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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

What do you think of Guided Reading for secondary school?

October 2, 2018

Teacher question:

I read about the "research base" for guided reading, and Fountas & Pinnell’s exposition of this research mostly contains only position papers no empirical, peer-reviewed research. I realize that many of the guided reading strategies can be found in research that predates F & P, but what about the effectiveness of guided reading itself? The reason I’m asking is because “guided reading” is now being promoted for high school. What do you think of guided reading for adolescents?

Shanahan's response:

As usual, it all depends on how you define things.

What do you mean by guided reading?

The F & P version of guided reading is certainly the most known form, but it isn’t the only one and when I speak to teachers about it they have different perceptions of what I’m saying.

Guided reading these days is a veritable elephant to the blind — snake to one man, rope to another, wall to a third.

I criticize some aspect of guided reading, and the response might be that I’m opposing small group instruction. I’m not, but if you think guided reading is about avoiding whole class teaching then you’ll blanch at my complaints.

My sense is, that despite the complexity of F & P’s guided reading approach, both advocates and denigrators tend to focus on one characteristic or other.

I’ve already noted there are those who believe that guided reading and small-group instruction are synonymous. Small groups are important to guided reading, but it certainly isn’t the same thing. There are many other kinds of small-group pedagogy, including explicit phonics groups and cooperative reading groups.

To me the key element of F & P’s guided reading is the idea that kids need to be taught with texts of particular levels of difficulty (that’s the definition the International Literacy Association has in its Literacy Glossary). Supposedly if kids are matched to texts properly they’ll make surer progress in learning to read. Research hasn’t been supportive of that idea and in practice it usually means students get less opportunity to deal with content at their cognitive, motivational, and social levels — a big issue in high school — since graded-text adjustments are more likely to be down than up.

Lately I’ve noticed that many critics emphasize the specific kinds of guidance that students are given in the F & P scheme. Particularly offensive to them is the guidance aimed at getting kids to guess words based on pictures or promoting the use of the “three cueing systems” to read words.

The term “guided reading” originated in the 1930s. It quite accurately refers to what happens when teachers lead students in a communal reading, and that is true of F & P’s scheme as well. In their guided reading, teachers escort groups of students through a text every bit as much as the teachers did back in “Dick and Jane” days (in fact, that’s where the term came from originally). I wish we’d reserve “guided reading” for this communal reading, reserving “Guided Reading” for the F & P variety — though I suppose that cow is already out of the barn.

You note that some of the strategies within guided reading (such as preteaching vocabulary, talking about prior knowledge, or questioning kids after a reading) long have had a research base, and that is correct — though there are, as of yet, no convincing studies of the efficacy of guided reading itself. And, in this case, what is true for elementary reading is the case for secondary students.

What do I think of guided reading for secondary students?

I have no problem with small group teaching in middle school and high school, though it is harder to manage this profitably because of the shortness of the instructional periods. Don’t group solely for the sake of small group teaching, but I certainly wouldn’t discourage teachers from using small groups when they make sense; when they amplify your teaching rather than reducing the amount of teaching.

But matching kids to texts on the basis of reading levels makes no more sense with secondary students than with elementary ones, and the same can be said about teaching students to read words through anything but orthographic cues. Neither matching kids to texts based on reading levels or teaching cueing students are supported by research, and there are reasons for rejecting both (e.g., research finds we can raise reading achievement by teaching with harder books than those prescribed by guided reading; poor readers depend upon semantic and syntactic cues to recognize words, but good readers do not).

At secondary level, I would certainly include various kinds of communal reading — under teacher guidance. Having classes/groups of students read common texts with teacher scaffolding is a good idea, whether we are talking about the reading of a short story in an English class or a chapter from a science book. Such communal reading opportunities well managed promote mature interpretations of particular texts or the development of comprehension strategies.

Communal reading here doesn’t mean reading a text aloud — either with the teacher reading to the students or the kids taking turns round-robin style. Guided reading focuses on reading comprehension and, except with the youngest readers, that is best practiced through silent reading.

This guided/communal reading can take many forms. For example, reciprocal teaching guides students to read texts while learning to use particular strategies (predicting, summarizing, questioning, clarifying) — and gradually fades or withdraws guidance as students gain proficiency with the strategies (the I do, we do it, you do it approach). Or, close reading is another way to communally explore text — this approach aimed at developing a rich interpretation on the basis of a careful consideration of what texts say and how it says it (e.g., repetition of ideas, use of literary devices).

That means I very much support the idea of “guided reading” with secondary students — but I wouldn’t “Guided Reading.”


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