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Guided Reading in Perspective

Cathy Mere

Recently I presented my work at a regional conference. A teacher came rushing to the front of the room as I packed my computer after the session. "Do you have a literacy coach?" she inquired. "Does your coach tell you that you have to get in at least three guided reading groups each day?" she asked with obvious exasperation. Now, I don't know her, and I don't know her students, but I do know that putting an arbitrary number of required reading groups out there keeps us from discussing the bigger issues in supporting the growth of the readers in our classrooms. Maybe her class data works out so that three groups make sense? I don't know, and I wonder if her coach does. 

This isn't an uncommon conversation in reading instruction. More and more educators share their mandatory formats of guided reading with me. Schools have required minutes, required start dates, required levels, and required teaching points. Interestingly, these requirements come at a time when data is supposed to be used to differentiate. Differentiation requires flexible methods and structures. Much time is spent talking about guided reading, its structure, and time for it. But what about readers?

For instruction to be effective we need to be talking about the needs of the readers within our classrooms, not the number of times we meet with groups each day or week. We should be discussing what we are noticing with our readers. What are their strengths? What is difficult for many of the readers in our classrooms? Who is really having trouble making progress at this time? What can we do to support them? What books are available? 

Opportunities for Instruction in Reading Workshops

Teaching in a reading workshop format has helped me see beyond arbitrary statements like, "You should see three groups of readers each day," "You should have your children in groups by October 6th," or "Readers from the same text level should all meet together." I need to look beyond surface structures and leveled data to the reading behaviors and choices of my students. Across our day there are many opportunities to support, guide, and celebrate reading growth.

Focus Lesson: The lesson that begins each reading workshop is the perfect time to demonstrate explicitly new strategies for reading. Choosing lessons that meet the needs of most readers in my classroom makes this an effective place to begin. Teaching points can often be made through the use of shared reading, read-alouds, strategy instruction, and other supportive conversations about reading. Knowing the needs of the readers in my learning community as I teach can help me tailor instruction to individuals, even during these whole-group sessions.

Conferring: I find sitting down beside a reader is often the best way to get to know readers, to see what they know, and to make shifts in understanding. Talking about new learning in the context of real reading opportunities initiated by children is powerful. These conversations can be quick touch moments or more extended conversations.

Small-Group Instruction: Although this may be in the form of a guided reading lesson, it might also look a little different, depending upon the specific needs of students. In The Art of Teaching Reading, Lucy Calkins discusses the difference between guided reading and strategy lessons. In strategy lessons we pull a group together because we have noticed they need support with a particular strategy. We start our lesson with this conversation teaching into the strategy. In guided reading, at least in its strictest context, teaching points come more from the reading students have done. 

Other Content Areas: There are numerous opportunities across our day to reinforce and build on the understanding of our readers. Writing workshop is often the perfect place to help students see connections between their work as readers and writers. Content-area learning, writing, and reading opportunities often lend themselves to connections that strengthen readers. 

Questions We Should Be Asking

Instead of asking when we should meet with groups, we should be talking about why we meet with groups. Instead of thinking about the minutes children spend with the teacher, perhaps we should think about the minutes they spend really reading. A child can spend every day in a guided reading group, but if there are not many opportunities for applying these lessons during independent reading, progress will be slow. Moving beyond thinking about the instruction and into considering the reading life of the young readers in our classrooms helps them grow as readers. I want the readers in my classroom to have opportunities to find the books they just have to read, to share with each other the many books that shape their lives as readers, to have time to practice the new strategies we are learning, and to spend time thinking about their reading. Most of all, I want my students to just enjoy reading. 

Questions We Should Be Asking About Readers:

  • What are the reader's strengths? 
  • What books/authors/topics/characters/genres does the child enjoy reading?
  • Can this reader talk about the books he/she reads?
  • How does the reader learn? 
  • Does this child try strategies taught through focus lessons during independent reading?
  • Does this reader learn best in whole-group, small-group, or individual conversations?
  • What is challenging for this reader?
  • What is next for this reader?

Questions We Should be Asking About the Community:

  • What trends do we see across the classroom?
  • Are there commonalities among readers that might allow for grouping?
  • Are there appropriate books available for all readers in the classroom library?
  • Who is having difficulty making progress?
  • Do children have time to read and practice the new strategies they are learning?
  • Do students have time to talk with one another about books?

Setting arbitrary time limits for guided reading may provide a structure for teachers, but is it meeting the needs of readers? We need to consider carefully all of the information we have about readers. Listen to them talk about books. Watch the choices they are making as they read. Read what they have written about their reading. Look carefully at assessment information. Then we need to look at all of the opportunities within our day to give students necessary support. Let's look beyond mandates to support readers in our classrooms.


Cathy Mere

Cathy Mere is currently a literacy specialist in Hilliard (Ohio) City Schools. She is the author of More Than Guided Reading. A trained literacy coach and former Reading Recovery teacher, Cathy leads professional development workshops and presents at state and national conferences. She blogs at Refine and Reflect.