August 30, 2007

A Tale of Two Reading Programs II

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)


Anonymous said...

Your description of guiding reading is correct. My only addition to your blog is about the leveled books. These are not even close to being real literature. Real literature for first graders for me includes such books such as Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik or Mouse Tales or Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel or Pierre by Maurice Sendak. I don't see these titles in the boxes of books for first graders in my school. As far as I know the leveled texts are specially written for these programs. I may be wrong and teachers feel free to correct me on this. Is it possible to find any of the texts used in guided reading in the public library? I only emphasize this point because whole language folks always bring this up when you begin talking about explicit instruction and decodable books. They are so afraid we are going to take all the real literature out of the classrooms. I don't see it there in the guided reading books and no one is complaining.

The levels of these books as you have stated are not leveled by code difficulty. If you gave any parent a level B or level F book they would have a hard time figuring out which is which.

Some programs like the 100 Book Challenge, which my school system uses, has books sorted by colored dots such as one red or two blue.

I find it all one big confusing mess for parents. Their child could be level E and two red dots. Now what the heck does that tell a parent about their child's reading?

Ask any parent to to hide the pictures in the book their child is supposed to "read" for homework. If the child has figured out reading usually this is not a problem and the child can read the books. If they have not, the child is lost.

I tutor first grade kids. They happily read the 100% decodable books I use with them and then must go back to their classroom and read the leveled books. I watch them. They are lost. They try to guess at words or worse they just sit there. They must feel so confused and stupid. Why do we do this to children when we don't have to?

And you best point, the kids who have broken the code are getting tons of practice reading in class. The ones who have not are getting no practice. Reading makes no sense to them. Much of the reading block is a big waste of time for them.


Ms L said...

I hesitate to speak for others, but in my fifth grade classroom, I use a wide variety of trade books in guided reading. Picture books by authors such as Chris Van Allsburg, Patricia Polacco, Eve Bunting, and Cynthia Rylant are utilized along with novels by authors like Andrew Clements, E.L. Konigsberg, and others used simultaneously in class literature circles. My guided reading groups shift regularly based on the focus for instruction determined from each child's Developmental Reading Assessment and my own professional judgement from observing and conferring with children in my class.

I think that guided reading can look quite different from grade to grade and school to school. Schools who buy a "canned" program probably do end up with a lot of poor-content, low-interest text.

My primary concern is with the level of training for and development of teachers who are expected to employ guided reading. The trickle-down effect of professional development can be like a game of telephone, so that by the time the bulk of teachers are given materials and PD on something like guided reading, they get the research and methodology third-hand from someone with scant experience. Not investing in proper PD is a great money saver, but, more often than not, you tend to get what you pay for.

Anonymous said...

Again, another person who wants to tell you that you are correct.

I learned about the dangers of this whole language/guided reading/balanced literacy business the hard way. I had the misfortune of teaching in a school system that uses balanced literacy/Four Blocks/America's Choice as their way of reading instruction. What ever the name or system, it's still whole language.

It's killing the children. Only the children of the upper middle class really learn to read here. AND IT IS BECAUSE THEY ARE BEING TAUGHT AT HOME. The poor, working class, and others are left out in the cold.

But truth of the matter is that Whole Language was never really about the students anyway. It was all about the teachers.

Anonymous said...

Ken, I don't think your information about "Guided Reading" is quite accurate. To begin with, Guided Reading is not a "program." It could be styled an instructional strategy or teaching practice, and there are several schools of thought about how it is to be implemented. Your description of your son's class experience is more consistent with SSR, self-selected reading. "Guided Reading" is generally understood to be a small-group activity where all children in the group are reading the SAME book. It may or may not have been self-selected -- normally it is teacher-selected on the basis of assessed student needs from running records etc. The students might be grouped because they need to practice a particular reading "strategy" or because they have some other identified common need(s).

There are two major schools of thought on "Guided Reading." One (the dominant one) is informed by the writings of Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell from Ohio State, and the "Bible" is their hefty tome, "Guided Reading: Good First Instruction for All Children." See here:

The "levels" you refer to, such as "Level G" are Fountas and Pinnell levels. That's an indicator of which "school" of guided reading your district has in place. Naturally there is much variance in what a "Guided Reading" lesson looks like and what the teacher does, but the groups are supposed to be homogeneous and, ideally, change fairly frequently. Even kids at the same "level" have different needs so that the teacher would (in a perfect world) have the groups more finely-grained than simply "Level D kids -- Tuesday and Thursday."
There's more here on the F&P model of Guided Reading:

The other major school of thought in "Guided Reading" comes from Pat Cunningham of Wake Forest University and is the one favored in her "Four Block" approach to literacy instruction (again, Four Blocks is not a PROGRAM, but an instructional approach and organizing structure). The key text here is her book, "Guided Reading the Four Blocks Way"
and her earlier "Classroom Instruction that Works" -- a good book in fact. Many excellent teaching routines are presented. Your point that these work well for students who hit the ground running (so to speak) with literacy -- including those whose parents insure they learn the needed subskills -- is well-taken.
Here's a Power Point about Cunningham guided reading:
(note that this falls into the category of qualitative rather than quantitative research. It lacks the empirical rigor of the latter).
Cunningham explains her approach here:
A major difference is that Four Blocks guided reading groups are heterogeneous. She feels strongly that homogeneous groups stigmatize children, and that struggling readers learn better with stronger readers as models in their groups. A key concept of hers is that of "multilevel" instruction.

Both Guided Reading approaches are significantly different from DI or other explicit code-based introductory reading systems, but they do include a lot of explicit TEACHING. The problem being, as you pointed out, that for the children who don't catch on to word decoding, the "strategies" they learn to employ are usually maladaptive ones -- using pictures, word length and initial letter cues *instead of* the phoneme-grapheme correspondences. If this guess-the-word pattern becomes entrenched it is extremely difficult to break. Sally Shaywitz suggests that many of her adult "persistently poor readers" were in this category -- they had intact language and neurological systems and no signs of any disability, yet the brain areas needing to be stimulated for reading and writing proficiently had never been activated. Guided Reading *instead of* providing a thorough working knowledge of the alphabetic code is part of the problem rather than the solution. However, even Reading Mastery at the upper levels has lesson segments more like GR than RM I. Students are gradually introduced to more and more complex texts, the focus is on story elements, genre and other more advanced features. The difference is, in RM VI the students easily decode the text and their word recognition has long since become automatic. By that time they are proficient readers.

The charge that teachers like BL, Guided Reading etc. because it is "less work" than explicit instruction such as DI is in my experience an unfounded one. Teachers have to work their **** off to implement GR and other whole language approaches successfully. They are constantly re-inventing the wheel and often have to buy all their own resources as well. My colleagues are there until 7 or 8 p.m. on school nights, just preparing for all their little groups.

Anonymous said...


you state:

"It's killing the children. Only the children of the upper middle class really learn to read here. AND IT IS BECAUSE THEY ARE BEING TAUGHT AT HOME. The poor, working class, and others are left out in the cold."

From my experience with kids and learning to read, this process has more to do with the ability to break the code, (match sound to print) than poverty levels. Kids in rich suburban schools can have problems learning to read. I have seen it in my tutoring practice.

Some kids need lots of explicit instruction to learn to match sound to print, others do not. The ones who need lots of explicit instruction flounder in guided reading programs and this can happen in any school in any part of the country.

I have not read all the research about why some kids can or cannot break the code or have issues with segmenting and blending sounds but these issues are some of the main reasons why reading is easy or hard for kids.

Research has found that explicit instruction can make a huge difference for the kids who struggle to learn to read and I find this true with my students.

Kids who do not struggle can learn to read with just about any reading program or any teacher.

I think bringing in poverty levels distracts from the real problem- incorrect reading instruction for some kids. We can change instruction. We cannot change poverty levels.


KDeRosa said...

Great comments. Keep them coming.

I'll address them in my next post.

Bear in mind that I'm trying to discuss a successful Guided Reading implementation where most of the kids are successfully learning how to read. I think that for this to be the case, most of the kids must already either know the code or be on their way to learning it and doing so quickly.

I'm trying not to dwell to long on the kids who don't succeed in the program. I'm trying to focus on the kids that are learning so I can compare their experience with the experience of a student going through a more structured reading program. In one sense the more structured program is overkill for these kids since they don't make as many errors that need to be corrected and as a result there is less chance of them learning the wrong strategies. On the flip side, the advantage of the more structured programs is that because the reading exercises have been develope for instructional purposes, there are more opportunities for students to learn content which they probably aren't learning by the self-selection of random levelled books.

There are trade-offs in teaching any program, I want to focus on those trade-offs while ignoring the ultimate trade-off which occurs when the reading program has failed a student. I don't want this to be a bash Guided Reading exercise, we know already that the program is going to fail a certain segment of students.

Instead let's keep the primary focus on the success stories, the kids who are learning. I want to hear about some of the advantages of Guided Reading, there certainly are some since it mimics other successful programs in some aspects, like its ability to keep pace with a student's learning pace. I want to hear what works well and what doesn't work well when it comes to students who are well along their way to literacy. That's why I started at Level G, past the point where most of the program's deficiencies lie.

I will talk about the struggling kids in my next post, then you should get a better idea of where I want to go and how far for with the students who struggle.

Anonymous said...

Just to add more to the discussion about the Guided Reading "leveled books." Unless your son's school is an extreme anomaly, the "levelled books" in the baskets (Level G, Level N, etc.) are NOT "authentic" children's literature, but books specifically written to conform to the requirements for that particular level, at least until you get up there into second and third grade levels where some real books do correspond to the criteria.

So the idea that children in guided reading groups are reading "real" literature as opposed to material specifically written for "reading instruction" is patently false at the earlier levels. People who foam at the mouth at the mention of "decodable text" do have a point when they say text like "Nan can fan the man" is underwhelming. However, most fail to see that the "guided reading" texts at these levels are often just as bad -- no engaging story and many words included that children can't decode, thus they are forced (in fact encouraged) to employ a guessing "strategy." What's so "authentic" about a book along the lines of ," I see the boat, I see the car, I see the airplane, I see the helicopter, I see the ocean liner," blah blah. If you look through the "books" written for these early levels, you will find some of quality but MOST is vapid rubbish. They do have glossy pages and pretty pictures. I have never once seen a child more enthused about one of those predictable guided reading books than they were about their "decodable" books that they could actually READ .

Most guided reading materials used in schools in K-2 are produced specifically for that purpose by publishing companies. Fountas and Pinnell did publish a fat book called "Matching Books to Readers" giving the F&P guided reading levels for hundreds of trade books, but there are few at the early levels. They also have a website with the database of pretty well every book known to man analyzed for F&P levels but it is expensive to subscribe to it.

By the time kids are reading at a second-third grade level, they move into chapter books and can read many books on their own. But in that critical first year and a half, the quality of the "guided reading" type texts is nothing to inspire the young mind, and for kids who are not mastering the alphabetic principle, the use of so-called predictable text is particularly toxic. Have a look sometime -- you'll find no "authentic children's literature" at that level. Kids are readily engaged by humorous decodable text, like the stories in RM about the cow in the road, or the dog that ate the car. The better decodable text is not great literature, but it is amusing and whimsical and appeals to young children's sense of humor. It also sets them up for success. There is nothing preventing a teacher or parent from using BOTH carefully sequenced text and "authentic literature" as much as possible but ensuring that the sequence of skills necessary to read that literature is taught and practiced. "Do both" is my own philosophy.

nbosch said...

You know me, I'm always off topic...there is a rule in school libraries called the "5 finger test"-- If you don't know 5 words in the first few pages of a book; then the book is too hard for you.

I heard a presentation by Sally Reis (Univ of Conn) several years ago on gifted readers and she said that a gifted reader should read books with a thousand words they don't know. Hmmm.

KDeRosa said...

Just to add more to the discussion about the Guided Reading "leveled books." Unless your son's school is an extreme anomaly, the "levelled books" in the baskets (Level G, Level N, etc.) are NOT "authentic" children's literature, but books specifically written to conform to the requirements for that particular level, at least until you get up there into second and third grade levels where some real books do correspond to the criteria.

I think this is mostly true in the early levels A-H, but by level I and up, many of the books , at least in my son's school were legitimate children's literature. But, it wasn't until about level L where he was getting real chapter books. The average student reaches Level L in the latter half of second grade.

From levels G-L the books were shorter and supposedly contained simpler sentence structure. I thought these books contained a large number of irregular and difficult to decode words. If anything, the books in level L and up, seemed to get easier to decode, perhaps because they had gotten longer.

This is the pitfall when you don't control for decodability.