Continued from Part I
Let's talk a little more about Guided Reading.
Guided Reading is term used in the balanced literacy movement. In balanced literacy, there is a desire for students to self-select books they want to read. The theory goes that these books should be "authentic children's literature" and not "less authentic" books designed specifically for instruction.
Let's assume for the sake of argument that reading authentic children's literature is more enjoyable for students than reading literature designed for instruction. Of course, if you've ever actually read the books that a typical first or second grader is capable of reading on his own (even with guidance), you know that they are far from "literature" in the traditional sense.
As I alluded to in Part I, in order to accomplish this lofty goal, much of the canon of children's literature has been analyzed for reading comprehension purposes using semantic difficulty (word frequency) and syntactic complexity (sentence length) as the controlled variables. In this way the way, children's literature has been leveled for the children based on their ability to comprehend the book.
When my son started first grade he was tested and it was determined that he was was capable of reading books on at level G. This corresponds to about 3/4 of the way through first grade. It was a fairly accurate assessment of his reading ability since he was about two months shy of finishing the first grade level of Reading Mastery.
Time for a quick aside. It is convenient for purposes of this post that my son started first grade reading at an end of first grade level (Level G). To read at this level the student is becoming a proficient decoder. Prior to this level, the books are highly "inauthentic," often containing predictable text with abundant picture clues. By starting at Level G, I'm conveniently avoiding the phonics vs. whole language debate. Kids coming into first grade reading at an end of first grade level have generally developed good decoding skills, by whatever means they've acquired them. These kids understand what reading is about and although they still need a lot more practice to become proficient readers they are on the right path to literacy.
When my son started first grade, he was told to pick out books that looked interesting to him from the Level G bin. During his reading period, the kids in level G would have a daily session with the teacher in which they would read their books and the teacher would offer guidance in the three cueing system when students came to a word they couldn't read. I'm not going to go into the merits of the three cueing system for beginning readers, suffice it to say that readers at my son's level are mostly getting all the information they need from the information contained in the the words themselves and not form the other spurious sources.
After this fifteen minute of so teacher guided reading session, the students are told that they should read their books, or look at the pictures, or draw a picture, or something else that kind of looks like a literary activity while the other groups are getting their fifteen minutes of teacher time.
At first I wondered why the students were given so many options when it was clear that what they were supposed to be doing was sustained silent reading (SSR). I quickly realized, however, that the reason the students were given all these non-reading options was because a good third of the class didn't know how to read well enough yet to read on their own. Looking at the pictures was about the closest they could come to actual reading.
You can see how this SSR, an integral part of Guided Reading, favors the good readers and discriminates against the bad ones. The good readers, the ones who can read with accuracy, are reading their books during SSR and getting practice at reading. The poor readers, the ones who can't read or read without accuracy, are either looking at pictures or making many errors and trying to employ inappropriate reading strategies. They're not getting much reading practice during SSR time. This is known as the Matthew Effect--the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
In addition to SSR time, it was expected that the student would bring home his book and read for ten to fifteen minutes every night with his parents. This is how I managed to get an ongoing sample of what it's like for a child to learn how to read the Guided System way.
The first thing I noticed is the the Guided Reading method of controlling books on the basis of reading comprehension is a less than ideal way to select books for the beginning reader. Sometimes the book my son selected would be much too easy for him and contained little instructional value.
Sometimes, he selected a book that was punishingly difficult, containing many difficult words that he did not know how to decode yet. If you can only decode about 80% of the words, this means that every fifth word you read on average will be unreadable, making the text incomprehensible. Knowing that reading these punishing books is a motivation killer, we usually just skipped the readings that night and encouraged him to pick a different book for the next day. This became less and less a problem as his decoding skills improved, but what happens to the kids who isn't picking up the reading game as quickly?
And, sometimes the books came home that were in the the range of 90% or better decodable.
Here's how the system works: The student continues to read books from his level. Periodically, the student is tested to see if he reads well enough to progress to the next level. If he does, he moves up to increasingly difficult books.
But, what happens if he stops progressing?
We'll pick it up there in the next post.
I welcome comments from reading teachers and parents who can add any details to what I've laid out so far or to point out any areas I didn't quite get right. I want to be accurate when I start comparing reading programs in the next post.
(Continued in Part III)