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What’s the Big Idea? Weaving Together Common Threads in a Literacy Workshop

Posted by admin on Dec 17, 2020 12:38:20 PM

The following is a guest blog post from Maria Walther and Karen Biggs-Tucker, authors of the new book, The Literacy Workshop: Where Reading and Writing Converge.


When Maria and her first graders were immersed in the big idea of questioning, she read aloud the picture book, I Wonder (Holt, 2019). After enjoying this engaging book, she asked her learners, “Where do questions lead?” As you can see from her students’ responses on the chart, some smart thinking grew from this question.


It was curiosity and wonder that steered us toward the idea of literacy workshop. Then, the continued quest to find answers led us to write our book. As we put the finishing touches on The Literacy Workshop, we didn’t realize how much we would rely on “big idea thinking” while transitioning in and out of the various teaching contexts we’ve encountered during the pandemic. As students’ learning environments morphed into something neither of us had experienced before, we knew that the integrated nature of literacy workshop had the power to move their learning forward. (If you’re looking for resources to help you launch literacy workshop in any setting, check out this free guide!)

Focusing on interconnected big ideas invites learners to view the entire literacy landscape as they weave together the common threads of reading and writing. In this post, we’ll show you two ways that centering your students’ literacy learning on big ideas will support them (and you!) this year and in the future. At this point, you might be asking yourself, “What is a literacy workshop and what do you mean by big ideas?”

Literacy Workshop and Big Ideas

Literacy workshop happens when you merge your reading and writing workshops so that students spend extended time independently and/or collaboratively applying the strategies, skills, habits, and behaviors of literacy learners while engaged in the reciprocal processes of reading and writing. The strategies, skills, habits, and behaviors are demonstrated through big ideas.

To identify big ideas, take an in-depth look at your grade-level standards. Search for places to weave together the common threads of reading, writing, and sometimes (when it makes sense) other content areas. For instance, when launching literacy workshop, we infuse social-emotional competencies into literacy learning to consider how big ideas like interest, self-awareness, choice, and challenge lead to goal setting and agency. Once the literacy workshop is up and running, big ideas such as investigate and innovate further nudge students to use learner actions like reading, writing, and researching to reach their goals. Finally, there are standards-focused big ideas like theme, structure, author’s purpose, and style. Let’s take a peek into Karen’s classroom to see big ideas in action.

Big Ideas Provide Choice in Learner Actions

After Karen shared the picture book, Catch That Chicken! (Atinuke, 2020), with her 5th graders, Violet was curious. Well, that’s an understatement, she basically became obsessed with everything “chicken.” You can see this reflected in the illustrations that accompany her goals.


During literacy workshop time, she settled in with a stack of chicken-related books and resources. Once she had absorbed the information, she was ready to write. She wrote her own book entitled The Chicken Coop to share her newfound knowledge with students in the younger grades—a popular audience for Karen’s 5th grade writers. Because Violet had a choice in her learner actions, she was able to seamlessly integrate research, reading, and writing to learn and educate others about a topic of her choosing.

In case you’re wondering, chickens aren’t part of the 5th grade curriculum, but the big idea of structure is something Karen and her students explore during literacy workshop. When studying structure, Karen merged her reading and writing workshops, giving students extended time to delve into nonfiction text structures from both a reader’s and writer’s stance. So, when Violet’s interest was piqued by a read-aloud, she had the knowledge and the time to follow her own learning path. Violet's choice of learner actions led to a deeper understanding of nonfiction text structures and, as an added bonus, met the following standards:

  • Conduct a short research project
  • Integrate knowledge and skills
  • Locate answers to questions
  • Investigate different aspects of a topic
  • Draw information from multiple resources
  • Integrate information from several texts
  • Write knowledgeably about a subject

WOW! That’s a lot of eggs in one learning experience basket! (Pun intended!) Zeroing in on big ideas during literacy workshop makes room for students, like Violet, to lead their own learning. Big ideas can also help you plan instruction that is streamlined, focused, and clear.

Big Ideas Simplify Planning

Let’s say you want students to experience the big idea of author’s purpose. Instead of spending precious time designing separate reading and writing workshop plans, create one literacy workshop plan! With one big idea in mind, here’s what that process might look like:

Step 1: Write focus phrases that direct learners’ attention to both reading and writing.

Possible Focus Phrases for Author’s Purpose:
I wonder about why the author wrote the book.
I think about what the author wants me to learn, ponder, or do.
I keep my reasons in mind when I’m writing my own pieces.

Step 2: Select a mentor text or two. We chose the following two books for literacy workshop demonstration lessons because the author’s purpose for both was to tell the story of a community project. Plus, they both include an author’s note that provides additional insights and often leads to further inquiry.

Step 3: Design one, or a series of, demonstration lessons to highlight the big idea and guide learners to understand the focus phrases. Think about the best way to record students’ thinking and learning. With primary-grade learners, you might co-create an anchor chart; while middle-grade students could record their learning in a literacy notebook.

Step 4: Offer learners a choice of actions. In this case, we could see some learners rereading the books you shared along with other related texts while others are off researching possible community projects. A group of students might choose to collaboratively take action by planning and implementing their own project.

Step 5:Think about how you will support learners as they work. Will you sit among learners in small groups, beside them to confer? How will you share and celebrate their accomplishments?

Literacy learning based on big ideas helps students uncover connections and pursue deep understandings. If you’re debating about how you might try out some of these ideas—start the way we did by asking yourself, “I wonder . . .” We’d love to hear where your questions lead!


About the Authors

MariaWalther_HeadshotB10_19Teacher, author, literacy consultant, and children’s literature enthusiast, Maria Walther taught first grade for 34 years. She partners with teachers across the country to bring joy to their literacy instruction. The ideas she shares reflect her commitment to teaching, researching, writing, and collaborating with her colleagues.

Karen Biggs-Tucker-1Karen Biggs-Tucker is a teacher in St. Charles, IL where she has taught both second and fifth grade for 34 years. She recently finished her second professional book with Maria Walther titled The Literacy Workshop: Where Reading and Writing Converge. She believes in lifelong learning through reading, writing, researching, and then sharing that learning with others—just like her own students do in literacy workshop.






Topics: Literacy, Reading, Writing