Posts Tagged ‘shared reading’

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 (

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 (

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 (

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” ( 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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Don’t Use Round Robin and Popcorn Reading

Don't Use Round Robin Reading Instruction

Don’t Use Round Robin Reading

Every day in thousands of classrooms, students are called upon to  read out loud. Some teachers use round robin reading, in which every student takes a turn reading a section. Other teachers use popcorn reading, in which students call upon each other to read. For many teachers, these strategies are the primary means of working through a reading text with students.

Teachers who use round robin or popcorn reading stress the importance of reading out loud. They frequently bolster their support of these instructional practices with these claims:

  1. Reading out loud builds comprehension because listening comprehension is generally at a higher level than silent reading comprehension.
  2. Reading out loud is important fluency and decoding practice.
  3. Reading out loud also helps the teacher formatively assess student pronunciation, attention to punctuation, projection, modulation, and inflection.
  4. Reading out loud holds students accountable for reading along with the class, unlike silent reading.

    Popcorn Reading is Poor Instructional Practice

    Don’t Use Popcorn Reading

  5. Reading out loud is a necessary social skill. Students need to be prepared for public speaking. Adults will be called upon to read in front of audiences in meetings, business, church, etc.
  6. Reading out loud can be used to address Common Core Speaking and Listening Standards.
  7. Student love to read out loud and much prefer reading a story out loud together as a class than reading the story silently and independently.
  8. Reading out loud is as American as apple pie. Your teachers did it and look how well you turned out!

But, upon closer analysis, round robin and popcorn reading are not effective means of reading instruction. Instead, having students read out loud with these strategies can actually be counterproductive.

First of all, let’s establish a few caveats regarding reading out loud:

  • For beginning readers, reading out loud an listening to reading are essential reading practices. This article nicely summarizes the importance of read alouds for early readers.
  • In guided reading settings, student reading out loud is necessary for the teacher to complete running records and inform instruction.
  • When allotted practice time and assistance, reading out loud in class plays, readers theater, etc. can be positive learning experiences.
  • My criticisms regarding round robin and popcorn reading refer to individual, not choral reading. Choral reading certainly has its place in reading instruction.
  • Individual read alouds in whole class fluency practice can certainly be helpful. The late Dr. John Shefelbine, a mentor of mine at the California State University, Sacramento, advocated non-choral, individual reading out loud as a guided reading group or even as a whole class. In this approach, students read in “six-inch” voices at their own reading paces as the teacher walks the table or room, listening in and completing 30 second fluency timings.
  • Reading one’s own writing out loud is useful. “Reading aloud helps you cultivate your internal listening skills, which in turn assists you in discovering your unique writing voice.” Reading one’s own writing out loud “sharpens your ear so that you are able to detect authentic dialogue and flowing narrative” and “is the best barometer to tell if your writing is active, flows, has good movement and is working. If you stumble over your own words, you can trust that something needs to be edited or changed” (Shakthawatt). Hearing one’s own words will inform the writer about sentence variety, punctuation, and word choice.
  • In sum, reading out loud is essential in some instructional contexts, but not in round robin or popcorn style practice.

However, the following criticisms of round robin reading and popcorn reading apply to all age levels and levels of reading. Plus, teachers have such effective alternatives:

  1. Reading out loud builds comprehension because listening comprehension is generally at a higher level than silent reading comprehensionThis is certainly true; however, the level of reading comprehension significantly increases when listening to good reading, not poor reading. You, the teacher, are the best reader in the class. Teachers, audio files or CDs, and videos provide much better modeled reading than jumping from one student to the next, interrupting the flow of the reading. Reading comprehension depends upon the connection of ideas. Imagine watching a twenty-two minute episode of your favorite sitcom with thirty different five-second commercials interrupting the show. Comprehension would obviously decrease. Plus, you probably remember from your own student experience with round robin reading that students tend to skip ahead to silently practice their reading section, rather than listening to the student currently reading. 
  2. Reading out loud is important fluency and decoding practice. Except as noted above in my caveats, round robin and popcorn reading provide minimal fluency and decoding practice. With either method, in a class of 30 students each student will only receive 30 seconds of individual practice in a 15-minute reading. Plus, for fluent readers the non-fluent readers may reinforce poor reading habits, such as inattention to punctuation; for non-fluent readers, the fluent readers read at rates which the struggling readers cannot match. Furthermore, any decoding practice is certainly adhoc and text-dependent. Students need multiple examples, not isolated corrections, to improve decoding. Plus, what may be one child’s decoding need, is not necessarily that of others in the class. So much better to diagnostically assess the individual phonics strengths and deficits and teach to the results of the assessment in small group and individualized instruction with phonics workshops and with decodable readers, such as my Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. See below for FREE diagnostic assessments.
  3. Reading out loud also helps the teacher formatively assess student pronunciation, attention to punctuation, projection, modulation, and inflection. Given, but how inefficient! For example, in my Teaching Reading Strategies reading intervention program, students practice reading out loud along with YouTube modeled readings at their individual challenge levels. Teachers can easily formatively assess and teach these reading skills as they walk the room.
  4. Reading out loud holds students accountable for reading along with the class, unlike silent reading. As previously mentioned with respect to round robin reading, students tend to be more concerned with their own reading, rather than that of other students. Admittedly, popcorn reading does tend to force most students to monitor where students are reading (except for Johnny who always loses his place), but knowing where another student is reading is certainly not necessarily reading for meaning.
  5. Reading out loud is a necessary social skill. Students need to be prepared for public speaking. Adults will be called upon to read in front of audiences in meetings, business, church, etc. While I think this is over-stated, I will re-iterate that learning to read out loud well is important, but not necessarily for the purpose of public speaking.
  6. Reading out loud can be used to address Common Core Speaking and Listening StandardsThis is only incidentally true; read the Standards carefully and the explicit examples provided as to how to address them.
  7. Student love to read out loud and much prefer reading a story out loud together as a class than reading the story silently and independently. Some students do ask for round robin or popcorn reading; some because they enjoy the individual attention of reading out loud; others because (except for their individual turn) round robin or popcorn are passive instructional practices, requiring minimal student effort and accountability. Ask any group of students whether they want to be called on to read in front of their peers. I do so on the first day of school each year. A few students (usually the fluent readers) raise their hand to signal “Yes”; the vast majority do not want to read publicly. For some, reading out loud is the single most-feared classroom activity. Poor readers lose self-esteem when required to read out loud. Peers can be heartless and cruel. Too often, teachers use round robin or popcorn reading to “catch” students who are inattentive, which further disrupts fluency and comprehension and only serves to humiliate students. My take is that round robin and popcorn reading actually traumatize some students and adversely affect their desire to read in school and thereafter. 
  8. Reading out loud is as American as apple pie. Your teachers did it and look how well you turned out! Yes, round robin and popcorn reading are long-established instructional practices, but so was making a child stand in a corner while wearing a dunce cap. We know better now. Yes, many of your colleagues still employ round robin and popcorn reading. Some of them were taught to do so in reading methods classes as part of their teaching credential programs. To be honest, many of you who are reading this article have not considered alternative instructional strategies. That’s okay, but it’s time to do so. Re-read some of the alternative strategies I suggested above and explore more. Believe me, round robin and popcorn reading are not the only ways to get through and teach a story.


Intervention Program Science of Reading

The Science of Reading Intervention Program

Pennington Publishing provides two reading intervention program options for ages eight–adult. The Teaching Reading Strategies (Intervention Program) is a full-year, 55 minutes per day program which includes both word recognition and language comprehension instructional resources (Google slides and print). The word recognition components feature the easy-to-teach, interactive 5 Daily Google Slide Activities: 1. Phonemic Awareness and Morphology 2. Blending, Segmenting, and Spelling 3. Sounds and Spelling Independent Practice 4. Heart Words Independent Practice 5. The Sam and Friends Phonics Books–decodables 1ith comprehension and word fluency practice for older readers. The program also includes sound boxes and personal sound walls for weekly review.  The language comprehension components feature comprehensive vocabulary, reading fluency, reading comprehension, spelling, writing and syntax, syllabication, reading strategies, and game card lessons, worksheets, and activities. Word Recognition × Language Comprehension = Skillful Reading: The Simple View of Reading and the National Reading Panel Big 5.

If you only have time for a half-year (or 30 minutes per day) program, the The Science of Reading Intervention Program features the 5 Daily Google Slide Activities, plus the sound boxes and personal word walls for an effective word recognition program.


Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

Get the Diagnostic ELA and Reading Assessments FREE Resource:

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