Alison Dawkins is an English Teaching and Learning Adviser for HfL

Guided reading has been a staple of our timetables for many years. In many schools, it follows a largely, similar pattern. Good work has been done. But, ‘the times they are a-changing’ and one of those changes could be around this session. This fills me with a sense of freedom and excitement, even a little ‘hurrahing’. At last, a chance to look again at guided reading practices and to adapt, tweak, and play with them so that our children are given a great reading experience that we have tailored to their needs.

And who has given us this freedom? Well, Ofsted to begin with. In ‘Moving English Forward – Action to raise standards in English’ (March 2012), guided reading is described as ‘a potentially useful strategy’ but it is also made clear that what really matters for schools is ‘how effective it is’. Just ensuring that guided reading is timetabled will not impact on progress. Secondly, the 2014 National Curriculum is equally direct about how children should progress with reading, particularly once they have learnt ‘how’ to read. For years 3 & 4 they should ‘become independent, fluent and enthusiastic readers who read widely and frequently’, and, expected for years 5 & 6 is that they are ‘able to read silently, with good understanding, inferring the meaning of unfamiliar words, and then discuss what they have read.’ Getting children to this point is obviously going to take more than four or five separate 20-30 minute sessions a week – teaching and learning in reading will need to be threaded throughout the whole curriculum, but those separated out guided reading sessions do have a crucial role. Put simply: guided reading should make children’s reading better. Not just for the guided reading group, but for all the learners in the room.

So we need to be very clear what it is that our children need to be learning – at all stages of the reading journey. At KS1 that is likely to be very tied into decoding; the ‘learning to read’ that underpins attainment in our curriculum. Comprehension has to go hand in hand with this and the familiar ‘carousel’ is perfect for it. The children have a guided session with an adult and then further independent sessions where they will practise the skills they need to become independent readers. These might be to do with embedding and applying knowledge about phonemes – through phoneme spotter stories, or reading from a topic box, or reading and then drawing to show understanding of what has been read.

Thus, for any guided reading session that has children who cannot yet ‘read books at an age-appropriate interest level’ (NC LKS2), the ‘hidden’ learning objective behind it is to get them to that point of being an independent reader. There will be interim, specific learning objectives along the way that unpick the detail of that, but ‘learning to read’ is the bedrock.

Yet what happens when the children can read? When they are in KS2 and are able to read these age appropriate texts? How does guided reading improve their skills? Now they need to learn to read ‘better’. And by that we mean: faster, more fluently, with greater engagement, and with understanding and consideration of the author’s intentions. We can build these skills in our guided sessions and there can be little argument that these will have an impact. But an improvement in reading skills should surely be the intended outcome for those children working independently too.

In many schools, guided reading is timetabled for about two hours a week across four days. At KS2, children will usually be in an adult-led, ‘guided’ group on one of those days. So for three-quarters of the time, they will be working independently, and unless the activities we plan really embed and develop their reading skills, can we be sure that the children’s reading is getting better as a result of what they do in those times?

To become certain, perhaps we need to ask ourselves some questions:

  • Are the independent activities in my guided reading sessions aimed at improving reading?
  • Do they cater for the different levels of competency?
  • Are they fostering a love of, and engagement with, reading itself?

But this needn’t lead to more planning. In fact, it could mean less, particularly if the children are going to spend more time getting better at reading by just reading. (And reading lovely, lovely books to interest and engage that have the right level of reading challenge.)

What we have to get right is to ensure that our planning for guided reading is driven by learning need, perhaps led by whole school contexts, certainly encompassing individual class demands. We have to know what our readers need. And we have to be prepared to be flexible in our approach so that our children can become better readers.

As examples:

  • Are you in a school where the children do not read regularly at home and cannot meet the expectations of sustaining reading over longer texts? Why not devote your independent sessions to reading? Not individual reading of their own texts (unless you are able to store awareness of thirty different texts and whether they are the right reading level for the children in your class!) but instead, sets of texts that match the reading abilities of the different groups in your class and which will introduce them to a range of authors and styles.
  • Do the children read widely but need to develop deeper analytical and inferential skills? Perhaps they need one or two of the independent sessions to pre-read the text that you will then be able to spend the majority of the guided session discussing. Any ‘reading’ in that guided session might be skimming a section read on previous days. A written follow up task will embed learning from the discussion.
  • Is there a particular need in your class? (Maybe vocabulary development or an understanding of features in non-fiction.) You could have a rotating activity so that skills develop, but it doesn’t need to be fixed for the year. Keep re-visiting the end of year expectations and adapt the activity to suit the current need.

Whatever you decide about the independent activities, if they have been driven by assessment for learning of reading needs, there should be improved outcomes as a result.

pattern

Having ensured that our independent activities in guided reading are all designed to develop reading skills, it is then quite easy to take this emphasis on learning still further and turn each guided reading session into a directly learning-led lesson for all the children.  You know what your objective is with your guided group – why not extend that to the whole class?  You are going to look at characterisation with your group, or authorial intent, or effect of vocabulary choices – that can be shared with the class at the start of the session, and they can watch out for examples in the books that they are reading at the same time as they are immersing themselves in the experience of reading.  If you have a carousel where the children are reading topic books, newspapers and their own books (if that suits their reading development needs), they can do that with those too.  Plan in time for a whole class plenary each day where examples can be shared across the range of texts that the children have been reading.  A generic guided reading session then looks like this:

lesson

And a typical day might be like this:

detail lessonTimings can obviously be adjusted to suit the length of the session but the proportions remain the same. The children know what they are learning (and have been reminded of the skills they will need to use), they spend the larger amount of time ‘doing’ (and thus embedding and giving purpose to those skills) and finally they have a short time to draw together, to summarise and to make links.

In ‘Ready to Read’ (Ofsted June 2014) guided reading in KS2 is described as less effective when ‘groups working independently made little progress in the lesson and the session did not enable them to deepen their knowledge of texts and stories’ and as working best when activities ‘involved sustained reading of selected texts’. What we have here is an opportunity. Let’s look again at our guided reading sessions and consider ways we can develop them to produce more skilful and enthusiastic readers.