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.
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.
Guided Reading (Leveled Books) vs Decodable Books
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.
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 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.
#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.
#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
#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.
#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.
Research for Yourself
I have written and extensive article on this approach to instruction. It is wordy, but I think it is a good place to start:
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”