Taking Guided Reading Instruction to the Next Level

In her last post, Next Step Guided Reading Assessment co-author Maria Walther shared her ideas about read-alouds with added instructional power. Now, Maria offers her take on using guided reading in the primary grades to move children into the complex texts.

How does guided reading help students read more complex texts?

The goal of guided reading is to nudge students toward independence, so that they can read and comprehend complex texts independently. Using the teaching context of guided reading as part of a comprehensive literacy framework, I can teach readers a particular skill or strategy in guided reading one day, and the next, I can introduce a more challenging text where readers then apply those strategies. Guided reading has always been about matching readers to texts. Teachers who know their students and are knowledgeable about books are able to ratchet up the challenge with various books, day by day.

Why do young readers need access to books they can read?

If a reader is struggling with multiple aspects of a text that is too hard, it’s too challenging for the teacher to prompt and scaffold at every point of need. The students simply shut down. In the primary grades, confidence reins. Young children—especially striving learners—have to believe that they are readers. When young readers encounter a text that is overwhelmingly hard, you can see the look in their eyes: fear and defeat. So, I know from experience that there is much faster progress when I give children a book they can read (with support), and then another book that they can read, and so on. Once I’ve hooked them, and they see themselves as readers, my job is easy! That is the goal of guiding readers—teaching readers how to solve problems on their own so that they can do it independently when reading more complex texts. Our role as primary grade teachers is to provide learners with a solid foundation. We’ve learned so much from Fountas and Pinnell’s work on how to prompt and scaffold a student at the point of difficulty. If we want children to be able to read complex texts independently, we have to provide them with the skills and strategies to do so.

How do you add another layer to guided reading?

In the era of higher standards, we can add another layer to our guided reading instruction. You could amplify comprehension conversations in the small guided-reading group. Let’s say you have a group of emerging readers. You’d scaffold, prompt, teach decoding strategies with an instructional-level text on Monday, and keep at it Tuesday and Wednesday. Then, on Thursday, you could reread a significantly more complex text that you’ve read to the whole class. After all, even emerging readers—especially ELLs—need to hear the language of more complex texts. In this small-group context, you can read a little bit of the text at a time, and talk about the concepts and vocabulary in the book with a very focused, intentional comprehension conversation. At K-2, in order to discuss texts with complex themes and ideas, you will sometimes HAVE to do the reading for them. So, in my opinion, a guided reading lesson could occasionally be reading aloud and guiding students in comprehending a text.

How does assessment help you know each of your reader’s strengths, struggles, and interests so you can make the best student-to-text match?

I think we are depending too much on individual assessments that are either too time-consuming or too narrow instead of giving multi-faceted assessments to the whole class and to individuals. For example, I give a reading-interest survey to my whole class at the beginning of the year. This allows me to quickly put books they want to read into their hands. You can also easily give a developmental word knowledge inventory to the whole class to better understand their grasp of phonics. With information about my learners’ stages of spelling development, I know which students I need to do a running record with right away to see if they are reading accurately and fluently, and to learn which decoding strategies they are or are not using. Of course, I’m also asking questions to assess their comprehension. With the results of these assessments in hand, I have a complete picture and can match both texts and instructional methods to my readers. For above-level readers, I might provide guidance in selecting texts and then monitor their progress with 1:1 conferences. Readers who are below-level will get a steady diet of instructional-level texts and lots of support during guided reading. They’ll also get an equal amount texts they can read independently so that they can increase their reading volume.

Small group guided reading lessons are just one thread in the complex web of primary-grade literacy instruction. Each year, we weave together a diverse group of young learners into a cohesive community of learners, writers, thinkers, and problem solvers, while at the same time teaching them the skills and strategies necessary to be passionate, thoughtful, and critical readers. Hmmm! No wonder I’m tired at the end of every day!

Photo courtesy of Maria Walther