4 practices to avoid in guided reading

guest blogger Mardi Gorman

Lately I’ve been talking to one of my good friends Mardi Gorman, about all things literacy in schools. Mardi’s a literacy consultant in Victoria and has worked in schools in the USA as well.

Over a socially distanced cup of tea in a highly sanitised café, we got chatting about practices we’ve observed in schools that no longer seem to be ‘full strength.’

You know the ones…

The ones you never really got taught how to do, so you’re just giving it a red hot go and crossing your fingers that it’s sort of right.

For me, Guided Reading was one of those practices; I just strapped the blindfold across my eyes in those early days and hoped for the best! Over time I sought out coaching and mentoring, read research and observed others and finally made it to a place where I was comfortable with my practice.

Mardi and I started developing a list of all the signs of a watered-down approach to Guided Reading and, before we knew it, we had a whole page of them!

I’ve asked Mardi to be Oz Lit Teacher’s guest blogger today to talk about all things full strength guided reading. (Excuse me while I kick back and put my feet up…)

Mardi’s thoughts on Guided Reading

In my many years of experience working in schools, I have observed a range of well- researched instructional practices being unintentionally misinterpreted or slightly altered along the way.

Guided Reading is one of those practices.

Over time, I have noticed that this practice can look different depending on which school you are in, and in some cases, which classroom you are in.

The truth is, it shouldn’t. 

So, let’s do a quick recap on what it is and what it isn’t.

A little background to keep us grounded

Guided Reading emerged in the 1980’s in New Zealand and Australia as a small group practice and, for the first time in reading education, we recognised that one book for a whole class, could not serve the needs of all students.

Guided Reading was designed to eliminate ‘the drawbacks of traditional reading groups (see Holdaway, 1979; Clay 1991) and allow for small group teaching that matched students specifically to books’.

  • Guided reading usually takes places during the reading workshop.
  • It is an opportunity for the teacher to pull small groups of students together who need further guidance, before practising independently.
  • After one or two further lessons, the teacher will decide if the student is ready to be let go, to practise the strategy independently. 
  • It is like a dance, back and forth, back and forth, slowly releasing responsibility to the learner, to demonstrate what they can do.

Over my time, I have encountered a number of practices that need to be avoided in order to return to the best practice of Guided Reading as it was intended. I’ve written about 4 of them here.

Here are four Guided Reading practices you should avoid:

#1 Setting up Guided Reading groups before you know your students.

Guided Reading groups are formed with groups of students who are similar in their reading development, and have been identified as having a similar need.

Getting to know your students individually, takes time, and is crucial before you can accurately pull a group of students together based on need. Remember, Guided Reading groups are needs based, fluid groups.  A group formed to practise a particular strategy does not become a permanent group.

So, what does that mean for the first few weeks of school?  

You need to take the time to meet with your students individually, getting to know them as readers, to develop a reading relationship and to determine what their strengths and needs are. 

Begin by conferring with your students to gather information that will inform purposeful grouping of your students.  Once you have this information, grouping students for more targeted teaching, makes a whole lot of sense.

#2 Relying solely on text levels to form Guided Reading groups.

Let’s go back to the core of what we know about the practice of Guided Reading: Guided Reading emerged to address the issue that one book can’t fit all. So yes, where possible, we group our students based on their ability to process the text.

Clay (1991) states:

‘at the heart of the learning process is the child’s ability to use a gradient of difficulty in texts by which he/she can pull themselves up by their bootstraps: texts which allow them to practise and develop the full range of strategies which they control, and by problem solving new challenges, reach out beyond their present control.’

The text gradient allows teachers to match texts to the student’s reading level and this is important, as it helps the teacher to be aware of the incremental challenges the reader will face. However, there are other, equally as important, things to consider: 

  • Student needs
  • Student interests
  • Student engagement

Remember, enjoyment is key!

“Choosing books to read and enjoy is at the heart of what it means to be literate.”

(Fountas and Pinnell 2017)

#3 Thinking Guided Reading is anything BUT independent reading.

Guided Reading is an opportunity for a child to be ‘guided’ through an instructional text. It means that with careful planning, the teacher will support the child to read independently and successfully on their own. (Remember: You are setting them up to read an instructional text, which is a bit of a reach, independently.)

Guided Reading is NOT:

  • having the text read to you first (read to).
  • having a group of students reading together (choral reading).
  • each child taking a turn reading a page (round-robin reading).

#4 Using a levelling system for labelling all books and children in a class.

Nothing gives me hives quicker, than when I hear a child say I am a ‘D’ reader, and so they are the ‘just right’ books for me!

Classroom libraries are not meant to be totally levelled and nor are children.

‘It’s appropriate for teachers to use levelled texts to make their teaching specific, systematic, and powerful.  But when it comes to independent reading, children need to make choices that reflect the way they see themselves as literate people, the way people do in real-life (and that is not by level).

(Fountas and Pinnell, 2017)

We need to put levelled texts back into perspective.

They are there for a reason, which is to help teachers instruct students, when they are beginning to learn to read.

A teacher will use the levels to provide slightly more challenging texts for the students as they guide them. It is then the role of the teacher to encourage students to continue to practise reading similar books independently.

In the ‘real world’ of reading, what is important is that we teach our students to select appropriate reading material for themselves. This can be an abstract concept for beginning readers but, with support and guidance when selecting texts, students gain independence. 

A very simple criterion can help students to choose ‘just right books’:

Choosing a just right book anchor chart
Sample anchor chart to create with students for independent reading.

Beginning readers will need more support with this initially, but what is most important as we guide students to become more aware of criteria when selecting books, it that they are given the opportunity to do this for themselves, promoting a real sense of independence when selecting for their own personal reading.

In summary…

Guided Reading is a powerful instructional practice, and when used with great intent, moves students through reading increasingly more challenging texts overtime. 

It is a dynamic process that involves detailed planning, close observations of students and ongoing assessment.

It is the time in the day that we ‘hold our students’ hands’, sitting alongside them and watching, waiting for the moment to teach, or let go, so they can do it alone.

-Mardi Gorman

Free PD opportunity

As I said at the start, when Mardi and I were chatting we almost filled a whole page with practices to avoid in Guided Reading. Mardi has written about four of them here, but there are more! Considering it would take us weeks to write about the rest, we’ve decided to do a free Facebook live webinar to discuss the others instead. Head over to the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group at 7pm on Tuesday, July 7 (AEST) to join us.

Also, don’t forget to sign up to the Oz lit Teacher Mailing List to keep up to date with all other PD, news and events. I’ve got some reading and writing PD opportunities coming up and I always let my email list peeps know first.


  • Clay, M. (1991).  Becoming Literate: The Construction of Inner Control. Auckland, NZ: Heineman.
  • Holdaway, D. (1979). The Foundation of Literacy. Sydney, Australia: Ashton Scholastic.
  • Fountas, I. & Pinnell, G. (2010). Research base for Guided Reading as an Instructional Approach, Scholastic.
  • Fountas, I. & Pinnell, G. (2012). Guided Reading – The Romance and the Reality.  The Reading Teacher, ILA, Vol 66, Issue 4, pp.263 – 284.
  • Fountas, I. & Pinnell, G. (2017). What Independent Readers do: Joyful, Independent Reading:  Choice, Agency and Engagement with Books. ASCD, Oct 12, 2017|Volume 13|Issue 3.
  • Koch, L.& Sibberson, F. & Szymusiak, K. (2008).  Beyond Levelled Books, Readers in Years F-5, Stenhouse.

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