Guided reading is a carefully structured session in which a small number of children are helped to apply their freshly learned skills in context. It is tailored to the specific needs and ability of the individual, or a group of individuals working at the same level. In the session, the teacher guides the children through a text, prompting them to apply the knowledge and skills they have learned elsewhere in the reading curriculum. The aim is to encourage and extend independent reading skills on new and increasingly challenging texts.
Children gain most from guided reading when they have already developed a sound understanding about how texts work, about the alphabetic code, and when they have considerable experience of listening to and talking about texts. Guided reading sessions offer a good opportunity for children to practise their developing phonic knowledge skills in texts that are carefully chosen to match their abilities. Where the focus is on honing phonic skills, the practitioner's role is to support and prompt children to decode, recognise and say words as they read, thus helping them to access the meaning of the text.
The success of the guided reading session depends on the teacher being clear about the purpose of the session and its specific learning objectives. Early on, new readers will be focused on the application of phonic skills and word recognition, but as they grow in confidence and skill, the emphasis will shift to comprehension. The practitioner makes an important decision at the planning stage about the focus of the session, and this decision is largely determined by close observation of what the children know, understand and can do.
Guided reading sessions should be pitched carefully to the level and needs of the children in the session at the time. This implies a high level of knowledge about the exact state of each child's phonic learning. This is achieved through observation, robust assessment and regular contact during phonic sessions.
In deciding what to teach in guided reading sessions, teachers might start by considering the four types of reader identified in the 'simple view of reading':
- those who have good comprehension but poor word recognition skills
- those who have good word recognition skills but poor comprehension
- those who are weak in both the above
- those who are strong in both the above
Clearly, the child who has good levels of comprehension but weak word recognition needs to consolidate their phonic knowledge and to apply that knowledge in practice. Conversely, children with strong word recognition skills but poor comprehension need to be focused on meaning.
The choice of text for the guided reading session is particularly important. The text should be within the child's current capabilities in order to exercise the new skills without becoming frustrated. The text must also be carefully chosen to appeal to a child's age, ability, interests and circumstances. For example, a child who is new to English may be able to decode quickly, but limited familiarity with English vocabulary may limit his or her immediate comprehension.
Guided reading is a wonderful opportunity for teachers and learners to engage with texts in the most individualized way. It deserves the best possible planning for the best possible return on the investment of precious time.