Guided reading – whole class or guided groups?

    Published: 05 April 2017

    In this blog, Alison Dawkins takes a look at the ways in which guided reading is organised and shares some reflections on the benefits of guiding reading in groups.  

    To explore some earlier ideas from Alison in relation to streamlining the more traditional reading carousel,  you may want to read Guided Reading – Where next? 

    Both in and out of school at the moment, I’m meeting increasing numbers of people talking about trying ‘whole class guided reading’ in KS2. They mention the children’s enthusiasm, the opportunity to engage with a whole text, the deepened questioning, and the release from the burden of planning a range of ‘activities’.

    I share that last desire. In guided reading sessions children are sometimes doing a variety of writing tasks that have been time consuming to prepare, are laborious to mark, and whose value in developing reading skills can be questionable.

    And yet, I worry. That enthusiasm, engagement with text, and deepened questioning are all good things. But are they really only found in whole class guided reading?

    I have always occasionally taught guided reading in this way when there has been a particular (usually short) text that I’ve felt EVERYONE should read, often before then coming to it in an English teaching sequence. Or there has been a whole class theme, immersing in, say, newspapers, which can be differentiated by reading ability, yet lead to whole class discussions. But that has never been my primary approach and I would never want it to be.

    What I really want out of guided reading sessions is for all the children’s reading to improve. As well as being able to discuss, evaluate, explain and justify, I want them to be able to sustain independent reading, to be thinking while they are doing that, and to be enjoying the experience of being lost in a book. But for that to happen, the book has to be reasonably matched to the child’s reading ability.

    With a ‘whole class’ text, while there will undoubtedly be many good things coming from the experience, there will also be children in the class for whom without support it is just too difficult to read. We can scaffold access for them, we can offer shorter passages or a reading partner, but they are not reading for themselves.  Similarly, there will be children who would love to grapple with something a bit more challenging.

    Now, there may be some who will say we risk capping the learning if we don’t expose all of the children to the level of text expected by end of year standards. I would argue that, so long as we ensure that our questioning and our expectation of deepened thought and reference to the text remain high for all readers, having a book matched to reading ability will enable faster progress towards full fluency. This is standard practice with children still learning to read, where we wouldn’t dream of giving a child in Y1 still at the beginning of that journey, the same book as another, also in Y1, for whom phoneme/grapheme correspondences are starting to fall firmly into place. We will however, still be extending the comprehension and engagement of both children through discussion, even as we address their decoding skills through appropriately matched texts. The same is true in KS2, with children who can all ‘read’, just not with the same degree of fluency.

    In the last Y6 class I taught there were those who could read Northern Lights, others more comfortable with Wolf Brother or Aquila, and another group reading Bill’s New Frock. And in Y3 the range was even wider with children who still needed the security and ordered progression of a reading scheme, many who had moved onto the delights of Killer Cat, and some who were just about ready for Charlotte’s Web.

    So for all but the least confident readers in Y3, who followed a more traditional KS1 approach when working independently, guided reading, including both guided and independent sessions, were about the books that the different groups were reading. The choice of text enabled independent access for all. The questioning and discussion had the same high expectations of developing inferential and evaluative skills for all. When working independently they read their books, sometimes to a particular point, sometimes with a specific focus to think about as they read. Sometimes they would complete a written task inspired by the reading they had done. When working with me we would often, after a brief catch up, focus our discussion on a part of the text (frequently just a page or two) that they had all read previously. This they would re-read, usually while thinking about a point or question I’d suggested, and then we’d talk about it. Points made needed to be justified with reference to the text and the further on in the book they were, the more likely it was that they would also talk back and forth from the particular passage we were looking at across the whole spread of the book. Children were engaged and enthusiastic and their comprehension was certainly deepened – and often not by me. Speculations they made, and those of their friends with whom they were talking enabled that. Importantly, because the texts they were discussing were at their own reading competency level, their reading fluency was also being advanced.  (And to unlock the doors to accelerating fluency please, please read Penny Slater’s fantastic blog ‘As Easy as A B FluenCy’.)

    Of course, the most tricky and time-consuming part of this is teaching children how to read actively when reading on their own. Don’t expect it to happen overnight for most children!

    But there are ways in:

    • We can start the process in our guided group when we ask them to re-read a few pages ‘in their heads’ while thinking about a particular thing.
    • We can ask them to empathise with the characters they are reading about.
    • We can encourage them to visualise as they read something silently and then talk about what they imagined as they read.
    • We can (and we will need to) urge them to ‘keep going’ with books they don’t at first like.
    • We can talk to them about how busy our brains are when we are reading ‘to ourselves’.
    • We can remind them to do these things when they are independently reading a guided reading book, matched to their ability and interest that they will, at some point in the week, be talking about.
    • We have to choose high quality books that the children will want to read.

    And it’s worth it. Guided reading sessions can become the highlight of a day. You get to discuss a great book with a group of children who are confident in their views because they have accessed the text on their own. You get to hear the hissed ‘yesss’ of those excited to be carrying on with the book they were reading the day before. You know the group who are writing (if they are doing so) are embedding the learning from the reading and discussion they have had.

    You’ve ended up with thinking readers, who love to read.

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