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Are Guided Reading Lesson Plans Wrong? 5 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into Your Classroom

Are Guided Reading Lesson Plans Wrong? 5 Ways to bring the science of reading into your classroom.

Are Guided Reading Lesson Plans Wrong?

Have you sat through hours of professional development surrounding guided reading lesson planning and instruction?  I know I have.  In fact over my years as an instructional coach, I have even conducted some of those guided reading training sessions.

Over the years, I have seen success with most of my students by providing differentiated instruction by using leveled texts.

However, in my district (as in most school districts that use guided reading) 35%-40% of the students in 4th grade are not reading proficiently.  Research gathered surrounding the science of reading has changed what I thought I knew surrounding best practices… GULP!

So what is wrong with guided reading?

Let’s first understand what guided reading is and what a lesson looks like.

What is Guided Reading?

Guided reading leveled books are just one of many different text complexity leveling systems. You may be familiar with the four of the most common leveled reading methods:

  • Guided Reading Level (GRL)
  • Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA)
  • Lexile Measures
  • Accelerated Reader

Each leveled book systems have complex criteria, but one common trait can be found in the earliest of emergent books.  Emergent leveled books rely on predictable text patterns. 

What is wrong with guided reading lesson plans

So the idea of conducting guided reading lessons is as follows:

  • You assess students to see what they can do within books.
  • You provide instruction based on what you notice students are ready to learn next.

So far, so good. This makes sense… right?  What does the reader know?  What does the reader need to learn?

Here is the issue… it is the text we put in the hands of the students.

What is wrong with guided reading lesson plans

Guided Reading (Leveled Books) vs Decodable Books

Leveled Texts

As I stated above, there are a few different leveling criteria used to determine a guided reading text level. Virtually every book you pick up such as Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (DRA: 20, GR: K, Lexile: AD530L, Accelerated Reader: 2.4) has a reading level.  So, no, leveled books are not bad, they should just be used differently with emergent readers.

What is wrong with guided reading lesson plans

Historically, when following a guided reading lesson plan, teachers have cueing systems that they employ when a student comes to an unknown word or a point of difficulty.  The first cue has been, “Look at the picture to see if that helps you.”  When we use this reading strategy, students begin to look like readers, but are they?

Soon we start to see students rely on the pictures, memorize the book patterns, and often barely work through the letters in the words.

As leveled books begin to build in complexity (mid-kindergarten and beyond) we notice students start to stall out with their reading progress.  Books move from highly predictable to more complex.  Illustrations are fewer.  Research tells us that 25% of our students are not equipped to navigate more complex leveled books.

Dr. Wiley Blevins put it perfectly in his book, A Fresh Look at Phonics, “When growth is not occurring, the instruction must change – not the child.”

Decodable Texts

Decodable books are books that are written to maximize the use of phonics patterns that students have learned thus far. The text is controlled so that roughly 70%-90% of the words are decodeable. Additionally, they will contain high-frequency words that have been explicitly taught.

Research tells us that students  need robust practice with the application of phonics skills in context.  In other words, students need to be reading words that have the phonics patterns they are learning.

5 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading Into Your Classroom

#1 Teach Phonics Explicitly

I wish I could have a conversation with 2010-Deedee-Wills. I would love to be like Cher and “turn back time.”  So let’s be clear, I am imperfect but willing to change along side you.

Currently in the United States, students are not getting the phonics instruction they need. Period. Exclamation point! Especially students with learning differences like dyslexia.

Whole group lessons should be taught for mastery. Instruction should be cummulative and comprehensive.

Assessment should not be a one and done sort of task.  Students should be practicing decoding (reading) and encoding (writing) as part of your daily phonics instruction.

Are Guided Reading Lesson Plans Wrong? 5 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into Your Classroom 1

#2  Teach Phonemic Awareness Daily and Explicitly 

Students with the knowledge of phonics but who lack phonological awareness skills will not be able to successfully read.  It is like having the world’s fastest sailboat, but no wind… it is worthless.

Being able to hear the sounds within words (segmenting) and putting the letter sounds together (blending) is the key to reading.

Your daily phonemic awareness lessons must center around the practice of these skills.

What is wrong with guided reading lesson plans

#3 Add Decodable Texts to Your Instruction Most of the Time

Here is some data for you.  This study looked at the type of texts students used for their reading instruction (meaning the books in their hands.)  This study started in September where students were broken into two groups.  Statistically, these students all started out at 40% skills mastery.  Students were reassessed using The  Woodcock Reading Mastery Tests – Word Identification in  February.  Here are the findings:

  • Decodable Texts:  72% of the students achieved mastery
  • Leveled Texts: 54% of the students achieved mastery.

Blevins, (2000) Phonics A to Z

Are Guided Reading Lesson Plans Wrong? 5 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into Your Classroom 1

#4 Teach High Frequency Words, Don’t Just Assign Them.

The days of memorizing high-frequency words should be behind you.  Include the teaching of high-frequency words as part of your phonics instruction. 

Students need to pay attention to the parts of the words that are following the phonics rules they have learned thus far. Then taught to recognize the irregular part of the high frequency word.

What does a science of reading lesson plan look like? AND how do I teach it. Let me share some insight and give you some practical ideas for structured literacy instruction!

#5 Change Your Guided Reading Strategy Prompts

Let’s do away with the “Look at the picture and make a smart guess (or get your mouth ready for the first sound.” prompt.  Instead, direct the students’ attention to the print.  This is the prompting order I would suggest:


  • Students will look at the first letter of the word and say the sounds.

  • Students will say the last sound of the word.


  • Students say the sound.
  • Students will then blend the sounds.


  • Is it a bigger word?
  • Can you cut it into smaller parts?


  • Read just the word.

  • Read the word in the sentence.

  • Check that it makes sense.

What Can You Do If You Are Required to Use Guided Reading Lesson Plans?

I understand that sometimes districts adopt materials or practices and making a total shift is not up to you. First, incorporate the 5 tips I listed above as much as possible.

Here is a link to decodable texts that are affordable for teachers.

You can layer decodable texts with leveled texts.  In their amazing book, Shifting the Balance:  6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom, Jan Burkins and Kari Yates suggested students have 2 reading bags.  One bag where the student can read all of the words.  The other bag contains books where they can read some of the words.

Additionally, you can approach the guided reading book differently.  Prior to asking the students to read through the book, you can point out the words that contain the targeted phonics skill.

So What Happened to the Guided Reading Lesson Plans?

As you can see, there are few tweaks you will want to do with your guided reading lesson plans.  If you can set those old lessons aside and adopt a decodable reader approach to small group instruction, your students will find greater success.


Research for Yourself

I have written an extensive article on this approach to instruction.  It is wordy, but I think it is a good place to start:

Want to read more about the Science of Reading?


Sometimes school leaders need help in exploring best practices for emergent readers.

Here is an online resource to help you in your journey to learn about The Science of Reading”

Are Guided Reading Lesson Plans Wrong? 5 Ways to bring the science of reading into your classroom.

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Deedee Wills

My teaching career allowed me to experience teaching in different classroom environments and grades. My heart belongs to early childhood education. My job is to make teaching FUN, ENGAGING, and EASIER. Welcome!

Hi, I'm DeedeE.

My teaching career allowed me to experience teaching in different classroom environments and grades. My heart belongs to early childhood education. My job is to make teaching FUN, ENGAGING, and EASIER. Welcome!

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43 Responses

  1. Deedee,
    LOVE your guided reading that I have started to use after 35 years of teaching! Wow!! Change is good!
    Question?? If I have a struggling student in Level A, should I have them repeat Level A or keep moving through the levels?
    Happy new year and thanks!

    1. Yay for you and trying new things! The running record will help you to know when to move on and when to jump back. If the student is still in the “instructional range” of level A, then stay there. Sometimes students stay at A for a while.

    1. Hi there!

      Yes, you can start with set one or set two. By creating an additional set, we are giving teachers additional books they can use.

  2. I am new to kindergarten after teaching 3rd, 4th and 5th for the past 11 year. I am so excited to see my students developing the necessary skills for reading. I bought Level A to start using but am unsure of what to do on days 3 – 5 since your lessons are only for days 1 & 2. Thanks for the help!!

    1. Hi there! Yes… you use one book for 2 days… then you simply start a new book with that group. 🙂

  3. I am a third grade teacher. I have been teaching for 24 years. I have been interested in guided reading for several years now, but Have never tried it. I just don’t know how to get started. I like your work, but don’t think it will work for 3rd grade since you are a kindergarten teacher. My students’ reading levels range from 1st -4th grade. Do you know of any good resources that I can look at to get me started?

  4. Pingback: Lesson Planning Secrets Made Easy
  5. I love using your guided reading lessons. My district uses Reading 3D (by Amplified) as a progress monitoring and assessment program. Beginning with level F , written response questions are included as a major part of the assessment. I would be so thankful if you could include written response questions in your level F and above guided reading units.
    Thank you so much!

  6. Hi Deedee,

    I bought levels A-C and I love them. My class size is 26. I have huge range of reading levels. From A-I , in Kindergarten. When I am working with my readers I am struggling keeping my other 22 kids busy. I have centers, but they never keep them busy the whole time. I get frustrated because I want to make the small group time meaningful. Any suggestions?

    1. I think if you read a few of my tips (the links included in the blog post) you will find some suggestions that will work for you! 🙂

  7. I am confused about guided readers units and guiding reading units. Are you using both?

    1. Hi there!

      Guiding Readers is our whole group lessons. Our focus is on reading comprehension and responding to literature. The teacher does the decoding work and the students do the thinking work.

      Guided Reading is small group lessons. In these lessons, the students do the decoding and the teacher guides them through leveled text instruction and word work. These lessons are differentiated by the students’ ability.

      SO YES! We use them both.

  8. I just want to thank you for sharing “Gearing up for Guided Reading.” There are so many things to take and use. Twent-eight years teaching and still love learning new things!

  9. Thank you for the great info! For the leveled book bundles you and Deanna wrote:
    1) Do you send home a B&W version in their book bag and keep the colored copy at school so the colored copies don’t get lost or damaged after the Day 1 and Day 2 lesson? (I’m trying to balance what the kids need with cost of replacing a damaged or lost colored copy).
    2) Are the other books in the book bag (i.e. Fire from the Guided Reading video) ones they have already read to you? I hesitate sending home books (even if its the same level) if they have not read the majority to me before.
    3) How long and how many books do you keep in their book bags before they are switched out for their nightly reading at home?
    I loved your Gearing Up for Guided Reading video and can’t wait to change things up this Kinder school year using your strategies!!

    1. Hi there! Your questions were so organized! Let me see if I can answer them in an organized fashion:

      1) I usually sent the colored books home. We really practice responsibility and I have found that I usually only lose a small handful of books each year… like 4-5… TOPS! BUT we hammer it pretty hard. I will try to go into that in greater detail in a future blog post. (writing it down right now so I don’t forget!)

      2) YES! I have leveled texts that are from Wilbooks, our weekly poem book, and their ABC fluency book. I don’t worry if they get home and can not read from one of the other books in their bag. Parent know to look for the group book and practice that first. Reading the pictures is still a pretty awesome skill to practice.

      3) They usually have 3-4 books in their bag. I swap them the next time I meet with them, so several times a week.

  10. Hello! I am trying to get organized in my classroom. I was wondering if you plan different activities according to each student to do when they are not with you for guided reading or do you have students do the same activities?

    1. Some of my center activities are differentiated automatically… like the writing station, listening station, and sentence station. Otherwise, I try to offer options for each student.

  11. DeeDee I would LOVE to see you in action in video during a guided reading group using these plans.

    1. You bet! I have webinars that I offer that will show these videos. If you are on my email list, you will get the notification when they are offered again . 🙂

  12. Thank you very much for this GR program. It is exactly what we have been looking for to enhance our current reading curriculum. I have a couple of readers in Level G and ready to move on. Do you happen to have bundles for Level H and above?
    That would be ideal way to continue this GR plan as the children move up the levels.
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Dorian,

      You are welcome!!! We do have level H and level I, but they are not in bundles.

      1. That’s great news.
        I’m sorry to bother you again, but I have looked on TPT for your GR program for those levels (H-I) and I am having trouble finding them. Can you please direct me to where I can purchase them?
        Also, can you tell me, do you use any general comprehension questions on Running Records for levels A-C?
        Thanks so much. With your GR addition to our current program, you have saved this’first year as a returning teacher’ a lot of time and energy….there’s too much to do! 🙂

  13. Love all of your info – thanks! Am I correct that you have 3 groups per day / 20-25 minutes each – so 1 hour of reading groups per day? If so, are the other students at the same station for the whole time or do they rotate? Also, I teach 1/2 day K where all academics are done by 12:00. Although I would LOVE LOVE LOVE it, I can’t spend an hour a morning just on reading groups. Thoughts? We do have 1 special class each morning, too. So we are HOPPING! 🙂

    1. No, by students rotate stations. I think there is a link in this blog post that shows how I manage stations. Many have found it helpful to see how I set them up.

      Yes, I know half-day kindergarten is a challenge. You certainly can’t do a full days worth of teaching in half the time.

  14. Fantastic! You can download the free sample at the bottom of this blog post. Just add your email to the box provided and it will be sent to your inbox.

  15. What do you do on day 5? I understand you do a book on day 1 and 2, the do new book on day 3 and 4. Just wondering what you do on the 5th day.

    1. Hi there!

      If I meet with a group 5 days a week, I may start a 3rd book on day 5 with that group. Or I might pull another activity that that group needs… like rhyming, sounds, or other phonemic awareness skill.

  16. Hi Sharon,

    YES! We had problems with the webinar platform. When the webinar was going on, I had no idea WHY we were having interference. Then the next day we reached out to the webinar service and they said they had a temporary outage. UM… RIGHT in the middle of my webinar. GOOD GRAVY! I about had a stroke!

    SO… Yes, there was about 5-6 minutes of monkey business on that webinar.

    I believe I said to not acknowledge interruptions at all. I also talked about an anchor chart that I tell my students to refer to when they have a problem. Let me know if you need to see a picture of that.

    1. Thank you for such a quick response. I was able to watch the rest of the webinar and could see that you were having tech difficulties. But, it worked fine for me except for that missing few minutes. I saw the anchor chart you are referring to, but I couldn’t see some of the things on the anchor chart. Number 2 and 3 on the chart say to “Look at” something, but I couldn’t tell what they were to look at.
      Thanks for a great webinar. I taught self-contained special ed for 8 years from 1991-1999, then had kids and homeschooled until 2017. This is my first year back in a school in almost 20 years and my first year teaching 1st grade. I love my kiddos, but I’ve got a lot to learn. Your materials are very helpful.

      1. No problem.

        #2 says: Look at the “I Can” card (that is a visual directions card I have for all of my centers.) You can easily make your own by drawing a picture.

        #3 says: See who was at the center before you were by looking at the station work board.

        I’m excited for you, but I’m sure it is overwhelming. You may want to watch my webinar that is specific to managing centers. Here is a link to find that one.

  17. I would love to see your blank template for lesson plans. I don’t see it on the bottom of the page and the link you posted in the comment section isn’t working. Has it been removed?

    1. The guided reading template was removed because of our shift to the Science of Reading. The lesson planning page you see in this post is part of our Decodable Readers bundle.

  18. I am trying to dive into the SoR research. Your blog resources and recorded webinars have been so helpful, but I was surprised that you are suggesting totally doing away with guided reading and focusing on decodable books. I am trying to wrap my head around the switch. Are all of your students reading the same decodable readers each day? How are you differentiating your reading for students? I teach first grade, and my students usually vary between pre-primer and level F/G when they come to first grade. I can definitely see the decodable readers being beneficial for my struggling readers and plan to incorporate those into my guided reading block for my lower students, but I can’t imagine my higher reading students being engaged with a cvc a book at the table. I love the shifts with the phonics and sight words, but I was planning on keeping my guided reading block the way it was for my higher students during Daily 5/Reading center time. I value your opinion and work, so I wanted to get clarification on what your high readers are doing too. Thank you for the amazing resources!

    1. Hi there! Yes! In following with what experts are recommending students should be in decodable books. In your small group instruction, you will select the decodable text that matches their phonics/phonological skills. So you may find you have some students using the CVC books, while others are using vowel team books. You are right, having a student who has demonstrated mastery with one skill (such as CVC words) would have a wasted small group lesson if that is the text you selected for them.

      Will you let me know if that helps clarify?

      Essentially, you will swap the leveled texts for decodable books… you will pick the decodable book for that group that best matches their current instructional knowledge so they can practice apply the phonics skills that they are ready for.

  19. Hi Deedee,

    I love your post. Very clear, concise and informative. However, I do notice that in one of your (I assume?) decodables shown (CVC skill focus) that the word ‘river’ is in there. Readers working on CVC skills should not have books with the the ‘er’ spelling pattern. The skill of decoding words containing r-controlled vowel spellings must come much later when students have explicitly been taught.

    You are correct when you say the text must be VERY controlled and skills must be sequential. We cannot be using decodables with any words we want. This then goes back to students guessing at the word or using the picture bc they have not been taught it yet.

    1. Hi Katie!
      Thank you for your comment. Yes, there is an R-controlled word in that book which is why we have included pictures for those type of words that are above the decodable level for each specific book. Those picture words are given to students before reading the text.

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