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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

Does Research Support “Guided Reading?” Practical Advice on Directing Reading

How to maximize the effectiveness of preteaching vocabulary, setting a purpose for reading, reading aloud and silently, questioning and discussion after reading, and oral reading practice.

Teacher question

One of the most important activities in my class is guided reading. Not the “Guided Reading” program (we use a textbook) but group work with the children reading under my guidance. Some of our teachers do this with the whole class. I think it works better the way I do it, with small reading groups. The students read the text and I ask questions and we talk about it. In my experience that is helpful. Is there any research supporting that?

Shanahan’s response

First, let’s set aside the term “guided reading.” It now appears to a be a wholly owned subsidiary of someone. I guess it always was. Scott Foresman came up with that label in the 1920s to describe their reading lessons, and Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell grabbed hold of it successfully in the 1990s and now it’s difficult to talk about it without that connection.

In the 1940s, to compete, other book companies proposed alternative lesson plans. One of them used the term, “directed reading.” These days no one is likely to confuse that with a current commercial enterprise, so let’s use that.

Directed reading refers to those lessons in which students read a selection communally under teacher direction or supervision. The point is to practice reading under the vigilant watch of a teacher, who provides guidance and support to ensure success.

You are correct that this can be done and is done both whole class and small group.

Does research support that activity?

I can give you a definite “sort of.”

The problem here is that there are so many ways teachers can organize directed reading lessons. Some versions may work better than others, but several have been found to confer learning advantages.

Going way back, E. L. Thorndike (1917) found that asking comprehension questions in a reading lesson improved comprehension. When I was becoming a teacher, studies were supporting Russell Stauffer’s Directed Reading-Thinking Activity, which centered the discussions around student-generated predictions instead of teacher asked questions, and that seemed to work, too (Schorzman, 2005). Various forms of directed reading have paid off in one way or another (e.g., Davis, 1988; Schmitt, 1988). More recent studies have explored the value of approaches like Reciprocal Teaching (Moore, 1988) and Questioning the Author (Beck et al., 1996), and those seem to be good ideas as well.

Those studies prove that it is possible to make any of those varied approaches work. That doesn’t mean that all such plans would be effective or that they would work equally well. But there are enough of them for me to conclude that some form of directed reading should be regular part of any reading program.

I have long promoted the idea of dividing instruction among word knowledge, text reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing. Directed reading would go in the reading comprehension slot in that scheme.

Given the general value of directed reading, let’s consider how teachers might maximize the benefit of this activity. The steps in traditional “directed reading activities” include:

  1. Preteaching new vocabulary
  2. Setting a purpose for reading or motivation
  3. Read text segments as assigned by teacher
  4. Questions and discussion after the reading of each segment
  5. Oral reading practice

Preteaching vocabulary

Preteaching vocabulary is a pedagogical move aimed at protecting comprehension from the disruptive effects that unknown words can cause. Students will typically comprehend a text more readily when the teacher has prepared them in this way (e.g., Wixson, 1986). But it is important to remember that the purpose of directed reading isn’t to guarantee high comprehension on an initial read. We are trying to teach students to read and to read better. If they are always taking on texts that the teacher guarantees will be comprehended immediately and with minimum effort, we aren’t really teaching reading — just watching kids practicing.

I must admit that I have concerns about preteaching vocabulary. I think a big part of successful reading depends upon dealing with unknown words. That is part of the reading process. In real life, readers are left to their own devices when it comes to new words. How they deal with them often determines comprehension. Personally, I would minimize this — increasing attention to vocabulary during the activity. Of course, if a text is especially heavy in words that I suspect the kids won’t get, I might hedge my bets, but that would be rare.

Setting a purpose for reading

Teachers have long been encouraged to provide students with purposes for reading. “Find out what happens at Janie’s birthday party” or, “When reading this, pay attention to how many chambers the heart has and what they are called.” The idea, I guess, is that good readers read with clear purposes in mind.

Is that really the case? Sometimes it certainly is, like when someone is searching for specific information in a text. But, I must admit, when I read, I often don’t have very specific goals in mind. I want to find out what this study reported or what the characters did in this novel, very general purposes.

Research supports that notion. When students have very specific purposes set for them, they tend to narrow their focus, increasing the possibility of finding what the teacher asked for, while leading them to ignore the rest of the information (Narvaez, et al., 1999; O’Reilly, et al., 2018; Samuels & Dahl, 1985). Students with general purposes — read to summarize this part of the text or let’s find out what happens in this story — are more likely to lead students to develop a coherent mental representation of the text than when searching for more specific information.

Be vague here, rather than specific.

Oral reading and silent reading

When students are starting out, they need to read aloud. This is true in kindergarten and for at least a part of grade 1 for most kids. Certainly, by the time they achieve a high first grade reading level, they can profitably engage in silent reading, though too often teachers avoid this. This avoidance comes from the same drawer where we keep the preteaching of vocabulary. The idea is more to guarantee high comprehension rather than to develop students’ ability to read with comprehension.

Initially, silent reading is not as effective as oral reading — for some kids that doesn’t start to even up until middle school! Accordingly, many teachers engage kids in round robin reading as if they were all beginning readers. It is better to have these text segments read silently. Admittedly, sometimes you will have to have kids reread at times (it happens).

How are they going to get good at silent reading comprehension if never asked to do such reading with a vigilant teacher close by?

When you start out with this, keep the segments short — even as short as a sentence or a paragraph. Over time, you can stretch them out, assigning longer segments as they develop the facility to do the reading in their minds. (Or, you can have them initially do whisper reading or mumble reading).

Questioning and discussion

I know some programs encourage the use of set questioning schemes, perhaps based on Bloom’s taxonomy or Raphael’s question-answer-relations, or some other scheme. Research suggests that there are many ways to question students and that it is helpful to ask at least some questions that go beyond literal recall or “right there” questions. Nevertheless, the benefits tend to be tiny.

I’m not a big fan of questioning schemes per se, at least I would discourage the idea of asking one of these, and two of those, and so on. I would much rather have the teacher ask questions aimed at identifying whether students comprehended the text well and, if not, where things, went wrong. What would be important to remember from a given text and what would you have to do to get that information? What vocabulary had to be understood?, which sentences had to be comprehended?, what connections had to be made?, were there spots where it was necessary to use prior knowledge?, what inferences were needed?, and so.

If students can’t answer the questions, the instruction should show them how, literally taking them back into the text and having them reread (often orally at this point) the part that gave them trouble. By the end of these lessons the student should have a fair understanding of the text — even though they may not have started that way — and the teaching should have helped the student to understand better the actions that may be needed to ensure comprehension.

Whether you teach this in a small group or whole class, teacher questions — no matter their quality — rarely surface the problems students may be having with a text. This is because there is almost always some more proficient youngster doing the answering. I strongly encourage the use of white boards, notebooks, or electronic means of getting everyone to individually answer each question. That way, the teacher can see how everyone is really doing, and can support the comprehension of all the students.

Oral reading practice

Many directed reading schemes provide some oral reading practice, usually at the end. When I was a youngster, this was handled round robin style with each of us reading a sentence or paragraph until the text had been reread or until everyone had a turn.

These days, teachers have a better understanding of fluency development, so things like repeated reading and paired reading have allowed for more oral reading by each child during the same amount of time. That’s great.

I am less certain about fluency always being the follow up, however. I fear it encourages teachers to avoid text that might challenge students’ reading abilities (selecting texts easy enough to ensure high fluency) or it forces maximum use of inefficient small group instruction. At least for those youngsters likely to be disfluent, I’d suggest having them read the text aloud before taking it on for comprehension. Studies show that this one action can transform many supposedly frustration level texts into instructional level ones that students can take on successfully.

That fluency work can be done in pairs, through echo reading, chorally, at home with cooperative parents, or even with a recording device. The point is to give the kids a chance to decode those words and that kind of repetition has been found to accomplish that. That approach shows kids that they can often make sense of texts that they would have thought to be beyond their own means.


Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., Sandora, C., Kucan, L., & Worthy, J. (1996). Questioning the author: A yearlong classroom implementation to engage students with text. Elementary School Journal, 96(4), 385-414.

Davis, Z. T. (1988). A comparison of the effectiveness of sustained silent reading and directed reading activity on students’ reading achievement. High School Journal, 72(1), 46-48.

Moore, P. J. (1988). Reciprocal teaching and reading comprehension: A review. Journal of Research in Reading, 11(1), 3-14.

Narvaez, D., van den Broek, P., & Ruiz, A. B. (1999). The influence of reading purpose on inference generation and comprehension in reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(3), 488-496.

O’Reilly, T., Feng, D. G., Sabatini, J., Wang, Z., & Gorin, J. (2018). How do people read the passages during a reading comprehension test? the effect of reading purpose on text processing behavior. Educational Assessment, 23(4), 277-295.

Rothkopf, E. Z., & Kaplan, R. (1972). Exploration of the effect of density and specificity of instructional objectives on learning from text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 63(4), 295-302.

Samuels, S. J., & Dahl, P. R. (1975). Establishing appropriate purpose for reading and its effect on flexibility of reading rate. Journal of Educational Psychology, 67(1), 38-43.

Schmitt, M. C. (1988). The effects of an elaborated directed reading activity on the metacomprehension skills of third graders. National Reading Conference Yearbook, 37, 167-181.

Schorzman, E. M., & Cheek, E. H., Jr. (2004). Structured strategy instruction: Investigating an intervention for improving sixth-graders’ reading comprehension. Reading Psychology, 25(1), 37-60.

Thorndike, E. L. (1917). Reading as reasoning: A study of mistakes in paragraph reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 8(6), 323-332.

Wixson, K. K. (1986). Vocabulary instruction and children’s comprehension of basal stories. Reading Research Quarterly, 21(3), 317-329.

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About the Author

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 (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
April 9, 2024