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Why guided reading can be the perfect match for teaching reading comprehension

Guided reading can be the perfect way to teach the comprehension element of the new National Curriculum, says James Clements…

James Clements
by James Clements
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As a newly-minted teacher fresh from university, I decided I would spend my first English lesson with my new class sharing Kenneth Grahame’s classic, The Wind in the Willows.

I picked up my battered old copy, and without any introduction I began to read aloud, transporting my inner-city London class to the countryside idyll of the riverbank.

I read the first chapter without stopping for breath, then finally closed the book and looked out to my class. They looked back at me, eyes sparkling, clearly enjoying the story as much as I was.

Then a hand went up from the back. “That’s a good story Mr Clements, but I’ve got a question. Ratty is a rat, yeah? But what kind of animal is Mole?” Ah…

Comprehension, constructing a mental model of what we read, is central to becoming a confident and competent reader, but teaching children to develop such a complex set of skills and behaviours can be notoriously difficult.

In many English schools, guided reading is enjoying a renaissance, as teachers and English subject leaders revisit this method of teaching reading to address the challenging new requirements of the 2014 National Curriculum.

Organised and taught well, guided reading can be the perfect match for teaching the reading component of the new curriculum. It allows for plenty of teacher-child dialogue, and the interactive nature of working in a group means learning is collaborative, with children learning from their peers.

Working in a small group enables the teacher to focus on each individual child, targeting her questioning, and addressing any misconceptions as they occur. It also allows the teacher to assess children’s reading skills without having to resort to written tests, which are often as much a test of writing ability as they are of reading.

So, what can teachers do in guided reading sessions to best support the development of children’s comprehension skills?

1 | Assess and teach ‘casual inference’

Inference is often seen as the top of the hierarchy of comprehension skills. As teachers we’re often keen to get to rich text or character-based comprehension questions such as ‘how does Max feel when he is sent to his room without any supper?’

But for many developing readers, the first potential stumbling block comes with casual inference, the little particles of understanding that confident readers take for granted.

This can include missing cohesive devices such as not following lexical cohesion from sentence to sentence: ‘Katie was thirsty. After some moaning, her sister handed her the bottle.’

Or not being able to identify who is being referred to by a particular pronoun in a sentence: ‘Tom snatched the ball from Sam’s hands. He began to cry.’

This is particularly true for children who are not yet strong word-readers and are using lots of processing power to decode the words on the page.

The small group nature of guided reading gives the adult the opportunity to check children’s understanding of the text as they read, supporting them to make the casual inferences that are needed to understand the text as a whole.

2 | Pre-teach the context

A key element of comprehension is being able to match what we’re reading to our knowledge of the outside world, to use our general knowledge to build a mental image of the information in the text.

If we don’t know anything about a particular topic, it can be very difficult to make sense of what we’re reading.

For a child, Leon Garfield’s wonderful narrative version of Julius Caesar is a much richer experience if they know something about the Roman senate and that the Romans overthrew their last king.

This helps them to appreciate Brutus’ dilemma and understand the significance of Caesar being offered a crown.

While it wouldn’t be possible to pre-teach the background knowledge for everything children are about to read, guided reading gives an opportunity to do this in a small way.

A few moments sharing a picture of the different animals in The Wind in the Willows at the start of the session means that all children, however limited their knowledge of woodland creatures, can access the story.

3 | Model comprehension monitoring

Comprehension monitoring is the ability that confident readers have, allowing them to recognise if they haven’t understood what they’ve read.

It is what makes us re-read a sentence, make sure we haven’t skipped a page, or even go away to undertake the operose task of looking up the meaning of an unfamiliar word (like now, perhaps).

A guided reading session allows the teacher plenty of opportunities to model this behaviour with the children who need it most, using a text closely matched to their level of understanding.

Effective teaching approaches include asking children to summarise the passage they have just read, or teaching children to form a mental image as they read, helping them to detect inconsistencies or missing information.

4 | Give children regular reading time

One of the most effective ways of supporting children’s developing reading comprehension is regular time to read.

After the age of seven, most of the new words we learn come from reading, and breadth of vocabulary plays an important role in children’s understanding of what they read.

Effective guided reading can help to keep children interested in books by providing them with regular time to enjoy engaging stories that will resonate with their interests and capture their imagination.

Guided reading myths

Guided reading began life as part of the old National Literacy Strategy, and some teachers still worry about how far they can stray from the traditional carousel model of five small groups reading with an adult once per week for 20 minutes.

In fact, guided reading offers considerable flexibility as a vehicle for teaching reading:

Myth: In guided reading, children should be organised into five groups of six children

Just because there are 30 children in most classes and five days in the week, it doesn’t automatically follow that each guided reading group should be the same size. Actually, guided reading groups can be of any size: smaller groups for an intensive focus with the children who need it, to larger groups for longer reading sessions. The key is that each child is working with a text that is accessible but challenging, and has the opportunity to engage with the teacher and their peers in genuine discussion about the book.

Myth: Guided reading should be organised as a carousel

There is no set structure for organising guided reading sessions. Schools are free to set up sessions however they wish. What is important is that children are engaged in meaningful activities that will develop some aspect of their reading and that guided reading is having an impact on the standard of children’s reading.

Myth: Guided reading sessions should last for 20 minutes

In most schools guided reading has moved out of the English lesson to become a part of the school day in its own right. The length of sessions is at the discretion of the teacher – many schools have successfully used a model where guided reading is organised into fewer, but longer weekly sessions.

Myth: All children must read aloud during their guided reading session with an adult

Children who are developing as readers, especially those in the early part of the school, will benefit from reading aloud to an adult as often as possible. By Key Stage 2, the great majority should have developed strong word-reading skills. Guided reading is therefore now an opportunity for high-quality discussion based on the text, with children using the book they have read to justify their views. A literature circle approach can work well, with children reading the book away from the session and coming to their session with the teacher ready to discuss what they have read.

James Clements is director of and the co-author of Teaching the Reading Curriculum: The role of high-quality guided reading.

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