September 20, 2007

A Tale of Two Reading Programs IV

(Continued from Part III)

I spent the preceding three parts of this post explaining guided reading, or at least the most popular implementation of guided reading. For about 75% of middle class kids, guided reading, seems to do the job of teaching kids how to read. Once the student is reading at a solid second grade reading level, the books he'll be reading generally will be legitimate children's literature which has been levelled for understandability. Since the child should have a firm grasp of decoding by this point, the need for books having controlled decodability is somewhat diminished.

At this stage of the reading game, the advantage of a guided reading program is that the child can self-select books (at his level) that interest him. The thought is that by reading books that are interesting for the child will motivate the child to read. A child that is motivated to read will tend to practice reading more and that practice will improve reading ability (with some guidance from the teacher). A nice little positive feedback cycle has been created.

The use of guided reading as your instructional system precludes you from using other instructional systems to teach reading. So let's look at another instructional system for teaching reading so we can talk about the trade-offs and opportunity costs associated with guided reading programs.

I'm going to use Reading Mastery as my example because I am familiar with it. In particular, I'm going to discuss level III of Reading Mastery.

Superficially, the instruction in Reading mastery Level III might appear to be similar to the typical guided reading program.

  • The students read lists of words and do vocabulary understanding activities with some of the words. Teacher directed.
  • The students read a long (between 120 and 850 words) selection and respond to comprehension tasks presented by the teacher. This is the primary activity in each lesson.
  • The students write answers to written items relating to the reading passage, deductions and other skill items, and previously taught material. Independent work.
  • The teacher checks the students' worksheets and makes sure the student understands and corrects items that were missed.

That's basically it. 140 lessons that, if presented properly by the teacher should bring most students from a 2.0 reading level to a 3.0 reading level in one school year or less.

There is, however, a tremendous difference between the two programs below the surface. The difference is due to the fact that the stories that the students read in Reading Mastery were designed from the ground up for instruction. The stories that are read in your typical guided reading are not.
Let's now look at how those differences play out.


New words are first introduced in the word attack lists that are presented in each story. Usually, words appear in two or three lists on separate days. This is done because it is easier for students to read new words in isolation that it is to read them in connected text.

New words then appear in reading selections at least ten times during the course of the program. This cumulative vocabulary development ensures that students receive plenty of practice reading words in sentence contexts.
Because the students have been taught how to read phonetically regular words (and many high frequency irregular words) in the first levels of the program, teaching new words at this level is greatly simplified. If the new words is phonetically regular, the teacher is expected to be able to read the word without any teacher modeling. Words that would probably be difficult to read are first modeled by the teacher, then spelled by the students. (For example, "The first word is actually. What word?" (Actually.) "Spell actually." (A-c-t-u-a-l-l-y.))

To show the students structural or phonemic similarities of different word families, the teacher presents groups of words that have common features. (For example, the students may be given the following list of words: space, bounce, peace, city, race to show the soft-c sound.) By explicitly teaching phonics and other decoding skills in the first levels of the program, the teaching of decoding becomes much simpler by level III and the students can focus on the main objective of reading--actual reading of grade level text.

Following the word-attack activities, the students read the main story aloud with the teacher calling on individual students to take turns reading two or three sentences. The main story contains as many as 25 of the words presented within the last three word-attack lessons. The stories, therefore, provide an immediate word-recognition function.


As vocabulary and decoding skills are being developed, comprehension skills are also being developed. Unlike most reading programs that only teach general comprehension skills (don't specify what is taught), Reading Mastery also teaches specific comprehension skills that involve the procedures that show how the general comprehension skills work. Thus, Reading Mastery provides content that provides practice in the skill and which allows the students to draw inferences.

Here's a summary of the cycle or expanding and developing specific comprehension skills.

  1. A fact (or a rule or perspective or a meaning) is introduced in a comprehension passage (or a word attack presentation).
  2. Within two lessons of the introduction (though often in the same lesson), the fact is used in the main story.
  3. A variation of the fact appears as a worksheet item.
  4. Usually, the item is reviewed in at least eight subsequent lessons.
  5. Some form of the item is usually repeated in at least four main-story contexts.
  6. Facts that are particularly important or difficult to learn appear in fact games.
  7. The final step is the integration of new facts with those previously taught. The combination of different facts provide for increasingly complex applications and review.

Take a look at lesson 68 for an example of this cycle. On the first page two of the vocabulary words, outcome and foul, are used in the main story passage. Also, on the third page, "facts about coconuts," the student learns about--wait for it--coconuts. These facts are then relied upon for understanding the main story and for completing written comprehension questions. On page 6, question 10 ask the student to name the parts of a palm tree; these facts were taught in previous lessons.

Here are a few of the facts, rules, and perspectives that are developed in Reading Mastery III.

  • Measurement rules (facts about centimeters, meters, grams, pounds, miles per hour, seconds, degrees, and liters)
  • Location rules (facts about the United states and a few of its states and many foreign countries)
  • History rules (facts about the Trojan war, cave people, the evolution of horses, Egypt, etc.)
  • Classification rules: (facts about insects spiders, dogs, horses, vehicles, warm and cold blooded animals, etc.)
  • Science rules (facts about, hot air rising, water characteristics, winds, temperature and weather changes, and the like)
  • Word rules (facts about homonyms, homographs, and contractions)
  • Behavior and feeling perspectives
  • temporal perspectives (comparison of how things were done during different historic time periods)
  • size perspectives (comparison of objects viewed by average sized and very small animals)
  • distance perspectives (comparison of different length trips)
  • Place perspectives

Each of these concepts are developed over the at least eight lessons spread throughout the program. So the stories are written to incorporate all these concepts so they can be used in comprehension tasks.

The result is that we get a fully integrated reading program which focuses on teaching decoding skills and sophisticated comprehension skills in the context of thirteen different chapter stories spread over 140 lessons. In addition, a fair bit of science and history content is taught to mastery during these lessons. So while, your typical guided reading program is teaching some decoding skills (hopefully) and some general comprehension skills, Reading Mastery is teaching that plus a great deal of content and sophisticated comprehensions skills.

That is the trade-off when you choose to use non-instructional sources for teaching reading. You forgo many instructional opportunities.

I'll wrap this up in the final post.

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