Why Guided Reading shouldn’t be mandated in schools

Guided reading primary school PD

Imagine there was a hospital that only trained its surgeons to put plaster casts on its patients. They’d heard about the benefits of plaster casts and how great they were at improving broken bones, so decided to roll out the practice for all patients, irrespective of their ailments.

Every time a patient entered the hospital with the aim of ‘getting better,’ surgeons would apply the mandated surgical practice of plaster cast application.

Of course, for some patients (namely those with broken limbs) this practice would be highly effective and would achieve the aim of helping them to get better. For other patients though (such as those with fevers, cuts, burns etc) this practice would do very little in terms of helping them to get better.

Now, I get that this example seems completely ridiculous… where would that EVER happen?

Actually, in schools- that’s where.

Swap ‘plaster casts’ for ‘Guided Reading’ and you have a one-size-fits-all approach to reading improvement.

Now don’t get me wrong; just like plaster cast application, Guided Reading IS a highly effective practice. However, just like plaster cast application, it’s best used to address specific needs and symptoms.

What’s the deal with guided reading?

Guided reading is just ONE of the small group instructional practices available for teachers to call on to help teach reading to students.

It’s characterised by students being grouped together by similar needs AND similar reading levels (contrary to popular belief, they don’t have to be exactly the same reading level), being guided through a teacher-selected text and engaging in rich discussions about that text.

As with all small group reading instruction, the purpose of the guided reading lesson is NOT to teach the book, but to teach the reader. 

(Which means the teacher should diagnose the common reading needs of the group before selecting a book that will help them practise a specific strategy or skill required by that group of students.)

Similar to most small group instruction, guided reading lessons can take anywhere between 10-30 minutes, depending on a range of factors (e.g. length of the book, length of the discussion, whether or not targeted phonics / word work is included in the lesson).

So, what other practices are there?

Depending on the needs of the students, teachers can call on an assortment of small group instructional practices for teaching reading such as:

  • Strategy groups
  • Reciprocal teaching
  • Close reading
  • Literature circles / book clubs

There is no one practice that is better than the others- they’re all context (and symptom) specific.

Like all teaching practices, each of these small group instructional practices are best implemented in their full-strength version. This means, teachers need to be supported to develop deep content knowledge around the practice, including:

  • An understanding of its important elements
  • Knowledge of the research behind it and each of the elements within it
  • An understanding of who the practice best supports, why and how it does this.

When teachers have this deep knowledge, they’re better able to diagnose reading symptoms and prescribe fit-for-purpose teaching practices to support their students (rather than applying plaster casts to every reader because that’s what the school’s instructional model says to do).

3 steps you can take to improve this situation:

Step #1

Stop saying ‘guided reading’ when you really mean ‘small group instruction.’ 

Calling it what it is is the first step in returning guided reading and all other forms of small group instruction to their full-strength version.

Step #2

Update any documents in your school (e.g. instructional model documents) that incorrectly label small group instruction as ‘guided reading.’

(Bonus points if you rename this to ‘differentiated small group instruction’ as this gives teachers permission to select the small group instructional practices that match their students’ needs.)

Step #3

Build your knowledge on the full-strength version of guided reading as well as each of the other teaching practices available for small group reading instruction

Completing these three steps are essential in reducing the number of unnecessary plaster casts our kids find themselves wearing in our reading classrooms- and who doesn’t want that?

How have you gone about enacting these three steps? Share your experiences below or join in the conversation over on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group.

Related blog posts:

Guided reading PD online

If you’re interested in building your knowledge on full-strength guided reading you can sign up to the Pure Guided Reading course. I cofacilitate this course with literacy consultant, Mardi Gorman. This is an online, self-paced course that takes approximately 5 hours to complete. The feedback we have received about the content and the structure of this course has been fantastic! You can learn more about it here.

reciprocal teaching strategy groups online

If you’re interested in building your knowledge on other small group instructional practices for reading, you can sign up to the Small Group Instruction series. This is an online-self paced course where we go deep on the teaching practices of reciprocal teaching, lit circles, close reading, language experience and strategy groups. It is 5 hours of professional learning (at your own pace). You can learn more about it here.

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2 thoughts on “Why Guided Reading shouldn’t be mandated in schools”

  1. Oh wow. This post is a light-bulb moment for me! Thank you for the permission to do small group instruction on an as needs basis, and not feel the need to force guided reading onto children when I can see that some are still needed basic phonics knowledge and practice blending. I teach Foundation (5 year olds) and there is a real mix of abilities – some children already can blend CVC words while others don’t know a single phoneme-grapheme correspondence. I can see more differentiated work is needed!

    • YES! So happy to read your comment Amy. That was exactly the intent of my post. It seems somewhere along the way we lost the our focus on the purpose and best use of these teaching practices and, when that happens, they lose their potency.
      Hopefully your newly revised reading workshop is more effective for you and your students.


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