September 4, 2007

A Tale of Two Reading Programs III

(Continued from Part II)

Before moving forward, I want to back up a bit because I glossed over a few aspects of Guided Reading that need to be clarified.

I've been confusingly calling Guided Reading a program; however, one of the commenters has pointed out that it's really an instructional strategy, which is correct. So, to clarify: when I write Guided Reading program I mean my school's implementation of the Guided Reading methodology, specifically the Fountas/Pinnell Guided Reading methodology with a couple of twists which I'll describe in more detail in this post.

In my last post I didn't go into enough detail of the teacher guided portion of the instruction. And, since I just mentioned that my school is using the Fountas/Pinnell version of Guided Reading, you can probably guess where this going if you are a teacher/tutor.

To effect the teacher guided portion of instruction, the class is broken up into small, roughly-homogeneous groups. Each group gets their turn with the teacher and the students read from a teacher-selected book during this time in order to teach a particular reading strategy or the like. One strategy that I noticed was being taught to my son's group was to "guess" at words, mainly by using the accompanying pictures. I discouraged this kind of unproductive behavior and even gave the boy a pat on the head when the lowest mark on his mid-year report card was for "using context and other clues." Nonetheless, it was an ongoing battle getting him not to guess at words he was having difficulty decoding. The incidence of guessing was more than when he was reading the Reading Mastery stories since they are designed to be virtually 100% decodable based on the student's current knowledge of the code. Moreover, the leveled books he brought home sometimes contained many words he had not yet been taught to decode and presented a challenge, especially when the pages were festooned with highly predictable illustrations.

I eventually won the battle of wills by continually pointing him back to the letters of word as the only place from which he should glean information. About the only problem I still have with him is that sometimes he will read the first half of a difficult word and guess at the remainder of the word without carefully reading it. I suspect that this is a common problem.

The reading groups are supposed to be flexible with the he students are periodically tested and regrouped based on the progress they've made. This is how ability grouping is supposed to be done,so I can't fault Guided Reading on this count.

In addition to the leveled readers, my son's school did word rings. This entailed having the students read from a leveled word list of what I'm assuming consist of high frequency words. When the student came to a word he couldn't read without hesitation, the word was added to his ring of words. Afterwards, the student would practice reading all the words on his ring (up to ten) for the next ten days, presumably until recognition was immediate. At that point, a pair of words was retired from the ring and a pair of new words was added. I did notice that some of the words were present in the books he was reading, but I do not think the word-ring word lists were aligned with the leveled readers. (Can anyone clarify?)

About 2/3rds of my son's first grade class came into first grade reading at about level E or above. These kids came into first grade with a decent to strong understanding how to read. These kids mostly made steady progress throughout the year and most, if not all of them ended first grade at Level I or above, indicating a second grade reading level. Reading instruction for these kids consisted of lots of sustained silent reading of self-selected leveled books, massed practice of reading from word lists for decoding purposes, and small group teacher-led lessons from teacher-selected books for teaching reading strategies.

For the lower third of the class, mostly boys, reading instruction took on a different face. These kids got individual instruction from reading specialists. When you don't have many kids falling into this category and you are a wealthy suburban school district you can afford to teach like this. These were the kids coming into first grade not yet knowing how to decode. And while I don't know exactly what these kids were being taught by the reading specialists, I can tell you that the books they read from (levels A-E) were about as inauthentic as you get. The books were as contrived as any phonics reader (i.e., Nan can fan a fat cat) I've ever seen. Instead of being controlled for decodability; however, they were controlled for predictability using repetitive language and ample picture clues. So, even if these kids were getting phonics instruction, they would then be forced to read highly phonetically undecodable books. Sends a bit of a mixed message.

But I want to keep the focus on the upper 2/3rds of the class. The part of the class which did know how to decode from day one of first grade or who picked it up soon thereafter. All that these kids needed, for the most part, was lots of practice reading, with a little instruction thrown in to get past sticking points, such as learning some advanced letter combination sounds (oi, ow, oa, etc.) and using context to determine the correct word (i.e., the girls read the sign yesterday). Lots of practice with increasingly difficult text to improve improve fluency until the point of automaticity is reached so that the student can concentrate on comprehension and so that reading becomes less of a chore.

The point that I'm trying to make is that the kids who come into first grade with a leg up on literacy can learn how to read in an efficient manner using Guided Reading using self selected books from the canon of children's literature. Guided Reading is an appropriate form of instruction for these kids because these kids either have the cognitive ability to learn decoding from this form of instruction or they learned it from some other means before first grade.

I've tried to paint the prettiest picture I could for Guided Reading, but if anyone is more familiar with the Guided Reading propaganda, please feel free to add to the list.

In the next post we will finally be able to analyze Guided Reading on its merits as compared to another successful reading program. I will also discuss Guided Reading's trade-offs. All programs have trade-offs, including Guided Reading. And, I don't mean the ultimate trade-off of when a 1/3 of the class isn't learning without the use of reading specialists. I'm talking about the less than obvious trade-offs for the upper 2/3rds of the class--the ones who will emerge as successful readers by the end of third grade.

(Continue to part IV)


Brett Pawlowski said...

My son has just started kindergarten, and I've been teaching him to read using Zig Engelmann's "100 easy lessons" book (we just finished lesson 68 last night).

I've noticed in him exactly the things you've noticed in your son: the tendency to guess at the endings of words, and the attempt to look to the pictures to get the meaning of the story. (Engelmann offers one cartoon for each story, which is to be used for a picture comprehension exercise, and not to interpret the text itself; however, since the cartoon appears on the same spread as the text of the story, it's understandable that this would happen.)

I continue to remind him not to guess at the words or story; that you can know rather than guess if you read the words. The fact that guided reading encourages using pictures is disheartening: it's hard to learn a new symbol system if you're allowed to use a more familiar one as a crutch or substitute.

Anonymous said...

DeRosa states:

"I did notice that some of the words were present in the books he was reading, but I do not think the word-ring word lists were aligned with the leveled readers. (Can anyone clarify?)"


I think you will find that sight word lists can vary between teachers, schools and districts. At one time my district provided the lists of sight words kids needed to memorize. Some teachers might use lists based on words the child missed in his guided reading book or others might use prepared lists of high frequency words. It make no difference where they come from. It is simply "mal-instruction" due to a lack of understanding of the alphabetic code. Kids who have broken the code learn sight words easily because they see the code. They learn all words quickly. For them there is no such thing as sight words. Kids who have not broken the code, and parents reading this will agree, sight words are one big nightmare making homework a dreaded ordeal. Reading to these kids does not make sense and sight words are simply another thing they cannot do.

It makes no sense whatsoever to send home lists of words if those words contain code your child has not been taught.


Anonymous said...

The "Guided Reading" portion of the balanced literacy approach uses leveled books to teach the comprehension strategies, fix-up strategies and figuring out word strategies. Even Fountas and Pinnell have stated that students should be able to choose their own books for independent reading time to practice the strategies. The books for SSR should NOT be leveled. The teacher should be able to listen to the students read and retell, and know if a book is "too easy", "just right", or "too challenging".

Word study is another necessary component of a balanced literacy classroom. Students need to automatically read the sight words. This list should be memorized- the students should not have to look for patterns in these words. The Dolch Sight Word list is very common. These words should be on a Word Wall and on flash cards. Spelling patterns should be taught through word sorts. "Words Their Way" is an excellent resourse for this component.

Anonymous said...

In and of itself, small group reading instruction is fine. It is the sole use of "whole language" techniques and strategies that is so damaging. What the HUGE problem with modern reading instruction is the exclusion of the teaching of fundamentals of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, etc).

Any linguist will tell you that. I know. I am an ESOL teacher and have studied linguistics. I am also a practicing language teacher.

Anonymous said...

One strategy that I noticed was being taught to my son's group was to "guess" at words, mainly by using the accompanying pictures.

This strategy is known as using picture clues. To help clairify, the sole purpose of looking at the pictures is not to just "guess" at words. Instead this is used in combination with what you were teaching your son to do and that is to use context clues as well. I'm a primary teacher and this is a common strategy to help beginning readers help make meaning. It is effective if taught correctly. The pictures can help kids think of the word that is in question. They should not be using the pictures alone though, they should be looking at the letters in the word to see if their word from the picture clue matches the word on the page. Kids should also be asking themselves if the word they are using sounds right and makes sense. If all of the checks and balances match up they should be able to independently determine if they read the word correctly. So in essance it is using several strategies together to help with the vocabulary.