A new guide for guided reading: More guided, more reading.

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Date: Feb. 2019
From: Practical Literacy(Vol. 24, Issue 1)
Publisher: Australian Literacy Educators' Association
Document Type: Essay
Length: 1,969 words
Lexile Measure: 1350L

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Guided reading and particularly the use of levelled texts has become the norm in many classrooms as a way of differentiating reading instruction in the classroom. But is it delivering on its promise? Is the demand for compliance having a negative impact on innovation? And is it time to work smarter not harder?

Guided reading claims to provide a means for delivering differentiated reading instruction. Differentiation requires teachers to modify instruction to suit the range of student abilities at their year level. Guided reading traditionally meant grouping students of similar reading ability together and matching them to a text at their level, a process known as levelling. 'During guided reading, teachers monitor student reading processes and check that texts are within students' grasp, allowing students to assemble their newly acquired skills into a smooth, integrated reading system' (Clay, 1994, p. 17).

But there are problems:

1. Readability is only one criterion on which to make a suitable text selection for a reader. Students will work harder at texts they want to read, even when those books are slightly beyond their initial grasp. Guthrie and Humenick (2004) found self-selected reading to be twice as powerful as teacher-selected reading in developing motivation and comprehension.

2. Guided reading assumes that because students' reading ability is similar that they have similar needs as a reader. Prolonged grouping based on fluency alone can be demoralising for students with high level comprehension skills and poor decoding skills while hyperlexic students may be masking other instructional needs.

3. Ability groupings don't provide role models for poor readers and restrict the need for talking about thinking for advanced readers. Ability groups can also be difficult to supervise and result in increased behaviour management issues.

4. Students reading goals can become more about achieving levels than engaging with ideas and satisfying interests.

5. Scaffolding is better than levelling (Scran, 2016). As Pondiscio and Mahnken (2014) note, 'Levelled reading is intuitive and smartly packaged (who wants kids to read "frustration level" books?), but its evidence base is remarkably thin. There is much stronger research support for teaching reading with complex texts.'

There are three things that teachers can do very quickly to overcome the shortfalls in the implementation of guided reading:

1. increase opportunities for students to engage with self-selected texts,

2. scaffold complex texts for a variety of learners, and

3. group students in ways that promote focussed dialogic exchanges.

Self-selected texts

Reading at your level should be about consolidation, not acceleration. Students need opportunities to apply newly learnt skills to their own independent reading choices. Self-selected texts are literally the best option when it comes to recreational reading. When students do this independently, it reduces the workload of the teacher and increases the benefits to the student.

When students are not self-selecting effectively, levelling may be necessary. There is enough evidence to suggest levelling may lead to gains in the short term for some students; however, delaying appropriate student self-selection could be detrimental to long term reading development.

Boushey and Moser (2014) include sustained silent reading in their daily literacy routine, 'The Daily 5'. They have elevated it from the 1990s version by doing a great deal to ensure students actually read during this reading time. They have coined the term 'reading stamina' to highlight the level of intensity that is required to make sustained silent reading an effective strategy. The use of explicitly negotiated expectations and protocols goes a long way to ensuring this is a productive experience (Goss, et al., 2017). Gains from self-selected sustained reading result from increased frequency, duration and intensity of reading experiences.

Scaffolding complex texts

Rather than using multiple levelled texts, targeted reading time may be better utilised by increasing the accessibility of a single focus text (Donnelly, 2010; Hamilton-Smith et al., 2012). Scaffolding focus texts makes it possible to instruct groups with varying levels of fluency and skills.

* Introduce a weekly focus text on a Friday to all learners. Provide them with an audio file of the text (outsource the creation of this to a tech savvy and confident reader, possibly from a higher year level) so they can listen to the text several times over the weekend. Here, you are pre-loading students with an abundance of prior knowledge so that they can experience what it feels like to be an expert reader during a reading lesson.

* Teach decoding of unfamiliar words from the focus text.

* Read through text (focus on sounds and sounding out) e.g. cover with a ruler and reveal slowly; identify known sounds; syllabify; have-ago

* Read on and suggest a likely sounding word but if none come to mind trade the unfamiliar word with a possible synonym

* Read over to increase fluency and improve comprehension

* Provide the student with a clue and then tell them the word

* Record the word on a flash card. Pre-read flash cards with the class prior to each successive reading of the focus text.

* Teach vocabulary separately and systematically to all learners.

* There is a documented vocabulary gap between learners with lots of literacy experiences and learners with fewer literacy experiences, which is noted at the onset of formal schooling and tends to get bigger as students get older.

* Text sampling. Reduce the size of the text being studied and then scan the text sample for big words. Teach the students how to deconstruct big words. Jointly suggest synonyms for big words that the child is familiar with. Use the big word in a sentence. Reward extended vocabulary use when it is applied to other oral or written tasks. Return to the text. Sample another section.

* Love words. All contexts and experiences are texts. Sample daily experiences for interesting and useful vocabulary.

* Further differentiation: Confident and/ or independent readers, given sufficient instruction, can engage in the processes described above independently. Have students work with a buddy. Support struggling readers and their buddies at the help desk but only if they require it.

* Increase the number of times students are required to read the text. Comprehension increases with multiple readings. 'Familiarity is the scaffolding that gives the child the mental resources required for managing both decoding and comprehension' (Knight, Galletly, Morris & Gargett, 2018, p. 9).

* Allow mixed ability pairs to read together using supported echo reading (SER) (Knight, Galletly, Morris & Gargett, 2018). SER builds reading skill and confidence, allowing the reader to maintain meaning while at the same time reducing the cognitive demands of fluency.

* Partner the child with a skilled reader.

* When the child is reading successfully, they lead while the skilled reader echoes quietly, a fraction of a second behind.

* When the child encounters difficulties with the words or sentences, the skilled reader keeps reading and leads. This supports the child to read faster and more proficiently.

* During SER, fluency is maintained and, along with the skilled reader's intonation, the meaning and context are more apparent to the reader.

* Heckelman (1969) claimed remedial readers who engaged in a similar practice for six weeks improved two grade levels in functional oral reading skills.

Gains from scaffolding complex texts result from students working within their zone of proximal development rather than their zone of actual development (Vygotsky, 1986). In other words, working beyond current competency levels accelerates learning.

Dialogic teaching

'Dialogic teaching occurs when students are enabled to engage in meaningfully, sustained passages of dialogic exchange, where teachers have critical roles in promoting talk to learn' (Jones, Simson & Thwaite, 2018, p. 4). In fact, it is not the size of the group that matters at all but rather the level of sustained dialogic exchanges it allows. All things considered, pairs and triads probably work best in ensuring everyone contributes while whole class sharing sessions allow insights and new understandings to be shared with all class members. Having negotiated a line of inquiry, a class can be guided through a range of dialogic exchanges. Each pair or triad, while essentially doing the same thing, may be engaged in substantially different conversations. The coming together at the end allows the potential to learn to expand significantly as each group has their thinking held up to critical scrutiny.

Dialogic teaching is not the easy option. From time to time students may have vastly different views on extremely sensitive topics. 'Dialogic teaching works most successfully in the context of a supportive community of learners, where explicit expectations regarding values such as respect, trust and empathy have been negotiated' (Jones, Simson & Thwaite, 2018, p. 12). Classroom protocols, explicitly negotiated with the class, need to be adhered to. Gains from dialogic teaching result from increases in the frequency and duration of academic learning time associated with engagement in interpreting and reinterpreting texts.


Going back to our original line of inquiry:

* Is traditional guided reading delivering on its promise?

* Is the demand for compliance having a negative impact on innovation?

* Is it time to work smarter not harder?

Firstly, for a very specific group of students who are currently not able to self-select recreational reading material, levelling may still be warranted. For the clear majority of students however, scaffolding complex texts will accelerate reading skills and self-selected sustained reading will consolidate them.

Secondly, demand for compliance should allow schools to critically reflect on current practices like guided reading, and work together to increase consistency which has shown to deliver improved learning outcomes for students. Compliance should also be a gateway to innovation. Restricting pedagogical skills of teachers by mandating the use of levelled texts or certain configurations of group work, for example, should be challenged, and never undertaken without a considerable audit of current effective practices especially from high functioning literacy classrooms.

Thirdly, it is always time to work smarter not harder.


Boushey, G. & Moser, J. (2014). The daily 5: Fostering literacy independence in the elementary grades (2nd ed). Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.

Clay, M. (1994). Reading recovery: A guidebook for teachers in training. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Donnelly, P. (2010). Inking Your Thinking. In QCAA (Ed.), Teaching reading and viewing: Comprehension strategies and activities for Years 1-9, (pp. 32-34). Brisbane, QLD: QCAA. Retrieved from https://www.qcaa.qld.edu.au/ downloads/p_10/engl_teach_read_view_comprehension.pdf

Goss, P., Sonnemann, J., and Griffiths, K. (2017). Engaging students: creating classrooms that improve learning. Grattan Institute.

Guthrie, J. T., & Humenick, N. M. (2004). Motivating students to read: Evidence for classroom practices that increase reading motivation and achievement. In P. McCardle, & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research (pp. 329-354). Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.

Hamilton-Smith, S., Gargett, P., Shaw, J., Harrison, C., Hewitt-Faix, C., Brodie, K. & Galletly, S. (2012). Reading-on-the-same-page: linger longer in the learning area. Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, 20 (3), i-xi.

Heckelman, R. G. (1969). A neurological-impress method of remedial-reading instruction. Academic Therapy 4 (4), 277-282.

Jones, P., Simpson, A. & Thwaite, A. (Eds.) (2018). Talking the talk: Snapshots from Australian classrooms. Newtown, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA).

Knight, B., Galletly, S., Morris, J. & Gargett, P. (2018). Reading instruction strategies to reduce cognitive load. Practical Literacy: The Early and Primary Years, 23 (2), 8-10.

Pondiscio, R. & Mahnken, K. (2014). Leveled reading: The making of a literacy myth. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Scran, D. (2016). Why Teachers Should Choose Scaffolding Over Leveling. Retrieved from https://www.activelylearn. com/post/why-teachers-should-choose-scaffolding-over-leveling

Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and Language (A. Kozulin, revised). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Pat Donnelly is a freelance literacy consultant working out of Brisbane. His experiences in education span more than thirty-five years over which time he has been a teacher, education adviser, Syllabus Writer, Regional Coordinator for the Arts and a Deputy Principal. Pat's other ALEA contributions include: Inking Your Thinking (2007); Word STUDY (2013); and Comprehension: Interrogating the text, not the child (2018). Email: pdonn12@gmail.com

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A571514230