I have a confession to make.
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.
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?
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.
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.
- 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.
If you’re interested in building your knowledge on full-strength guided reading, Mardi Gorman and I have just launched our online Pure Guided Reading course. We ran this course live last year and had outstanding feedback. We’ve now turned it into a self-paced course to make it more accessible to both individual teachers and teams of teachers. You can learn more about it here.
If you’re interested in building your knowledge on other small group instructional practices for reading, Mardi and I will be running our live ‘Small Group Instruction’ series again, starting February 10. We’ll be going deep on the teaching practices of reciprocal teaching, lit circles, close reading, language experience and strategy groups. You can learn more about it here.