In our work in schools, we often field questions from teachers worried about student progress. The concern goes something like this: “I have this group that is stuck at level ____. We have read every book on that level that we can find, and the children just don’t seem to be progressing!”
It goes without saying that pouring blood, sweat, and tears into planning for small-group instruction only to discover that it isn’t working for some students is frustrating. When this happens, the most reflective teachers start by examining their practices and adjusting those things over which they have control.
Here are three questions we have found useful in helping teachers look closely at how they might shift their instruction to help “stuck” groups move beyond the dreaded plateau:
Question 1: Who is doing the work?
In the gradual release of responsibility, guided reading is one step before independent reading, which means that what children are reading in small group today is what they are expected to soon read on their own. Though the texts used to support children at this phase of the gradual release of responsibility are labeled “instructional,” this does not mean that the onus of the responsibility for identifying and solving problems falls on the teacher. In fact, the job of readying students to assume the responsibility of independently figuring out 1) what the problems are and 2) strategies to use to solve them needs to fall on the students. Thus, the majority of guided reading time should involve students reading, mostly independently, with teachers listening while they read. The best support a teacher can offer at this stage of the gradual release comes in the form of asking probing questions that help students identify tricky parts, choose strategies, and reflect on whether the strategies did or didn’t work. Rather than traditional prompts, such as “Get your mouth ready” or “Does that make sense?,” try more open-ended prompts, such as these:
- What will you try?
- How do you know?
- How else do you know?
- How did you figure that out?
- How can you check what you think you know?
Question 2: Do the students need guided reading lessons with easier text?
No matter the reading level of a student, the goal is always the same: for that student to develop a balanced, integrated, smoothly operating reading process. When a student plateaus, it is important to consider how balanced and integrated the child’s reading process is. For example, if a student is reading at a level G and is overrelying on what he or she knows about letters and sounds to figure out the story, the instinct is to provide intense scaffolding to support comprehension. In this situation, another, possibly better, option may be to move students back a level, or maybe two, to provide time to practice with text that allows them to integrate reading strategies more smoothly. Additional time with easier text may catapult these students ahead later. It is important to remember that, though levels present linearly, learning is recursive, and we should expect some back-and-forth as students plow ahead with their learning.
Question 3: Is the work students are doing in small groups sufficiently supported by the work they are doing in whole group and independently?
In some classrooms, the time dedicated to guided reading leaves very little time for other instructional contexts, such as shared reading or read-aloud. Although small-group instruction can and does have tremendous benefits for children, these other structures offer students a sense of where they are going as readers. Shared reading and read-aloud involve students in experiences with slightly to significantly above-grade-level text, which provides exposure to new vocabulary and builds background knowledge and, in turn, prepares students for the demands of increasingly complex text. When students hit a plateau, we find that considering whether they are enjoying a balanced diet of read-aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading—and shoring up any gaps—can be helpful.