Last spring I walked into Kate’s office, which doubles as the book storage room. Kate is a literacy coach in a K-5 building. She was sitting on the floor, surrounded by piles of book tubs and little books. “What happened here?” I asked.
“It’s the kindergarten teachers again,” she said. “This happens every year. Right before spring vacation, we run out of level A books.”
I asked, “How can you run out of level A books? There are only two kindergarten classrooms. Surely they are the only ones using level A books at this time of the year. How many level A titles do you have?”
She said, “Oh, we have enough titles. The problem is that the teachers start the children with guided reading before some of them are ready. They somehow have gotten the idea that every child should be in a guided reading group by the second semester. Some children end up sitting at level A for six to eight weeks. You need about 50 different level A books for that! If the children were really ready to start guided reading, they’d need at most two to three weeks at level A. Many of the children even skip level A altogether and start guided reading at level B.”
The kindergartners at Kate’s school are caught in a familiar dilemma. Teachers are feeling pressure to start guided reading with children sooner than ever. When I was a novice teacher in the late 70’s, first graders traditionally spent the first six weeks of the school year on “reading readiness.” Now everyone seems to believe that all children should leave kindergarten reading. Most of the published reading programs culminate with actual, direct reading instruction rather than pre-reading at the kindergarten level. The instructional materials for kindergarten include leveled books.
Of course, Kate can’t and shouldn’t refuse to give the kindergarten teachers leveled books, but maybe she can help them do a better job identifying which children are ready for explicit small-group instruction in reading. We sat down to generate a list of behaviors that teachers should look for before starting guided reading. These behaviors are observable. Both Kate and I are firm believers in “kid-watching.” Besides, if we dare to suggest that teachers administer yet another assessment, they would tar and feather us.
What to look for:
1. Does the child have a firm understanding of what reading is all about?
In Kate’s school, there are quite a few children who come to school with only limited experience with books. They have never had a regular bedtime story or attended the preschool story hour at the public library. Thus, some of the children are still developing book handling skills, concepts of print, and story grammar.
2. Has the child mastered directionality?
This is a pretty important skill. As a matter of fact, it’s a deal breaker. Children who have not mastered directionality definitely should not be expected to successfully read leveled books. Children who are ready to read must understand that text is read from left to right. When they get to the end of a line, they need to do a return swing and start the next line of text. How do you know whether a child can do this? One effective way is to hand over a pointer to the child to lead the class in a choral reading of the “poem of the week” or a page of the big book during shared reading.
3. Does the child have one-to-one matching?
This is another skill that you simply can’t fudge. You can assess it in the same way and at the same time that you assess directionality. You might want to use text with fairly short sentences. The child should be able to make a voice-print match with familiar text.
4. Can the child hold sentences in auditory memory?
Many of the little books at the beginning levels heavily rely on repetitive refrains. If a child cannot remember the refrain, s/he will not be able to “read” the book. Children who have developed the ability to hold sentences in memory are those who happily chime in during shared reading sessions and do “pretend reading” of favorite read alouds with startling accuracy.
5. Is the child making the sound-symbol connection?
The best place to look for this skill is in the child’s writing. A good candidate for guided reading is no longer scribbling or writing random strings of letters, and is probably consistently hearing and recording the most prominent consonant sounds in words.
6. Has the child learned some high frequency words?
After 20 weeks of daily morning messages, shared reading experiences, and dictated stories, children have had multiple experiences with high frequency words. Those children who are ready for reading have begun to recognize words like the, a, is, go, and we.
7. Does the child know most letters of the alphabet?
Some children have a successful induction to reading without knowing all of the letters of the alphabet. However, knowledge of letter names demonstrates an ability to focus on details of print, which is a definite advantage in reading.
8. Does the child exhibit interest in reading?
They really should want to read! Children who are ready for guided reading instruction are sitting on your toes during shared reading. They are frequent visitors to the reading center. They clamor for the book that you just read aloud. They’re the first ones in line when it is time to visit the school library.
What to do with the non-readers:
Instead of sentencing children to level A purgatory, here are some things to do with them. These activities work well in small groups, which provide the children with the benefit of extra attention and support from the teacher.
1. Language Experience Approach
This activity has been around for more than 50 years because it works. A teacher can use a language experience story for multiple days of instruction. Cutting up the story into sentence chunks can facilitate children’s understanding of directionality. Cutting up one of the sentences into words can facilitate one-to-one matching. It is easier for children to develop auditory memory for sentences that they have generated.
2. Shared Reading
Chances are the children who are not yet ready for explicit small-group reading instruction are not giving their full attention to the shared reading lessons. Even if they are, they would definitely benefit from extra readings of the book. The small-group setting gives the children more opportunities to use the pointer to lead the reading.
3. Interactive Read Aloud
This instructional strategy is structured to give children an opportunity to talk before, during, and after a story. It is wonderful for supporting children’s language development and vocabulary development, and for helping children understand how stories work.
4. Interactive Writing
I think this strategy actually works best in a small group. The children get more opportunities to make sound-symbol connections. Another benefit is the creation of text that is more accessible to the children.
5. Picture and Word Sorts
This hands-on activity is fun for the children and helps them develop phonological skills. The small-group structure allows the teacher to tailor the instruction, and lends itself to community support.