The Secret to Fitting It All In

By Michelle Ruhe, 12/29/23

Think for just a minute about all there is to fit into the literacy day. We know read alouds are important.  So is explicit instruction in several areas, as well as the immense engagement that inquiry-based learning brings.  There are a ton of things to teach the whole group for sure, but student needs are so vast that small group work is also imperative.  And the standards! There are SO. MANY. STANDARDS.  To top it all off, many teachers have at least portions of a scripted curriculum they now must follow.  With The  National Reading Panel’s (2000) recommendations about the 5 pillars of instruction at today’s forefront (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension), the most often-heard question that comes from teachers is, very understandably, how do I fit it all in?  

In the teaching day, fitting it all in can seem next to impossible.
Teachers have so much to fit in every day! Krakenimages.com @Depositphotos

No doubt, you’ve played around with your schedule more than a few times.  But it never seems quite right.

Most likely, you’ve looked to Google, Pinterest, or even some version of Chat GPT for the solution.  You may have even downloaded example literacy block schedules.  

But every time, you come up short.  Something is always missing. 

Why?

Because the thing that’s almost always missing–or given just a few scant minutes–is writing instruction.  And when I say writing instruction, I don’t mean just a couple of dictated sentences or a few lessons on filling out graphic organizers or writing 5-paragraph essays.  Those are merely assignments.  I’m talking about real, true writing instruction.  The kind that takes devoted time.  The kind that supports reading and thinking.  The kind that’s fully supported by research.

So, want to know the secret to fitting it all in?  

Wait for it….

Here it is.

You can’t.

You can’t, that is, if you plan for the same amount of minutes every single day devoted to each component.  Or if you spend disproportionate amounts of time on only certain things because the curriculum you’ve been handed says so (and not what your data tells you).   And not if you don’t think creatively with a schedule you’ve been given by your admin.

But I promise you, there are lots of ways to fit it all in.

How?  

Frist, by learning to be ok with being flexible.  

By understanding that being flexible doesn’t mean you’re breaking any “rules.”

Image from Vitalik19111992 via Depositphotos

So often, teachers just want to be told “do it this way.”  As (mostly) type 1 perfectionists, teachers just want to be sure that what they’re doing is right.  But teaching is not black and white. There’s so much at play–especially vast student need.

Want to see an example of flexibly fitting it all in?

Read on!

Let’s imagine you’re a third grade teacher, and your administrator has dictated that you have a 60 minute reading block and a 60 minute writing block.

Not much to go on, right?  

Here’s one way to break this up, making sure to fit in all the critical components of literacy instruction, including the time and attention writing deserves:

3-5 minutes:  Phonemic awareness

Just a few minutes a day of super explicit practice, if your assessments show it’s needed, is plenty. This also is not the only time of the day to practice phonemic awareness (keep reading).  Furthermore, 3rd graders will likely have phonemic awareness in place by now, and research does not support the idea of spending time on “advanced phonemic awareness.” 

15 minutes: Interactive/shared writing 

This small but mighty activity packs in phonemic awareness, phonics, conventions, grammar, and serves as a model for your students’ writing.  You might write a summary or book response together, create the setting of a new story when teaching narrative writing, or compose a persuasive letter, to name just a couple of ideas.  This is the vehicle for your writing lesson.  

30 minutes:  Writing

In this example, you’ve already taught the lesson through shared writing.  Now it’s time for kids to write.  While they work, you’re conferring, which gives you a very strong pulse with real-time data on what your students are doing and are ready for next.  You’re also working with small groups, providing targeted instruction and helping kids set and track goals.  This is not something your scripted curriculum could ever tell you, which makes this component a big missing piece in many classrooms.

All the while, students are doing big thinking work:  generating ideas, organizing their thoughts and their words, refining their vocabulary, applying phonemic awareness skills (told you it would come back), phonics patterns, grammar, and conventions.  

10 minutes:  Mentor sentence

This routine is powerful for explicit grammar and conventions instruction.  It’s also beautiful for syntax development and a great way to build vocabulary.  You might well also pull in more phonics and phonemic awareness. Because you’re doing so much with conventions here, fluency instruction is a natural part of the work. 

Most important, showing kids how to write strong sentences within the context of actual writing, not isolated examples far removed from authentic text, is the key to transfer.  It’s also a phenomenal discussion-generator, as there’s a ton of talk involved in studying sentences to arrive at deeper meaning.  Where do mentor sentences come from?  Your read alouds, mentor texts, or even from your content texts. Materials you’re already using.

15 minutes:  Interactive read aloud

This is your powerhouse.  Everything reading and writing can be taught through read alouds.  They’re incredible tools for building a robust vocabulary and are full of figurative language. 

And if you want to pack an even bigger punch, your read alouds can be connected to your content studies, especially if you create small text sets.  This of course also builds academic vocabulary and provides valuable background knowledge (the term du jour for this is “knowledge building”).  Comprehension work is enormous with read alouds, and the opportunity for response, discussion, and assessment is unlimited.  And of course, you are providing an excellent model of fluency with read alouds.

15 minutes:  Phonics

You may need a little more time for this (in which case removing that 5 minutes for phonemic awareness if it’s not needed or shortening independent reading and/or writing by a just a few minutes will give it to you.  But this must be data-driven and must be explicitly taught. 

Remember that shared writing, if you’re strategic, will also embed phonics, and kids will do nothing but apply phonics skills as they read and write independently.  Application of phonics skills to their own independent work is, of course, the whole goal. Whether you do differentiated phonics instruction like Words Their Way or whole-group lessons, this time is a must.  It’s also another place phonemic awareness skills are embedded. 

30 minutes:  Reading

You’ve already done a great deal of reading instruction with your interactive read aloud, and you could (and should!) also weave reading instruction into your content study time, too. Your social studies and science areas of study are full of texts to be read–use those as the texts to teach reading skills!  Who doesn’t love a two birds, one stone opportunity??

This can mean both including informational texts in the “reading books” and teaching reading using the regular textbooks from the subjects. If kids are going to practice prediction or summarizing or any other reading skill, why can’t they do that within Chapter 4 of the classroom science text?” 

Tim Shanahan

Which means your focused reading lessons are very short–ideally, about 10 minutes.

The rest of this time, as kids read independently, you are again conferring with students for super targeted instruction and meeting with small strategy groups.  

See? Fitting it all in IS possible!

That’s just one example. (Want to see MORE examples? Access my FREE guide where I share 5 ways to work both a 90 and 120 minute schedule that truly hits it all!) Another day, you might have a longer read aloud time to provide room for something like Socratic Seminar and a shorter independent reading time.  Or you might do a longer reading time and shorten the writing time a bit.  You will likely be able to thread reading and writing into your content study time, which is a huge time-saver (and the whole premise of the book The Writing Revolution).

Or, my most favorite and by far the most efficient I’ve seen:  combine reading and writing into just one lesson instead of two, which opens up a lot more time for small group work, conferring, and foundational skills.  I learned how to do this from Ellin Oliver Keene, in her book The Literacy Studio (highly recommend!).

Image from onlyblacktv.bk.ru via Depositphotos

So you see, the secret to fitting it all in is flexibility.  You just have to know what your kids need and what your biggest priorities are to help you streamline.  Knowing where you’re going helps you choose the best tools for lesson delivery.  It also helps you understand how to both weave lessons and subjects together (like reading and writing or literacy and content instruction) and know how to divide your time.  

Is the idea of fitting it all in big on your wish list? Could you use a thinking partner to help you figure out how to do it?  I’m here for you! Send me a DM on Instagram, let me know in the Facebook group, or send me an email! And don’t forget to grab the FREE GUIDE where I share 5 unique ways to fit it all in with both a 90 and 120 minute schedule, along with advice about ways to further make them work for your busy day!


Related Posts:  Getting to Know Your Reader and Writers to Save Time Later, Are You Inadvertently Causing Your Own Time Frustrations?, Lesson Planning Tips that Help You Do More in Less Time


Who is Coach from the Couch??  I’m Michelle, a 24-year veteran educator, currently a K-5 literacy coach.  I continue to learn alongside teachers in classrooms each and every day, and it’s my mission to support as many teachers as I can.  Because no one can do this work alone. I’m available to you, too, through virtual coaching calls


Or, consider joining my Facebook community–a safe, supportive environment (really!)  where you can ask questions, learn ideas, and share your thoughts among other literacy-loving educators! 

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