Guided Reading – What’s it for? Part 2

Lindsay Pickton

Lindsay spoke on the purpose and the value of Guided Reading at Oxford University Press’ English Conference, Passing on the Passion, in London on 16th June. Here he addresses the most common concerns and teases out answers to these questions in follow up to his seminar. You’ll find a selection of resources and videos from the day on our website.

I love guided reading. But we have to understand and accept that it doesn’t help all aspects of reading; it’s one tool at our disposal, and no single tool can ever deal with all jobs. You don’t use a spanner to wire a plug, but that doesn’t mean you should throw your spanners away!

So let’s first revise what it isn’t good for.

In my experience, it is close-to useless for the development of word-reading skills. You can monitor children’s ability to look at the text and read words aloud, but if a child gets stuck, you have to help them in front of the others: your focus is diluted; they might be embarrassed; the others could well be bored. If you want to help children read the words on the page, I find nothing beats 1-1 support.

Ditto “getting through” text: if you want to tackle a novel, I would suggest that 20 minutes a week is inefficient – especially if that short period is discussion-dominated. Have a class novel you read every day; have a novel that you study every day during English lessons; tell the children to read the next two chapters before the next guided session … Just don’t try to get through a novel in guided reading time alone!

Similarly, reading stamina is not best-served in short, friendly discussion groups. Try using tough, wordy texts in topic lessons and challenge collaborative groups to extract as much information as possible, against the clock; then have them compose quiz questions to test each other. This gets them used to reading difficult material quickly, but in a fun and supportive way – while still learning about Egyptians or habitats or dinosaurs.

What is guided reading for? I find it effective for two things in particular: the development of comprehension through discussion, and the development of pleasure in reading.

My faith in the former can be summed up like this:
“Talk to your partner about Max’s behaviour in that scene … What did you two think? … What did you two think about what they just said?” And so on, and on. Children can’t rehearse their thoughts with a partner in a 1-1 read; they certainly can’t build on – or disagree with – the thoughts of others. You can do this whole-class, of course, but there’s a lot to put in place to stop dominant children doing most of the work, quiet children disappearing and harder-to-engage children daydreaming!

(I’ve been told a number of times that, “we develop comprehension through written comprehension exercises – and it works.” I know that this practice can help with the SATs paper, but what’s it doing to their passion for reading? Let’s remember that enjoying reading is the key factor in academic success.)

Once we focus on understanding through discussion, we might start to see that guided reading is something that all children can benefit from. I’ve been told that YR/1 children can’t do guided reading; likewise, struggling older readers. What we are talking about is the inability to word-read effectively – but I don’t believe Guided Reading is for word-reading at all. If word-reading is an issue, they need 1-1 practice and support for that skill; in guided reading, why not just read to them, and then discuss the text as a group? I still use the term, ‘guided reading’, but what I really mean is, guiding comprehension.

My ideal group discussion session is one that feels as much as possible – in an age-appropriate way – like an adult book-group meeting: people come together, talk, and go away understanding the text more, and if not enjoying the text, then at least enjoying the discussion. Some children will need to be read to; some can read the text before the session; sometimes there will be reading during. Whichever, the goal is greater understanding through collaboration.

I used to prepare questions for Guided Reading sessions, but I now reject that approach. I find it can lead to a desire to work through the questions without really being clear that fullest understanding has been achieved (and be in no doubt, deep understanding is required, not just for SATs, but also for true pleasure in reading). Instead, I read the text and try to pre-empt the things that the group might not grasp; one excellent head teacher recently described it as, “not planning guided reading, but preparing for it.” Exactly. And if children don’t get something, don’t move on; keep pushing for evidence, guiding their comprehension. If we build on misconception, we risk missing the entire point.

Now, try doing this while making notes, ticking boxes, record-keeping. I can’t. Not only do I think it’s impossible to lead and guide a proper discussion while scribbling things down, I think it could inhibit some children’s risk-taking, and may even be seen as rude. I know many schools require record keeping from Guided Reading sessions, but I want to challenge this; assessment that gets in the way of potentially dramatic learning? Are those record sheets more important than children’s actual progress? If we are keeping a record of children’s reading progress, remember that this is not limited to Guided Reading; think of the reading that happens in humanities and science, the self and peer assessment of writing, the 1-1 reading that many receive, their home experience, their response to the class story, and so on. Don’t assess guided reading: assess reading. Pick about six children each day and scribble notes/ tick boxes at the end of the day – aim for a minute per child: it’ll build up, over the terms, to a real portrait of every reader.

So now we are deeply immersed in wonderful discussion with a small group – what are the others doing? Working their way through the meticulously-planned-and-resourced carousel that is slowly destroying your love of teaching?
How about we stop thinking about special activities for guided reading time, and look at things that children need to do independently: response to marking, editing and redrafting, fixing or learning spellings and creating mnemonics for their high-frequency errors, peer-editing, reading in preparation for paired topic presentations, learning poetry by heart for recitation. And more besides! Read independently and record unfamiliar words, with meanings; find examples of this week’s grammar focus within their reading – ditto the spelling focus – and create posters for display (not pretty, but very useful, and they’ll change every week!). Notice how many of these sorts of activities may actually reduce our workload, while also being very helpful to the children.

Looking at guided reading differently – thinking about it as an enjoyable (guided) group discussion, while other children get on with vital independent learning – may be just the thing to not only develop both comprehension and pleasure in reading, but also to address the rigour and apparent joylessness in the new assessment systems. Not only is it possible to respond to all of the English programmes of study creatively: this is the only way to make the learning truly effective!

If you missed the Passing on the Passion Conference, you can find a selection of resources and videos from the day on our website!

Lindsay Pickton is an experienced independent Learning and Teaching Adviser, specialising in all aspects of primary literacy with a particular focus on raising standards in comprehension through effective guided reading and fostering the enjoyment of reading in children. Hear from Lindsay at a free event this term, focusing on how effective guided reading using Project X Origins can help you meet the higher standards of the new National Curriculum.