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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

My state is banning instructional practices … or, how to look like you are teaching effectively

What are the instructional benefits of guided reading, teaching with leveled books, and informal reading inventories?

Teacher question

I am working through my state’s “Literacy Plan.” There are several instructional practices that get the “thumbs down” here as being “not in alignment with evidence-based instruction.” The list is long and includes guided reading, leveled readers, and informal reading inventories. I’m curious what your take on those practices is?

Shanahan’s response:

Thanks for sharing.

The list you sent was long and I agree with your state on some of the items (e.g., three-cueing, miscue analysis, balanced literacy  — whatever that is), but I suspect those who are calling the shots are reacting more to social media buzz words than to any real knowledge about classroom teaching or reading research.

Let’s just explore those three examples that you highlighted above — guided reading, leveled readers, and informal reading inventories.

Should those really be banned or seriously discouraged by state education departments?

I get that everybody wants to be “cool” but banning practices because the Twitterverse doesn’t seem to like them is a dopey way to make policy.

What’s the problem with “guided reading?”

I suspect this one is at least in part a definitional issue. Perhaps it’s more of a complaint with Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell’s use of the term. Their concept of guided reading carries lots of baggage, including the emphasis on matching kids to texts by reading levels, minimization of explicit and planful instruction, and the emphasis on 3-cueing systems.

If those were the hallmarks of guided reading, then your state would be on the mark.

However, the term “guided reading” is now more than a century old, and the concept the term has been used to describe is much more specific and sensible than the F&P version. I think if we go with its more widely used meaning, it is a concept well worth preserving. That doesn’t mean that guided reading in practice is always a good thing — no, I’d admit many teachers use it badly. But I’d rather see your state providing guidance to teachers in how to implement guided reading well in their classrooms than banning or discouraging the practice.

What is guided reading?

The term refers to the group reading of text under the guidance or direction of a teacher or group leader. Most often, this guidance takes the form of a series of questions asked by the leader.

Guided reading experiences as such provide readers with social opportunities to practice their reading comprehension as well as to gain knowledge from the texts being read.

Originally, guided reading was an adult education practice. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, created a successful guided reading group, the Junto, in the 18th century. This was a tool of self-education used by Franklin and his leather-aproned buddies. They’d read books communally and then discuss their content and value. Franklin even provided a list of questions that could be used to guide the reading discussions.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that guided reading formally became a part of the daily practice of American elementary schools; that was when basal reader publishers began providing lesson plans for the selections in their textbooks. Teachers were to convene instructional groups that would read the selections together and then talk about them by answering the teacher’s questions.

These kinds of communal reading experiences have a long history in education at all levels and in many cultures. It is hard to imagine teaching someone to read without including this kind of guided or directed reading practice.

Of course, there are a variety of versions of guided reading. In the U.S., especially in modern times, it’s not unusual for kids to be encouraged to develop varied interpretations of the shared reading stories. While in some cultures, one of the purposes of the guided reading is to ensure that everyone accepts an official text interpretation. You’ll see more questioning in the former case, and more leader explanation in the latter.

Even within American culture, there are important variations on the kinds of reading guidance provided. The teaching of comprehension strategies, for example, usually introduces strategies within the context of guided reading lessons. The teacher demonstrates how to use a strategy and then students try to use it with a group read selection.

Often, in such lessons, the point is less to gain the text information and more to learn to apply the strategy.

Textbook versions of guided reading have often emphasized the mastery of comprehension skills. This has been done by having teachers ask certain kinds of questions as this supposedly would improve the students’ ability to answer such questions. (This approach isn’t particularly effective. But its failure has not been due to guided reading, but to the wrongheaded idea that question answering is a generalizable or transferable skill.)

These days comprehension skills and strategy teaching are often criticized by those who think that time would be better used in helping students to increase their knowledge of the world. However, these critics aren’t opposed to guided reading, they are just advocating a different emphasis to the practice. That’s where concepts like close reading come in, a guided reading approach that emphasizes a more thorough analysis of text content. Not surprisingly, guided reading of text is a widely used approach to review content information in science and social studies classes.

Personally, some form of guided reading of shared texts would be a centerpiece of my reading comprehension instruction (which would be accompanied by strong instructional efforts to build word knowledge – including phonics, morphology, and vocabulary, oral reading fluency, and writing/spelling).

Of course, if it makes your state department of education happy, I’d gladly refer to guided reading as “directed reading.” Perhaps they’d be more comfortable with that (you don’t see many mentions of directed reading on social media). That’s what one of the basal reader companies did in the 1950s to differentiate their group reading lessons from those of the “Dick and Jane readers.” A rose by any other name… well you know.

I don’t want to put too fine a point on this, but I guess I’m saying that I think your state would be making a mistake to discourage guided reading.

The next practice to be avoided — according to your state — is the use of “leveled readers.”

This one makes me nervous, because I don’t think anyone has written more than I about the problems of teaching kids at their instructional level in grades 2-12.

But, even with that admission, I’m a little lost about how we teach kids to read without having kids read texts.

No, I get it, the mandate isn’t against using text to teach reading, only against using leveled text.

However, what texts don’t have levels? What texts can’t be placed upon a continuum of difficulty?

Let’s face it, some texts are harder than others. Yes, and some are easier. And, we can measure or estimate those levels.

Studies show that even decodable texts have difficulty levels — are we going to ban those, too?

There are various problems with leveled texts, and I agree that we should be careful not to make those mistakes again, but the notion that schools should rid their shelves of books with levels would mean that no books would have a place in education.

What mistakes must we avoid?

Well, the F&P approach to book leveling encouraged the use of so-called “predictable texts” with beginning readers. Predictable texts repeat whole sections of text to make them easily readable … “I like candy. I like toys. I like bikes. I like swimming.” Such books have value but not for teaching reading.

Research shows that such books discourage students from looking at the words, and it can be hard to learn to read if you don’t look at the words.

The F&P leveling scheme didn’t pay much attention to decodability and that’s a mistake, too. Early reading books need to be relatively easy, and that ease should come from decodability and word repetition (using certain words again and again throughout a text).

Also, leveled readers have been used to ensure that students were placed in books that would be relatively easy to read – books that were supposedly at the students’ instructional levels. Research shows this to be a weak approach to instruction in Grades 2-12 (not totally ineffective, that is kids can learn from such texts, but higher reading levels can be accomplished using more challenging text — that is, books at higher levels). I’d teach most students reading using texts at their grade levels rather than at their so-called instructional levels. However, if the books aren’t leveled how will we know which ones are most appropriate for a grade level?

Leveled readers aren’t the problem so I wouldn’t ban them … though some of the ways those leveled readers have been used should go!

Okay, the last item on this list is the informal reading inventory (IRI). 

This instrument has students reading grade-level representative passages aloud and the teacher calculates the oral reading accuracy and the students’ comprehension of the passage to determine a student’s reading level.

Historically, the IRI was used to place students in reading books. Usually this meant placing them in books out of grade level (you know, fourth graders being taught to read with second grade books). As I pointed out earlier, this approach hasn’t panned out, so testing to make such placements would not be how I would use IRIs today.

I’ve long argued for teaching reading with grade level texts. In my version of guided reading, the teacher would review a text prior to the group reading. She would try to identify those text features that may block student reading success (e.g., words the students might have trouble decoding, unknown word meanings, literary devices, complex syntax, subtle cohesive ties, unusual text structure, knowledge gaps, and so on). Her guidance should then both make visible the problems her students had with the text and provide them with tools for successfully dealing with those barriers.

Examples of this kind of support would include things like showing students how to use context to figure out a key word meaning or how to break down a complicated key sentence so that it can be comprehended (tools students could use with other texts).

The benefits to having IRI estimates of student reading levels is that it informs the teacher as to who is likely to need the most help and how much help might be necessary. If I’m teaching a group of 4th graders with a 4th grade book, it would be useful to me to know that half the group was reading at a second-grade level. I’ll need to provide more support to a group like that than I would with a group in which most of the kids are reading at a 3rd or 4th grade level. I’d schedule the time differently in those cases and I might be on the lookout for different kinds of barriers in those situations. In one case, I might do more oral reading fluency work, for instance.

Your state’s approach here reminds me of lists of vegetables to avoid serving children, since kids don’t like vegetables. I’d rather have suggestions of ways to prepare those vegetables so that even finicky kids might enjoy them. (“Skip the creamed spinach, it’s too much like baby food. But spinach and strawberry salad can be a hit among the preschool set.”)

The problem with discouraging the use of guided reading, leveled books, and informal reading inventories is that it ignores the pedagogical value of those tools. It focuses teacher attention on tool avoidance (trying to look like somebody thinks they should look), rather than on how to deliver effective instruction. Personally, I’d make use of all these tools in my teaching. Please pass the spinach.

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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
November 6, 2023