1 Confession and 2 learnings about guided reading

I have a confession to make.

1 confession about Guided Reading

When I first started teaching, I was a guided reading fraud.

I had NO IDEA what I was doing.

Being shown the location of the school’s guided reading books had been the extent of my training.

Is it any wonder I had enormous self-doubt:

  • What if the other teacher find out I don’t know what I’m doing?
  • Everyone else knows how to do it except for me.
  • If the leadership team realise I can’t do the basics, they won’t renew my contract (bless those 3 years of 6-month contracts!)

To make matters worse, I had no capacity to secretly observe another teacher’s practice, as I was in a portable by myself and YouTube hadn’t been invented.

I bumbled along, hoping my memories of the limited number of guided reading sessions I’d observed as a pre-service teacher would suffice.

There was no escaping it: I was a guided reading fraud.

Unfortunately, I experienced the same level of training and support when it came to lit circles and reciprocal teaching (although I did get a laminated set of role cards as extra support for this practice).

With the addition of these new fraud charges to my name, the guilt about my literacy instruction was real.

Now here’s the thing:

The problem with my story is, as I’ve come to realise, it’s actually not unique.

In fact, it appears to be quite run-of-the-mill.

Small group instruction in reading (including guided reading) has somehow become an ‘assumed known’ for all teachers.

We all just ‘know’ how to do it.

Don’t we!?

Fortunately for me, I ended up with some wonderful mentors who built my knowledge about full-strength guided reading, real lit circles and actual (versus fake) reciprocal teaching.

(Apparently there’s more to reciprocal teaching than handing an unsupervised group of kids a bunch of laminated role cards…)

Along my journey I’ve had to acknowledge many of my own misconceptions about small group instruction in reading.

Allow me to step into the confessional box, slide the window open and share 2 of my biggest learnings:

#1 Levels aren’t the only way to group students

What I used to think:

Test the kids, find a level, put them in a reading group.

What I know now:

Levels are one way of grouping students, but not the only way.

In fact, Fountas and Pinnell (2017) themselves suggest that “guided reading is the only context in which students are grouped according to level of progress.

This is a critical misconception to dispel for teachers as ‘Australian research shows that achievement can be spread over five to eight year levels within a single class’ (Grattan Institute, 2015).

5-8 year levels!

Can you image how many levelled reading groups that would need?

It’s just not possible to use levels as the only grouping guide in every class.

This is particularly relevant for Victorian schools currently engaged in grouping students for their “catch up and extension” tutoring program.

So, what else can you use to group students for small group reading instruction?

The answer?

Student needs.

Teachers and schools can lift all students’ performance if they are equipped to collect and use evidence of individual student achievement and progress. Working together, teachers should assess what each student knows now, target their teaching to what they are ready to learn next, and track each student’s progress over time.

(Goss, Hunter, Romanes and Parsonage, 2015)

When teachers go beyond the letter or number of a reading level and get to know the strengths and stretches for each of the readers in their class, then and only then can they group those needs and match them to a relevant instructional practice (i.e guided reading, strategy groups, reciprocal teaching).

Which brings me to my next big learning…

#2 Small group instructional practices aren’t linear

What I used to think:

Students should do guided reading in the junior years then move on to reciprocal teaching in the middle years and finish with lit circles in the upper years.

What I know now:

Teaching practices are on a toolbelt, not a continuum.

Let me explain…

Guided reading, reciprocal teaching and lit circles are all examples of teaching practices.

They’re just tools on a teacher’s toolbelt.

To use them effectively, teachers should first determine the needs of their students, then create goals, then decide which teaching practice will best support their students to achieve these goals.

So, if a handful of students in your class are struggling with inferring character feelings in a text (and they’re all reading at different levels), you might call on a strategy group as the tool for building their capacity to infer.

If a different handful of students are struggling with decoding multisyllabic words (and they’re all reading at around the same level), guided reading could be used as the tool to support them.

As I discussed in my recent blog on guided reading– if you’re aiming for targeted and differentiated instruction, you can’t decide which tool you’re going to use before you even know your students’ needs.

It’s the needs of the students, NOT their year level, that determine which teaching tool is applied and when.

So what does this all mean?

As Carol Ann Tomlinson (2014) suggests:

‘teachers in differentiated classes are…diagnosticians, prescribing the best possible instruction based on both their content knowledge and their emerging understanding of students’ progress in mastering critical content.’

Effective differentiated small group reading instruction starts with the teacher’s ability to be a reading diagnostician.

This takes deep teacher knowledge:

  • Of the students
  • Of assessment
  • Of the curriculum
  • Of the teaching practices (and when and why each should be used).

And, as I learned in my journey, this deep knowledge will never come from brief school tours, laminated cards or (dare I say it) TeacherPayTeachers.

Deep content knowledge can only be built through ongoing engagement in supported, evidence-based professional learning opportunities.

This is the very reason I created the Pure Guided Reading and Small Group Instructional series with Mardi Gorman.

For the sake of every student and every teacher, I want my fraudulent guided reading experience to be the exception not the rule.

So, step into my confessional box and share- what have been your AHA moments for small group reading instruction?
Let me know in the comments below or by joining in the conversation on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group.

Related blog posts:


  • Goss, P., Hunter, J., Romanes, D. and Parsonage, H., 2015. Targeted teaching: How better use of data can improve student learning. [online] Grattan Institute. Available at: <https://grattan.edu.au/report/targeted-teaching-how-better-use-of-data-can-improve-student-learning/> [Accessed 7 February 2021].
  • Tomlinson, C., 2014. The differentiated classroom: responding to the needs of all learners. 2nd ed. Virginia: ASCD.
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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4 thoughts on “1 Confession and 2 learnings about guided reading”

  1. Hi Narissa,
    Thanks for your work on small group teaching; it is timely. I am replying to your call out to share aha moments. Two things that made a massive difference to my literacy teaching were ‘wait time’ and the ‘IRE’ speaking model. I have long been uncomfortable with silence when chatting to a student but using (bucket loads) of research from the US many years ago, I trained myself to ask a question and then shut up. It was really hard but I learnt so much by waiting for my students before leaping in and offering answer options or rewording a question. In the early 2000s I was lucky enough to work with a team of academics who were researching talk and I learnt about the Initiate, Respond, Evaluate cycle. I analysed my teaching and discovered that the students were all talking to me and not really part of a discussion group as such. I got every second turn to talk. Again, I had to teach myself to shut up. I had to teach my students to truly see the others in the group as listeners and active participants. There were many awkward silences but with the help of tools such as talking sticks and an Ikea chook soft toy, I sat back and was in awe of what my students had to say about the books they read, along with the feedback they could give each other about their writing. If there was one thing that I believe has made me a better teacher over my career, I would have to say that it was developing the ability to zip my lip. 🙂

    • This is really insightful! Thanks Robyn ?

      I am a new teacher and definitely having those fraudulent feelings. Especially as I am teaching Foundation and don’t have any collegial support/mentoring. I gave a guided reading session last week because I wanted to introduce my children to levelled readers before they are expected to take them home in Week 5 of this term. I was letting some children who I know can decode phonetically attempt to sound out some words, but just getting those who can’t yet track under where we were reading with their finger. I have no idea if the experience was valuable or not but I am going to persevere with guided reading because I can see how powerful it can be when done right. I think I may sign up to the Guided Reading course (but I have two other courses currently running so perhaps it may have to be another time!)

      Is there anything you could point to for me to read more about the IRE speaking model??

      • Thanks for sharing Amy. The feelings of being a fraud are real and yet they shouldn’t be- it’s not our fault we didn’t receive proper training!
        Great to hear you’ re looking at your talk and questioning in small group instruction. You might want to read this blog post to get a start on your learning: https://www.ozlitteacher.com.au/2020/08/02/is-silence-the-sign-of-an-effective-teacher/
        I believe teacher talk and questioning is one of the most impactful things we can change in classrooms- an investment in this pays big dividends for students.
        Goodluck with your work!


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