“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” said Sharice. “I plan, reflect, and read. I watch videos on YouTube and Edutopia. I even tried filming myself and watching the videos. I just can’t find the problem.” First-grade teacher Sharice had just received her first-quarter data. Her students were not making progress. She reached out to me for support with her guided reading instruction. Sharice is an early career teacher, and this was her first year of teaching first grade. I assured her that we would figure out where the guided reading instruction was going awry.
Taking a Close Look at Guided Reading Instruction
First, we looked at her groups. They were of reasonable size, between four and six children. She met with three groups a day. Each group met with her three to four times a week, depending on the level of support they needed. Then we looked over her past lesson plans. They seemed to be on target. Each lesson had an appropriate objective for emergent or early readers and used a book that gave children the opportunity to work on the objective. Sharice had a well-organized guided reading binder. She regularly took anecdotal notes and occasionally took a running record. More running records would have been better, but that didn’t explain the stagnant test scores.
Since there was no identifiable issue with the planning and grouping, it was time to look at an actual lesson. We arranged for me to come and watch her guided reading lessons. The lessons looked pretty good, too. The children knew what to do when they got to the guided reading table. She reviewed sight words, taught or reviewed a reading strategy, previewed the book, and gave the children a purpose for reading. While the children were reading, she listened to each child, prompted as needed, and took notes. The books seemed to be at the children’s respective instructional levels. After the children finished reading, they talked about the book and how the reading strategy had worked for them. Sharice did some word work with the children and then sent them off to work at a center.
The problem couldn’t be the guided reading lessons. So I asked to sit in on Sharice’s whole literacy block. She agreed.
Taking a Close Look at the Literacy Block
Sharice’s literacy block is at the very beginning of the school day. When the children arrive, there are “warm-up sheets” on their tables. Today’s warm-up sheet engaged the children in a sight word coloring task. They had to color the space containing each specific sight word in a certain color. If done correctly, it would render a picture of a clown. The children came in and got to work right away. They talked to each other in quiet voices, and Sharice got her morning tasks done. She called the children to the rug for a morning meeting, a read aloud, and a word wall activity. Then the children went to centers and guided reading.
I spent time in each center. In one, the children were doing word sorts. Another center engaged children in stamping out the week’s sight words (three times). The next center had children using iPads to work on a phonics activity. At the last center, the children were playing a game called Popcorn. Each child took a turn pulling a popcorn kernel made from cardboard out of a popcorn box like the ones you get in a movie theater. The kernel had a sight word on it. If you could read the sight word, you got to keep the kernel. If you couldn’t, it went back into the box. The person with the most kernels won. However, if you got the kernel that said “Popcorn,” you had to put all your kernels back into the box. The children stayed relatively busy and quiet while Sharice took groups. It all looked pretty good, but the problem was now apparent to me.
The only “connected” reading that the children were doing was at the guided reading table. Twenty minutes of reading a day is not enough. The children reading books at the lower text levels were reading fewer than 50 words of connected text a day. You can’t learn to do something if you give it so little time. Yes, the children were working on sight words and phonics. But the goal of working on sight words and phonics is to apply that knowledge to reading and writing. Writing? There wasn’t any writing either! Changes were in order.
Putting More Reading and Writing in the Literacy Block
Sharice and I worked on gradually increasing the amount of reading and writing that the children were doing. We started by making sure there were browsing baskets of books on the tables each morning when the children arrived. Instead of warming up at the start of each day with a worksheet, they warmed up by reading. It was noisier than it was when they were doing a worksheet. Some children were only turning pages and looking at the pictures, but that was okay as a start.
Then we added more reading to the morning meeting. It now includes a morning message—perhaps three sentences about their lives together as a learning community. Each day, the children do a choral reading of the morning message, which is not erased and is hence available all day for the children to go back and reread.
Then we added more reading and writing to the center-time activities. Instead of phonics exercises on the iPads, the children used the iPads for reading some free online leveled books that Sharice found. We replaced one of the sight word centers with buddy reading. This created a mild dilemma around deciding which sight word activity to eliminate since the children loved them both (Popcorn and Stamp-It). Sharice decided to rotate these two activities within a single center rather than eliminating one of them altogether. The word sorting center was left intact, too. So now the center activities are buddy reading, reading on the iPads, a (rotating) sight word task, and a word sorting task.
The most important element added to center time was the institution of book baggies. The children didn’t used to be engaged in anything productive after they had finished their center tasks. Now each of Sharice’s students has a bag containing five to eight books at the child’s independent reading level. When the children are finished with their center tasks, or during any other period of downtime, they can read. Sharice and I put together the first set of baggies. The children will be taught how to “book shop” to restock their baggies with “just-right” books.
Adding a Writing Component to Guided Reading
We know that writing positively affects reading, so Sharice and I added a writing component to guided reading. When the children leave the guided reading table, they are now asked to work on a writing task instead of being sent to one of the centers. The writing task is chosen on a case-by-case basis, depending on various considerations; it might be a response to the text, an innovation, or about facts learned when reading an informational book.
Finally, before the changes, Sharice’s first graders were usually given a worksheet to complete for homework every day. We limited the homework sheets to two days a week and had the children read for homework on the other days. The only reason we didn’t replace the worksheets with reading every day was Sharice’s concern that parents would react negatively if their children never had any written homework.
Sharice’s students are now reading twice as much as they were before the changes. The midyear assessments show that they are progressing. I am encouraging Sharice to take at least one running record per group per day. Within a two-week cycle, she’ll have a running record for each child. The running records will give her information that will help her select objectives for future lessons that address the students’ specific needs. Targeted instruction is sure to yield even better results.