How I Balance Direct Instruction and Student-Driven Workshops

Using accordion-style pacing—pressing students into small groups, then pulling the whole class together for direct instruction—teachers can create a rich environment for building key literacy skills.

June 11, 2024
CSA-Archive / iStock

Like most teachers, I’ve often thought about the most effective way to engage my students with important content and skills while nurturing a collaborative classroom culture. Do I use a student-driven, workshop approach? How about a traditional, teacher-led approach? Strategically implementing a rhythm balancing student-led small groups and teacher-led direct instruction helps me address my students’ diverse needs and create a culture of learning.

Teach like you play the accordion! 

Planning for this rhythm is a little like playing the accordion. Sound is produced on an accordion by pulling and pressing the bellows while the right hand plays a melody on a keyboard and the left hand works the bass buttons. Just like teaching—a lot is going on at once.

Pressing the accordion: About three days a week, I use a rhythm of “pressing and pulling the accordion” for small and whole group structures to create a predictable routine. The routine goes like this: When the whole class is reading a book, I assign reading homework that’s due three days of the week—let’s call these days 1, 3, and 5 (see my Weekly Reading Rhythm graphic).

This reading schedule provides two days for my students to do the assigned reading, and since they will meet with their small group when the reading is due, students are accountable to each other, and it helps them get their work done on time. I use this small group structure when I want my students to focus on initial comprehension, have peer-to-peer discussion, and create a safe learning community. 

For example, my 10th-grade English students read Don Quixote during our Storytelling unit. Three times a week, at the start of class, they gather in small groups for a 10-minute routine:

  • Warm-up. Discuss the gist of the reading homework and ask and answer clarifying questions. 
  • Vocabulary. Each student shares three to five vocabulary words that are new and/or interesting. Then, as a group, they come to a consensus on a set of words to add to their glossary. They define the word from context or use a dictionary if needed.

This is a great time for students to support each other. It’s highly collaborative, text-based, and academic. Multilingual learners can use social language to support meaning-making, and these frequent opportunities to use oral language support language development. 

You can try this at the beginning of any class. During the first 10 minutes of class, invite small groups of students to work through a predictable routine like this one while you check for initial understanding and support students who need it. You can encourage conversations by posting sentence starters or question stems on anchor charts around the room. Highlight when students use these supports, and it soon becomes natural for them. You can also think strategically about how you group students. I often use mixed groups so that students can learn from each other, but I group students by similar needs or interests, too.

Pulling the accordion: Next, I pull the students together for 10–15 minutes of direct instruction. We might discuss common vocabulary words that came up among the groups and home in on enriching vocabulary with a morphology routine.

For example, Don Quixote is called “The Knight of the Rueful Figure.” We discuss possible meanings of rueful based on the context. We think it means a pathetic or sorry-looking person. To check our understanding, we chunk the word by syllables: rue/ful. We know that -ful is a suffix that means “full of” or “tending to.” We use a dictionary to look up the word rue, which means “sorrow” or “remorse.” Putting the root and suffix together, we see that this word goes beyond Don Quixote’s external characteristics and speaks to his internal character.

Any content-area teacher can use this approach by bringing students together as a whole class to address the trends that surfaced during small groups or spend some time reinforcing a skill or concept. Morphology, or studying word parts, is especially helpful to multilingual learners because 60 percent of English words have Latin or Greek roots. If students can understand these parts, teachers can help them apply and transfer this knowledge to understand more words.

Pressing the accordion: Once we are all clear on initial comprehension, it’s time for closer reading. I display and read aloud a text-based discussion question connected to the overall topic. For example, my students might discuss one of these focusing questions about Don Quixote: “In this passage, what do we learn about Don Quixote’s internal and external characteristics?” “What is ironic about Don Quixote’s actions and his vow to chivalry?” Once again, students discuss in small groups for about 10 minutes, and I join as many small groups as I can.  

Pulling the accordion: Finally, we wrap up the class with a whole group debrief of the discussion question. Since I’ve spent time with some or all of the groups, I have a good understanding of important points each group can share with the whole class. 

Routines for Engagement, Learning, and Accountability

The other two days of the week, we work with supplemental texts related to our topic. For example, while reading Don Quixote, we learn about storytelling techniques, the antihero archetype, and how the novel has influenced modern storytelling. Usually, these in-depth days include a fun, social, instructional protocol like Give-One-Get-One-Move-On.  

It doesn’t take long before students begin their small group discussions as soon as they enter class. I especially love how this approach provides opportunity and equitable learning for all my students. I know this is an effective approach because it’s not unusual for my students to leave class still discussing the text—imagine my delight to hear students arguing about whether Don Quixote was the wisest crazy person or the craziest wise person as they walk out of the classroom.

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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