August 27, 2007

A Tale of Two Reading Programs

My son was in first grade last year.

In September, he entered first grade reading at about an end of first grade level (According to Scholastic's Guided Reading Chart: level G). By June, he was reading on an end of second grade level (level M). This is based on the school's testing. By the end of the year he was reading about 120 correct words per minute.

At the beginning of the year he was at about lesson 140 (out of 170) in Reading Mastery Fast Cycle. If you read this blog with any regularity, you probably know that Reading Mastery is a Direct Instruction (DI) reading program that is carefully sequenced and scripted. By lesson 140, the explicit phonics portion of the program has been almost entirely completed and the modified orthography has been faded. The sounding out exercises are done. All of that, took place in lessons 1 - 120, in kindergarten. By lesson 140, the instructional program consists of actual reading done by the students. There are no phonics worksheets or other busywork. There are worksheets aligned with each day's reading that obtain feedback from the student to determine whether the student is learning and comprehending what has been read.

Here is the teacher's script for Lesson 68 from Reading Mastery III which my son would do about halfway through first grade.

My son wouldn't be doing Reading Mastery in school. I doubt there is a school within 200 miles that uses Reading Mastery as the primary reading program. We did Reading Mastery at home instead of the levelled readers he was supposed to be reading in his school's reading curriculum. Like most schools in this area, his school teaches first graders to read by using a Guided Reading program.

If you have a child in elementary school, you probably know what guided reading is already. Briefly, guided reading is the balanced literacy version of Reading Mastery. Whereas, Reading Mastery depends upon a carefully designed sequence of lessons using carefully controlled decodable words for instruction, guided reading depends mostly on magic for instruction.

Instead of controlling the decodability of the stories, guided reading programs control for reading comprehension using semantic difficulty (word frequency) and syntactic complexity (sentence length) as the controlled variables. Basically, in a guided reading program, a bunch of children's books are analyzed and assigned a level according to their semantic difficulty and complexity. A student starting at, say level G, would be directed to pick out a book he finds interesting from the G bin and read it to himself. Then, the student will read his book to his teacher in a small group of other kids at the same level. The teacher will listen to the students read, correct mistakes, offer help developing reading strategies (including mini-phonics lessons). After a few weeks of this routine, the student is tested to see if he's learned how to read well enough to move on to the next level. The system works well enough for some kids who progress as expected. This is were the magic comes in. But when the magic fails and the student stops progressing, there is no easy way to diagnose and remediate the problem because the system is so haphazardly designed.

Over the next few days, I'm going to compare and contrast a well designed instructional reading program (Reading program )with a more poorly designed and far less instructionally robust reading program (Guided Reading) and how my son progressed through each program during first grade.

(Continued in Part II.)


Kathy said...


You can blog about the pitfalls in guided reading from now till the end of time but when schools like the ones reported in today's Phila Inquirer such as Chadd's Ford continue to make huge reading gains it is a hopeless battle.( 94.3% prof.adv) My local charter, is now posting huge gains using guided reading and the leveled texts. A suburban school listed the 100 Book Challenge as the main reason for its reading gains. That program consists of leveled texts only. All picture guessing.

Guided reading does work well for kids who can break the alphabetic code on their own or with some instruction. They flourish in those awful leveled readers. They make the necessary code connections and learn to read very quickly. The actually teach themselves.

The kids who can't break code in the hit or miss instruction of guided reading flounder in those books. Those kids are seen as disabled.

I see no way to change any of this and believe me I have tried. I have been using another explicit program(not DI) for over 7 years in two schools. I get kids to grade level who were floundering in guided reading. However no one in either of my schools feels any need to change the reading program for all kids.

I now think the only kids that we may be able to reach are the kids who begin to flounder in kdg in guided reading. I work with those kids only.


KDeRosa said...

Kathy, your observations are the same as mine. I'm working on part II now.