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Making Sense of Guided Reading

Guided Reading

Making Cents

The key idea of guided reading: to make sure kids are being taught from books that are not too far beyond their skills certainly makes sense. According to Vygotsky, students learn best when they are provided strong instructional support to extend themselves by reading texts that are on the edge of their learning—not too easy but not too hard*. And guided reading publishers attempt to do just that by putting reading level theory into practice. Most teachers have bought into guided reading hook, line, and sinker.

Most elementary teachers in the United States use one form of guided reading or another. In fact, the two most popular reading programs (Fountas & Pinnell and Teacher’s College Readers Workshop) which account for more than 60% of reading program sales in the United States use leveled books as the core component of their curricula.

However, you can take even a good idea too far in terms of adherence to a theoretic framework and implementation in the classroom.

First, in terms of a theoretic framework, the simple fact is that the science behind reading levels theory is quite a squishy notion. Specifically, we have mistakenly assumed that independent, instructional, and frustration reading levels are research-based and quantifiable constructs.


Dr. Tim Shanahan took a look at the original research regarding reading levels theory:

Made famous in Emmett Betts’s influential, now-little-remembered 1946 textbook Foundations of Reading Instruction, leveled reading theory actually emerged from a more obscure study conducted by one of Betts’s doctoral students. “I tracked down that dissertation and to my dismay it was evident that they had just made up those designations without any empirical evidence,” Shanahan wrote. When the study—which had in effect never been conducted—was “replicated,” it yielded wildly different results. In other words, there was no study, and later research failed to show the benefits of leveling. “Basically we have put way too much confidence in an unproven theory,” Shanahan concluded (https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/leveled-reading-making-literacy-myth).

Second, in terms of leveled reading instruction, implementation of the reading levels theory via guided reading is challenging, time-consuming, expensive, and provides less student-teacher reading time because of the narrowly focused guided reading groups.

Rube Goldberg (1931)

In fact, the commonly-accepted notion about reading levels has produced a Rube Goldberg machine in reading instruction. A Rube Goldberg machine, named after American cartoonist Rube Goldberg, is a machine intentionally designed to perform a simple task in an indirect and overly complicated way (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rube_Goldberg_machine).

The Fountas &Pinnell A to Z readers are such a machine. The differences among the levels are virtually indistinguishable, but the levels are goldmines for the publishers. More levels = more profit. As Tim Shanahan remarks,

“Teachers sacrifice way too much instructional time trying to provide kids teaching at their exact level. So, you’ll see teachers spending 15-20 minutes each with groups at level “L” and “M” that frankly aren’t different. In such cases, the teacher would be better off spending 30-40 minutes with the two combined groups (https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/the-problem-with-guided-reading).

My suggestions to make sense of guided reading:

  1. No need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’m not suggesting, as many in the science of reading group advocate, getting rid of guided reading. The structural and instructional components of flexible ability grouping, meaningful busy work for rest of kids, reading with the teacher on a daily basis, and authentic assessment via running records are effective instructional strategies; however a few tweaks are in order.
  2. Rather than trying to fine tune your guided reading groups by adding more discrete reading level groups, think of combining groups to maximize instructional minutes, minimize independent work, and improve behavior management. Especially consider doubling the size of the teacher-led guided reading group and reducing the number of total groups. Check out these group rotation ideas.
  3. Look to other means of assessment to determine reading needs and group placements, in addition to running records. Teachers don’t like to hear this, but we are not completely objective evaluators. According to Dr. Louisa Moats, “The reliability of oral reading tests and running records is lower than the reliability of more structured, specific measures of component reading skills. Teacher judgment of the cause of specific oral reading errors (e.g., miscue analysis) tends to be much less reliable” (https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/reading_rocketscience_2004.pdf) Louisa
  4. In addition to leveled reading groups, use these alternative assessment data to drive instruction within your guided reading group stations. Flexible groupings can teach r-controlled vowels to a group, or the soft /c/ spellings, or non-decodable sight words, etc. to needs-based groups, formed according to diagnostic assessments.

The benefits of these guided reading tweaks…

  1. Fewer groups means less prep for guided reading groups and other independent learning stations.
  2. Less wasted instruction. When teachers notice reading errors during guided reading or running records which they wish to address via mini-lessons, some, but not all students will benefit.
  3. Targeted needs-based instruction is more efficient than mini-lessons.
  4. Students will progress quicker with the addition of assessment-based instruction.
  5. Less $
  6. Less tracking. Traditional guided reading groups stay quite similar from the start to end of the school year, with notable exceptions.
  7. Better behavior management. With fewer groups, fewer transitions are necessary. With more students in the teacher’s group, less idle hands are making mischief.
  8. More teacher-student time.


Check out the Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books in the author’s program below to add an assessment-based phonics practice component to your guided reading.

Get the Diagnostic Reading  and Spelling Assessments FREE Resource:

I’m Mark Pennington, author of  the Teaching Reading Strategies (Reading Intervention Program). This program provides all the resources teachers need for flexible, student-centered reading instruction. The program is designed for non-readers or below grade level readers ages eight-adult. Ideal as both Tier II or III pull-out or push-in reading intervention for older struggling readers, special education students with auditory processing disorders, and ESL, ESOL, or ELL students. This full-year (or half-year intensive) program provides explicit and systematic whole-class instruction and assessment-based small group workshops to differentiate instruction. Both new and veteran reading teachers will appreciate the four training videos, minimal prep and correction, and user-friendly resources in this program, written by a teacher for teachers and their students.

The program provides 13 diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files). Teachers use assessment-based instruction to target the discrete concepts and skills each student needs to master according to the assessment data. Whole class and small group instruction includes the following: phonemic awareness activities, synthetic phonics blending and syllabication practice, phonics workshops with formative assessments, expository comprehension worksheets, 102 spelling pattern assessments, reading strategies worksheets, 123 multi-level fluency passage videos recorded at three different reading speeds, writing skills worksheets, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards (includes print-ready and digital display versions) to play entertaining learning games.

In addition to these resources, the program features the popular Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable books (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each 8-page book introduces two sight words and reinforces the sound-spellings practiced in that day’s sound-by-sound spelling blending. Plus, each book has two great guided reading activities: a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns and 5 higher-level comprehension questions. Additionally, each book includes an easy-to-use running record if you choose to assess. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug. These take-home books are great for independent homework practice.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books








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