What on earth is Guided Reading and why don’t teachers do it anymore?

Guided reading (GR) is, potentially, a very powerful approach that teachers can use to develop children’s literacy.

However, there aren’t many teachers who like GR. The reason for that is because it makes a mockery of classroom management.

On paper, the idea sounds easy. Guided reading (GR) means meeting with a small group of children at a similar reading level and guiding them through a manageable text while the rest of the class engage in a carousel of activities independently.

GR ensures that the reading experiences of children are meaningful, purposeful, and nonthreatening, and they experience success and enjoyment so that they will gradually develop greater independence and competence.

The idea is that GR enables teachers to become aware of and cater effectively for the diversity of understanding that children bring to a text. The teacher’s role is to scaffold literacy learning and to actively enhance children’s understanding.

It is intended to improve reading skills and comprehension whereby children move from teacher support to flying solo.

A text is selected specifically to provide just the right amount of challenge, and children are taught how to read and process text on a page with things to do before, during, and after reading.

It is part of a rich literacy design and enables you to address individual needs in a powerful way so that children can expand their reading power over time.

That’s the theory.

GR: The reality

But for anyone that has ever run a GR session you will know that they seldom run smoothly and not a lot actually gets done in 20-30 minutes, which is too long anyway. It’s more like a misguided reading session and frustrating for most of the class.

The intention might be that children can self-monitor, self-correct, and self-direct themselves when they are reading, but teaching is often on decontextualized skills and strategies in isolation with the teacher doing most of the work. Some reading groups often focus on low-level skills and over rely on levels and labels.

Although schools expect every teacher to be an aspirational outstanding teacher of reading, it’s no easy task.

GR is actually a pretty outdated model, narrow in focus and largely inefficient. Some hate it and Masten, 2013 thinks there are 5 reasons why we should ditch the GR model. She says GR:

  1. teaches children to dislike books
  2. is about teacher control
  3. stifles readers
  4. is boring
  5. does not teach reading

Actually, GR has very few supporters. Many say that their GR sessions don’t contribute to reading progress and carousel style GR doesn’t provide enough exposure to ‘good’ reading.

Some studies provide a limited body of evidence for the effectiveness of GR at improving reading ability in primary-aged children. There is evidence, however, that GR is a relatively effective intervention for children learning English as an additional language.

Now what?

But wait. If small group carousel guided reading isn’t working then we can’t just give up on it. With some careful tweaking, guided reading sessions can be the highlight of the day if we are clear on our purposes, principles, and practices.

The bottom-line is that we want to develop engaged, inquisitive, self-sustaining, joyful and comprehending readers. To achieve this, many see whole-class guided reading (WCGR) as the way to get there whereby everyone is immersed in the same text, not just a select few.

When we teach the whole class this means that every child can read with us more often and progress faster through more texts or longer texts. We are able to pitch high while providing quality scaffolding and support children in discovering layers of meaning through rich conversations about texts.

Importantly, we frequently read aloud in order to give children a model for their own independent reading. As research by the Teachers as Readers (TaRs) project shows, teachers need to be readers who read aloud and there is “considerable evidence that reading aloud to children enables them to process challenging content, text features and vocabulary.”

WCGR isn’t getting individual children taking it in turns to read, as this is a highly inefficient way of promoting reading fluency. According to Tim Shanahan, Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a better way is reading in pairs, choral reading, and repeated reading. WCGR massively benefits children because they benefit from our reading expertise and our targeted and open ended questioning.

We can readily share our more sophisticated explanations, we can model effectively, we can push, probe and provoke thinking, and provide dollops of feedback. Guiding a whole class is brilliant because we can showcase intonation, movement, volume and expression, and children can copy and paste our performances into their own. We can also actively monitor everyone, keep the engagement and pace going, and constantly push for high-quality responses.

The beauty of WCGR is that there is no formula or set structure with some ‘how to’ rules and bullet-points because every lesson is different. A whole-class session has to be flexible in the same way it would be for any other subject because it responds to content and the fluidity of children’s needs. There are a few ways to do it but ultimately, you have to make it your own.

Typically though, many WCGR sessions start with the teacher sharing what the children will be focusing on. They carefully select up to 4 key vocabulary words they want the children to learn that week and these are taught, over learnt and embedded throughout the rest of the week during VIPERS (vocabulary, inference, predict, explain, retrieve, summarise) or POWER (prove or predict, opinion, words, expression and fluency, retrieve) sessions and across the wider school day in different contexts.

In these WCGR sessions teachers cover fiction during week one, non-fiction in week two, poetry, songs, picture books, short films in week three and then this repeats to ensure children get access to a wide range of texts.

Every class is a hotchpotch of talent and abilities but rather than separate children into reading levels, readers should be mixed together so that there is a range of exchange and confidence can be shared. The text itself should provide plenty of challenge for everyone with regular paired discussions and independent follow-up tasks that integrate reading, writing and grammar.

And finally…

WCGR is a far more enjoyable model to follow than the old-school GR model because it promotes reading for pleasure, it supports Assessment for Learning massively and ensures that teaching is constantly updated and refined.

It puts reading up front and makes it visible to all and it makes teachers ‘reading teachers’ who become significant readers in their pupils’ lives so they can help them inhabit texts.

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