Alison Dawkins considers how choosing quality books, broadly matched to children’s current reading competencies, can take the stress out of planning for guided reading.

First, a thank you to Sinéad Gaffney (@shinpad1) for her recent article at where she considers the different strengths that both whole class reading and grouped guided reading can offer. Because of course, let’s have both. Let’s have all the reading we can.

Second, it flagged up for me a major worry that teachers have about guided reading – particularly when the focus, as it should be once children are able to read independently, is primarily on reading. And it’s one which, to my shame, I sometimes forget about.

I’m talking about: teachers reading the books when there may be five different novels at one time, and teachers worrying that they won’t be able to run an effective guided session if they haven’t already read for themselves, the text that the children are enjoying. And I’m suggesting that the teacher not having read the book, is not necessarily a reason for not using it in guided reading – so long as the children can read and enjoy the whole book, and so long as the teacher has made accurate assessment for learning choices around the book being read. The teacher will of course also need to have prepared the section from the book that they will focus on in the guided session.

At my old school, we jettisoned the notion of a range of activities for independently working groups more than ten years ago (and along with that the stresses of trying to organise and mark written work produced in these sessions – always a plus). In place of those, and for children able to read independently, we put reading. Reading of a carefully chosen book of which we had group sets. It really is best if you have enough copies so that each child has their own and they need to be matched to each group’s level of reading competency. Then there was one guided session with the teacher focusing on that text. The discussion in this lesson might range widely across the book, particularly towards its end, but would more usually hone in on a short section from the pre-reading, and which the children would re-read in the guided session.

Immediately came the question of ‘how can I possibly read all those novels? Because by the time we’re talking years 5 & 6, that will indeed, as Sinead points out, be a number of reasonably lengthy books. In fact, we found that once the children really got going, they were reading more than a book a term and we did have five groups in each class, of varying levels of reading competency. Even though the ‘middle groups’ tended to swap books, and the books read by the most confident readers at the start of the year were picked up by the middle as they progressed in the second term, it was still a lot of books.

The answer we arrived at was quite simple – you probably can’t. But that can be okay.

In some ways, it is quite liberating. It means two things can happen, if you let them:

  • the books can do the job they were written for, engaging their audience
  • the children are empowered as readers because they sometimes do genuinely know more than the teacher.

Now, I am absolutely not suggesting that teachers will be able to grab any old set of books from a shelf and assume they’ll be able to chat about it effectively enough to progress children’s reading comprehension! The books really do need to be carefully chosen for interest and quality. The HfL KS2 Guided Reading Toolkit has suggested titles for each year group and there are many, many other lists and recommendations on the internet. When you pick a book that you think your children will like, look at a few pages in the middle of it to check it has the vocabulary and sentence constructions that are broadly appropriate for your year group.

Equally important is the need for teachers to know the reading capabilities of each group. The children should be able to read and understand the texts that you are giving them, so that they can sustain concentration when reading independently. Then, when you work with them in the guided session, you can probe and deepen that understanding. Again, look at the overall content, samples of sentences and vocabulary to be sure you are broadly matching text to reading competency.

Most importantly, you need to have read beforehand the section of text from the book on which you are focusing the discussion. You need to have thought about the vocabulary / themes / characterisation / action that you want to draw out from this. But this piece is likely to be no more than two or three pages if it is to be suitable for such close reading. And that is manageable. For making wider links, the children will often surprise you by drawing examples from elsewhere in the book that support or show differences with the section on which the group is concentrating.

Now that I’m working for HfL, modelling guided reading sessions is something that I’m asked to do fairly frequently. Unless I bring a text of my own for a particular purpose, I will quite often suggest that we work with the books the children are reading. The only pre-requisite is that they need to have read some of the text before our session (assuming they are children who can read independently). Although I’ve read a lot of children’s books, inevitably I’m sometimes faced with ones I’ve never seen before.

And therefore, part of what I model for the teacher is: checking that the book is appropriate for the group, choosing the broad objective I want to explore, choosing and reading the couple of pages we’re going to focus on, and picking out a few sections within that for closer scrutiny. ‘But will you find what you’re looking for?’ is often asked, and the answer is ‘yes’ – if the text is of good quality. Also, ‘will the children be able to talk in enough detail?’ and again, ‘yes’ if the book chosen is at the current reading competency.

Inevitably there are other questions that have needed ironing out and the most common have included:

  • ‘How far should they read each day?’
  • The ideal is probably to say ‘at their own pace’, but you will need to be sure that individuals aren’t racing ahead / being left far behind, and that the children are able to sustain concentration over several chapters. It can work better to begin by saying, for example, ‘to the end of chapter 3 today, then look back over and check you really understand what’s happened.’ (Once effective sustained reading is fully established, it works fine to let early finishers carry on reading their own reading books.)
  • How will I know they’re reading properly?
  • Good silent reading habits do need to be taught, and do expect this to take a little time! (

Once these are in place, you’ll be able to see who is absorbed in their reading and who is looking out of the window. You will need to have taken care to ensure that the books being read are at the right ‘level’ for the children reading them – often when children don’t concentrate fully, it’s because the book is either too hard or too easy, or doesn’t engage them well. You’ll find out in the guided session whether they’ve understood, or merely skated through the printed words.

  • How do I improve their silent reading skills?
  • Practice in the guided session with short pieces of text. Model: reading in a quiet mutter for when ‘it’s not making sense in your head’ / re-reading tricky bits / following with a finger / checking back for sense / looking for vocabulary meanings in surrounding sentences / making links to previously read paragraphs

Handing independent reading of longer texts over to the children perhaps does require a bit of a leap of faith. However, once we know what our children are able to read, if we then give them great books that they can read for themselves, and which will sustain their interest from one day to the next, improved reading, and a love of reading wait just around the corner.

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