Guided Reading: an alternative approach

Guided reading: what is it, why is it ineffective and how can we change it to reflect reading science?

Let’s start by looking at the Simple View of Reading (SVR), The Cognitive Foundations of Learning to Read framework (William E. Tunmer) and Scarborough’s Reading Rope.

The Simple View of Reading


The Cognitive Foundations of Learning to Read framework (William E. Tunmer)

Scarborough’s Reading Rope

As discussed in a previous blog post, these models show that reading comprehension is not the starting point for reading instruction. In order to reach this end goal, we must provide students with a solid foundation of word recognition and language comprehension. Students must first become fluent decoders so they can sound out  new words they encounter (even the tricky ones which have less common phonic patterns). Once they have established strong orthographic representations, or Mental Graphemic Representations allowing for instant word recognition, they can free up their cognitive load to make meaning from the text. Cognitive load relates to working memory- how much information can be processed at once. If students are spending all of their cognitive load decoding the text (getting the words off the paper), then there isn’t much working memory capacity left to attend to the meaning. Using the Reading Rope visual, we need to ensure decoding and spoken language comprehension is prioritised for emergent readers, and once decoding fluency has been established, we can dive deep into the world of reading comprehension.

If you haven’t already listened to Emily Hanford’s podcast ‘At a Loss For Words’, do yourself a favour and listen here. Hanford delves deep into “how a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers” and in doing so, discusses the pervasiveness of the whole language approach to reading which is embedded in classrooms across America (and Australia).

Guided reading occurs in classrooms all over Australia and it usually reflects the balanced literacy approach to reading instruction, without many teachers being aware of this. In many schools, guided reading often resembles something like this:

Common PracticeWhat’s the problem?
1. Students are grouped based on arbitrary ‘levels’ determined by running records. Levelled texts (such as PM readers, Key Links, Fountas and Pinnell, Sails, Rigby etc) are based on algorithms that limit the vocabulary choices and text length, but do not take into account phonic concept complexity (phoneme-grapheme representations). The early levelled readers, also called predictable texts, encourage word-guessing habits. These texts are prolific throughout Australian schools, mainly due to some excellent marketing…

Phonetically controlled texts (also knows as decodable readers) are a much more suitable and research-aligned options for students still learning the phonic code. Ensure that the decodable readers you select for your school are aligned to the phonic code progression.
2. Teacher selects a book each week based on the group’s assigned ‘level’. Usually teacher works with one group per day, or one group for 15 minutes each if doing daily rotations. Texts are selected based on what level a student is on, with very little consideration for the topic and vocabulary. The most effective way to develop reading comprehension (in fluent decoders) is by building topic knowledge and explicitly teaching vocabulary.

Once students are fluent decoders, teachers should select texts based of similar topics/themes/genre over a set time frame, so we can develop students domain knowledge and vocabulary which will in turn improve their reading comprehension.
3. Teacher monitors reading progress using running records and makes observations about students’ use of ‘reading strategies’ such as: looking at the picture, chunk the word into parts, look at the context and guess the word. These so-called ‘strategies’ are essentially just encouraging guess work, and are actually hindering students from establishing strong orthographic representations for lexical retrieval. As explained in Emily Hanford’s podcast- research describing the habits of good vs. poor readers shows us that good readers actually attempt to decode unknown words as their primary reading strategy. Poor readers rely on context to guess. By encouraging these guessing strategies, we are promoting poor reading habits.

The only reading strategy for emergent readers should be to ‘sound it out’ (i.e. decoding). Once students are fluent decoders, they use morphology (knowledge of affixes, base words, root words etc) and context to determine the meaning of a word if they do not have the word in their spoken language lexicon. However, quite often they do, they just haven’t seen it written before!
4. Teacher will focus on a comprehension skill (such as finding the main idea, compare/contrast etc) for a few weeks before moving onto another comprehension strategy. Research has shown that reading comprehension difficulties can usually be explained by one of the following:
1. Difficulties with the decoding and fluency
2. Difficulties with oral (spoken language) comprehension
3. Inadequate topic/domain knowledge
4. Unfamiliarity with vocabulary in the text
5. Working memory / processing speed difficulties

If students do not have adequate topic knowledge or vocabulary, specific comprehension skills such as ‘finding the main idea’ will not improve their comprehension.

Explicitly Teaching comprehension strategies IS effective IF the student has adequate topic knowledge of the text and vocabulary. However, as Daniel Willingham describes here, these strategies are generally learnt quickly.

Topic knowledge (or schema knowledge) can be expanded on during pre-and post-reading discussions, and by linking other curriculum areas.

Remember: don’t get caught up asking the same types of questions for every text. Deep text analysis is the key to comprehension. Scaffold comprehension through carefully planned pause points, ‘think alouds’, and questioning based on the content of the text itself.

Have a watch of our Reading Science in Schools ‘Rethinking Guided Reading’ presentation in which we discuss these ideas in more detail:

Reading Science in Schools – YouTube

Reading instruction for emergent readers:

For emergent readers (those still learning the phonic code), reading comprehension should not be targeted as one skill. Instead, target the individual skills. In the Early Years, reading instruction should include explicit and systematic instruction in: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and spoken language comprehension. Spoken language comprehension can be targeted through picture books, short stories, poetry and a range of non-fiction texts. The texts should link with other learning areas and cross-curricular priorities for deep content exploration, allowing students to build topic/schema knowledge. The teacher should facilitate discussions and pose questions to scaffold students’ comprehension of the text. ‘Think Alouds’ are a great way to support prediction and inferences, whereby the teacher models the thinking process involved in reaching logical conclusions. For example, “Oh Gerald the Giraffe is looking down at the ground with a frown on his face… I wonder how he is feeling? I wonder why?”. An explicit focus on identifying story grammar elements, story mapping and retelling should all be an integral part of shared reading instruction in the Early Years.

Reading instruction for fluent decoders:

Once students are fluent decoders, often the question is asked ‘what reading material should we be using?’. This is a complex question with many considerations to be taken into account, but first it is important to establish the purpose – what is it that you want from the text? Is it to build reading stamina, develop vocabulary and general knowledge, improve fluency? Or is it simply to engage the students in reading for pleasure?

Whether the teacher is reading the text to the class, or the students are reading the text themselves, many factors still need to be considered when selecting appropriate texts.

1. Selecting a variety of text types (with plenty of non-fiction): Novels, short-stories, poetry, articles, famous speeches, biographies and recounts should all make up reading material. In the lower grades, these texts will often to be read to the students, and as the students get older and (hopefully) more fluent in their word recognition, they will be expected to read most of the texts themselves with regular ‘read-write-discuss-write’ cycles in place.

2. Selecting texts with a purpose to building topic / general knowledge: As Natalie Wexler emphasises in The Knowledge Gap, reading material should be selected based on the topic for deep content exploration. A range of age-appropriate fiction and non-fiction texts can be paired, with links to other curriculum areas (in particular HASS, Science, and cross-curricular priorities). For example, I recently planned a novel study for a year 6 cohort called Us Mob Walawurru which linked to the HASS topic of the Stolen Generation and Cross-Curricular link of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives. This text was paired with age-appropriate articles and biographies about the Stolen Generation to further develop the students’ knowledge of this area.

3. Selecting complex texts to challenge students’ reading comprehension: Lexiles are one measure of text difficulty, but as Doug Lemov points out in his text Reading Reconsidered, while they can be a useful tool, there are many other factors which determine a text’s complexity which are not reflected in the Lexile measure. Doug Lemov refers to these factors as the ‘5 Plagues’: archaic text (sentence structures and vocabulary not used anymore in modern literature), non-linear time sequence (such as flashbacks, multiple layers of memory), complexity of narrator, complexity of plot, resistant text ( text assembling meaning around nuances, hints, uncertainties and clues). Lemov has summarised these Plagues and listed some examples of books which include these complexities here.

4. Selecting texts written by authors from different cultural backgrounds and experiences: This one is a no-brainer. Students need to see diverse representation in the texts they read so they learn about different people and cultures in the world.

An alternative approach to guided reading:

Are reading rotations and ability grouping a good use of our instructional time? Research has demonstrated that ability grouping for reading can be detrimental for the most vulnerable students in the class. The gap between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ readers gets wider, and these students don’t get the opportunity to be exposed to same rich literature and interesting topics as their peers. There are also social-emotional factors to consider. What does being in the ‘turtle group’ for five years in a row do for ones self-esteem?

But if we don’t ability group, how can we provide targeted and differentiated instruction to all students? This is a valid question, and something that I have struggled with as an educator for years. Particularly in classes where the range of reading abilities is extremely large. Consider this model instead:

Standard 2 hour literacy block year 1-6:

20Literacy daily reviewPhoneme-grapheme correspondences (letter-sounds), phonemic awareness (manipulation), decoding, encoding, high-frequency words, dictation, fluency, grammar, vocabulary
20Whole class phonics/spelling lessonDecoding, encoding, manipulation, spelling patterns, morphology, dictation. In classes with large ranges of abilities, this may be followed by a pull-aside model where targeted support is provided to particular students each day.
10Fluency pairsDifferentiated Timed paired partner reading (3-4 minutes each person). Partner A reads, as Partner B tracks- and vice versa. Instructional snippet video: Reading Science in Schools: paired fluency reading routine – YouTube
30ComprehensionComplex texts- focus on vocabulary, in-depth text discussions using carefully planned pause points (to check for understanding), read-write-discuss cycles (Reading Reconsidered), sentence writing strategies (The Writing Revolution).
30WritingExplicit writing lesson- sentence, paragraph, text level. Link to reading material where possible.
10HandwritingFormation & fluency

Recommended reading

To really get into the nitty-gritty of what makes excellent reading (and writing) instruction, I highly recommend these texts:

Reading for Life, Lyn Stone
Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension (Jane Oakhill, Kate Cain, Carsten Elbro)

The Knowledge Gap (Natalie Wexler)

Reading Reconsidered (Doug Lemov)
The Writing Revolution (Hochman & Wexler)

2 thoughts on “Guided Reading: an alternative approach”

  1. Hello,
    I am finding it difficult to select appropriate texts for year 3/4 which will improve vocab and topic knowledge. My understanding is if I expose students to many different text types (fiction and non) and discuss/apply vocab (before, during, after) and review the text throughout the week, this will improve their topic and vocab knowledge over a wide spectrum.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    Thank you!


    1. Absolutely Kate. I recommend The Knowledge Gap by Natalie Wexler which goes into this in a lot more detail (or listen to her interview on the ERRR Ollie Lovell podcast for a really good summary). Comprehension strategies are still very effective (particularly teaching text structure, cohesive ties) but building the knowledge and vocab needs to be the focus when choosing texts . A broad range of texts – non-fiction, poetry, short stories, speeches etc around a similar topic over a specified time frame (e.g. 5 weeks) is a good way to structure text selection for students with decoding fluency.


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