade Unit 5:

The first two sentences use possessives correctly.  Circle the apostrophes.  Then, fix the last sentence.
That is Michael’s tennis racket.
Courtney’s book is on the floor.
Fix:  I saw Elizabeths tablet on the table yesterday.

This particular activity is timed so that the day after you teach a minilesson on possessives, this grammar exercise follows up with further practice.  This is intended to honor the idea that kids need to practice grammar skills in context (i.e. during the minilesson and writing workshop time) but also provides them with follow-up reinforcement.  In addition to this type of exercise, I’ve also included a variety of quick activities that are designed to be engaging and cover Common Core language skills.  These exercises (like “find the pattern”) also expose students to examples of well-written sentences.  There is a quick daily grammar exercise for each day in each unit, which is more than enough for the entire school year!

So, if you own one of my first or second grade units (or the bundles), you will see that when you log into your Teachers Pay Teachers account and click on “My Purchases,” there is red text below the unit(s) that says “Newly Revised Re-Download.” This just means that you can redownload the unit for free and check out the changes I’ve made (and I certainly hope you will consider using the new activities with your students!).

Thanks for bearing with me; I know this was sort of a long post!  If you have any comments or ideas to share about how you make grammar instruction fun and authentic for your students, please comment below.  

Happy teaching!

Meaningful End-Of-Unit Projects

Hey there!  Today I’m blogging about something related to one of my very favorite teaching topics – integrated/thematic units!  When I was in the classroom, creating integrated units was one of my very favorite things to do.  I love tying science and social studies learning into literacy instruction (and math-, when possible).  When my kids are reading, writing, and learning about a topic or theme throughout the school day, they learn so much more vocabulary and gain so much more knowledge than if we are reading random texts during the literacy block and studying a topic only during science and social studies time.  

But moving on from my love affair with integrated units…one of the most important parts (in my opinion) of an integrated unit is the final project!  In a good final project, kids show what they’ve learned.  But in a great final project, kids share what they’ve learned with a real audience and for a real purpose!

Some of the end-of-unit projects I’ve done include:
– Making posters with healthy eating tips and placing them in the school hallways (from my food and farm unit)
– Making books about a topic of study and reading them to younger students or their parents
– Creating a class book about a topic and placing it in the classroom or school library
– Writing letters to the principal or someone in the community to share information and suggestions about how to solve a problem
– Having students participate in a community service project (from my giving project unit
– Helping students create a class video about a topic, for sharing with parents or other students in the school

Sometimes I’ve found that these projects don’t always make a great assessment for the unit – because they don’t thoroughly assess students’ understanding of the topics covered in the unit.  In these cases, I have students complete a quiz or other small project in addition to the more “meaningful” final project for a real audience and a real purpose.  This allows me to get an accurate picture of students’ learning while still providing a meaningful end-of-unit activity.

One of the best parts of developing a meaningful end-of-unit activity is that you can talk about it throughout the entire unit!  When I introduce a unit, I mention what we will be doing at the end in a way that gets the kids excited and looking forward to the project.  This also helps with motivation during the unit (“Why are we learning ____?” “So that we can _____ when we do our final project!” 

Do you create projects or assessments for your students that have a real audience and a real purpose?  Share your ideas below!

Happy teaching!

More Effective Partner Talk

Happy Saturday and happy three day weekend!  Having Labor Day off is always sooo nice after the beginning of the school year. 🙂

You might already know that I also write on the “Who’s Who and Who’s New” collaborative blog, and today I’m teaming up with a few of the other bloggers for a little fun Labor Day Weekend blog hop!  Each one of us will be sharing an idea and a freebie on the topic of student collaboration.

My experience is in the primary grades, and getting young kids to productively work together has always been challenging for me!  But when the little ones do work together well, it’s such a valuable learning experience for them.  

A “turn and talk” or “Think-Pair-Share” is a great collaborative talking activity that can be used in any lesson, any subject area.  You simply ask the kids a question, give them a moment to think, and then have them turn and talk about the question with a partner.  It sounds simple…but doesn’t always go that smoothly with primary kiddos!  Read on for some ideas to help make partner talk more effective.

One challenge I’ve had is that once you even mention that the students will be doing a turn and talk, kids will immediately stop listening and start trying to find a partner.  And then they have no idea what they’re supposed to be talking about!  Here’s what I did to get around this:

1.  Pose the question, just as you would any question:  “I want you to think about this question for a minute:  How would the book have ended differently if the main character didn’t apologize?”

2.  Pause and give students a moment to think.

3.  Give them the “turn and talk” cue:  “Turn and talk with a partner about how you think the book would have ended differently.” (Even if they stop listening after you say “turn and talk,” they’ll at least have heard the question one time!)

Another challenge I had was that when the kids started to talk, one child would do all the talking and the other one would just nod and not say anything – not necessarily because they didn’t want to participate, but because they had intended to say what the first person already said.  One idea to help prevent this from happening is to be very intentional about the kinds of questions you ask.  Open ended questions are best for turn and talk activities.  You can also quickly assign roles for each partner.  For example…

– “Describe the water cycle with your partner.  You should take turns each telling a step” instead of “Describe the water cycle with your partner.”

– “With your partner, make a prediction about what will happen next in the book.  One person can make the prediction and the other person can try to think of some evidence in the text to support that prediction” instead of “Tell your partner what you think will happen next in the book.”

When I was teaching second grade, I also found that using sentence starters to guide partner talk was really helpful.  One person responds to the question, and the second person uses one of these sentence starters to respond to his/her partner.  Here’s a list of “Ways to Respond to a Partner” that you can print and hand out to students or display under a projector during turn and talk activities. Click on the image to download for free!

Graphics by Creative Clips & Melonheadz Illustrating

What other great tips do you have for making turn and talks effective?  Comment below, and then hop on over to Amy’s blog for more tips and a freebie about having students work together!

Have a wonderful and relaxing long weekend!