Guided reading reimagined: How to close reading gaps with differentiation and scaffolding

My earliest reading memory is of my three-year-old self seated on my grandma’s lap in her living room while she read and reread Old Hat New Hat by Stan and Jan Berenstain. I don’t recall why I was so fond of that book, but I’m guessing the repetitive text with picture cues, which made it easy to decode and comprehend, had something to do with it. In addition, I love the main idea gleaned from the story: the perfect hat just might be that old hat made new again.

Guided reading is like that old hat/new hat notion; sometimes what’s old can be dusted off, be made new, and become a perfect fit.

What we now know about guided reading

In the early 2000s, I taught first-, second-, and third-grade students, and guided reading was a weekly practice in my classroom. Each fall I administered reading benchmark assessments in search of data to help me group my students for guided reading based on instructional reading levels. Three days per week I rotated through reading groups and supported students while they often read text below grade level. I assumed students would become too frustrated trying to read text at grade level, and this frustration would impede meaningful reading. Were my assumptions valid? Well, let’s just say I wish I could go back in time and redesign guided reading in my classroom.

State proficiency exams require students to decode and comprehend text at—not below—grade level.

According to NAEP data, only 35% of fourth-graders nationally are proficient or above on state summative reading assessments. While this data is daunting, what’s even more frustrating is the data from two decades ago, which suggests fourth-grade proficiency scores haven’t changed significantly.  Why aren’t we moving the needle for all students? The answer may surprise you.

While teachers, including myself, have certainly tried to implement best practices in hopes of closing reading gaps, we’ve also been limiting opportunities for students to be successfully engaged with complex, grade-level text. State proficiency exams require students to decode and comprehend text at—not below—grade level. If students are busy reading text at their instructional reading levels, albeit below grade level, how can we reasonably expect them to read grade-level text on the state summative exams and earn a proficient score? I wouldn’t want to try swimming laps in the deep end of the pool if I’ve only been allowed to tread in shallow water. The jump from the shallow end to the deep end is best accomplished gradually, with scaffolding. The same can be said about reading grade-level text.

What about that frustration factor? Are grade-level texts too frustrating for some students? Well, they may be challenging, but research suggests students aren’t “turned off” by complex text. Linda Gambrell and colleagues studied motivation and its relationship to reading in the ’80s. They looked at the effects internal and external motivators have on student reading behaviors. Their studies of the relationship of text difficulty and motivation suggest either no relationship or a much more complicated one than we previously considered. When students are challenged and their learning is obvious, teachers won’t need to worry about frustration or a lack of motivation. Instead, with appropriate support, students can successfully engage with grade-level text, and any frustration is mitigated.

How to help readers catch up

So, should teachers continue assessing for students’ instructional reading levels? It depends. What’s the purpose for leveling? If teachers use instructional levels to limit access to grade-level text, then no. Instead, seek out data shedding light on students’ skills gaps, and use that data to differentiate instruction and provide appropriate scaffolds using grade-level text.

[T]ext complexity is a matter of equity.

Imagine you’re a second-grade teacher preparing for a new class of students this fall. More students may be reading below grade level due to interrupted or unfinished learning during the pandemic. In fact, some second-graders won’t have secured phonological awareness or beginning phonics skills, all of which you don’t teach because you won’t find them in second-grade reading standards. Instead, based on Common Core Reading Standards, your students need to achieve the following: “By the end of year, read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, in the grades 2–3 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.2.10).

The standards are clear: there’s no time for remediation. So what’s your plan? Here’s what I would do, now that I know better.

  • Step 1: Administer a reading assessment like MAP® Reading Fluency™ that provides a complete picture of a student’s reading skills, from foundational skills, like phonological awareness and word recognition, to oral reading fluency.
  • Step 2: Use the assessment data to determine students’ skills gaps, and differentiate instruction and provide the scaffolding students need to read complex text at, not below, grade level. (Differentiation is the different activities students work on that are designed to meet diverse instructional needs. Scaffolding is the different supports students need to be successful.)
  • Step 3: Strategically plan guided reading with grade-level text. Create guided reading groups based on common skills gaps and zone of proximal development (ZPD) Ask the following questions: Which students need to improve their reading rate or their reading comprehension skills? Who needs work on decoding single syllable words? Who needs help segmenting phonemes or decoding CVC words? Let the answers help you group your students.
  • Step 4: Select your grade-level text. Consider using a science or social studies passage; they’re rich in vocabulary and expository content.

Put your plan in play

Let’s walk through those steps in more detail. Imagine you have four second-graders performing below grade level who, based on their MAP Reading Fluency data, have Oral Reading Lexile® measures below the typical Lexile oral readability range for text in second grade, i.e., 380L–580L. Furthermore, they all need support decoding multi-syllable words. Resisting the temptation to select an easy text, you settle on a science text from Time for Kids about cicadas. (You can also search for complex text at Newsela.) Here’s what your guided reading sessions can look like.

Guided reading session 1

First, review the text to determine the vocabulary and concepts you’ll need to pre-teach. Focus on words like “rare,” “emerge,” “offspring,” and “predation.” Then read the passage aloud to the group, and model the components of a fluent read, i.e., rate, accuracy, and prosody. Be sure the students are following along with their own copy of the text while you read. Finally, ask some low-level inferencing questions to get a temperature check on their language comprehension skills. Engage students in word study activities and concept maps. Wrap up the session with a choral read.

Guided reading session 2

Continue to scaffold by reading the text aloud before asking the students to choral read. Next, have students partner read and provide strategic feedback on fluency skills. Ask students to choral read the text before asking for volunteers to read aloud sentences or paragraphs. (Notice how you’re gradually removing scaffolds.)

Guided reading session 3

Begin with partner reading. Next, ask each student to independently read the passage while you listen to individual students and provide support as necessary, one student at a time. Lead a discussion to tap into those deeper comprehension levels, like application and synthesis. For example, ask your students, how old will you be when the offspring emerge? Why is their emergence so unique? Then assign a writing activity, because reading and writing are synergistic. Have students explain what Michael Raupp, the expert named in the article, means by, “There are going to be songs.” Finish with a readers’ theatre performance.

You’re a change warrior!

When you look back on all you’ve had to change to make learning a reality for your students during the pandemic, you’re probably eager to dust off some of those tried-and-true, comfortable instructional practices this school year. Who could blame you?! I would ask you to rethink guided reading. Be sure to assess for valid data and take note of any reading skills gaps. Group students based on ZPD levels, choose a complex, grade-level text, and implement scaffolds. Instead of selecting multiple texts below grade level, plan for the most effective scaffolding to allow students to experience success with grade-level text and standards, as noted in “Teaching children to become fluent and automatic readers.” The scaffolds you choose will be different for each guided reading group.

Remember, text complexity is a matter of equity. For decades, we have assigned struggling readers text below grade level. This denies them the opportunity to successfully read grade-level text, develop rich vocabulary and complex syntax, and build content knowledge. We can’t continue denying complex text to struggling readers and wondering why they can’t keep up with peers and meet grade-level expectations.

Trust the process. You’ll be amazed at the amount of growth your students make, and that “old hat” can become a perfect fit after all.

Hear more from Lynne on how to support readers this school year in our webinar “Data and practice: Science-backed strategies to improve early literacy right now.” She and Cindy Jiban, former principal academic lead in early learning at NWEA, discuss straightforward, classroom-ready ways to use data to improve reading outcomes. 

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