Guided Reading

Michelle Colway

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As I have progressed through my masters program, I have read, studied, researched and contemplated various reading strategies. Most of these strategies have proven effective or efficient for a select population of students. One method that seems to be “in favor” in education right now is Guided Reading. I have heard quite a bit about this strategy, noticed conferences and inservice workshops on the subject and finally have been asked to incorporate it into my classroom practice. Our school recently bought into the Scholastic 2000 basal series for which Gay Su Pinnell has lent her expertise on this topic. A major focus in this series is the guided reading component for which she is well known. My initial reaction was, ”Oh great, one more thing to fit into my day,” but the more I looked into it I was intrigued. I hold the belief that focused small group instruction would benefit the majority of my students. Guided Reading could prove to be an effective method of instruction in this regard. 

Pinnell (2000) defines Guided Reading as:

An instructional approach that involves a teacher working with a small group of children who demonstrate similar reading behaviors and can all read similar texts. The teacher selects a text that is easy enough for children to read with skillful teacher support, but also offers challenges and opportunities for problem solving. (p.7)

Similarly, Baltas & Shafer (1996) state that,  “The main purpose of a guided reading lesson is to promote independence by helping children develop fluency, confidence, and reading skills and strategies” (p.9). The research I reviewed supports these definitions as well as my personal philosophy as does my personal classroom research. The foundation of guided reading requires teachers to model the complex reading strategies required by the readers during guided reading sessions and gradually release the responsibility for learning to the students (Whitehead, 1994; Mooney, 1995b; Askew & Fountas, 1998). Whitehead (1994) feels that, “These strategies are more likely taught than caught.” It is the teachers who make the difference (Short, 1999). The ultimate goal of guided reading is independent reading (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996; Pinnell, 2000).

Rosenblatt, Dewey and Bentley believed that meaning arises during the transaction between the reader and the text (as cited in Weaver, 1994). The students will infuse their personal schema into each text they encounter. Smith stated that, “from a reading point of view: information brought to the reading by the brain is more important than information provided by the print” (as cited in Bean & Pardi, 1979, p.144). The structure of the guided reading strategy will encourage students to transact with the text with the teacher facilitating the process as necessary.

Guided Reading reflects Vygotsky’s theory of ‘zone of proximal development’ in that each small group will be working within their individual abilities where the learner can interact with the text without struggling to decode the words themselves (as cited in Wells, 1994). The students will progress from the unknown to the known, as Vygotsky describes, at their own pace. In addition, the teacher’s role as facilitator allows him/her to adapt and direct the learning taking place.

The gradual accumulation of this knowledge of Guided Reading and the desire to acquire the necessary information to apply this method in my classroom led me to this topic of research. As a fairly new teacher, I am always open to new or evolving instructional methods that may assist me in my goal of teaching children to read as well as love reading. I began asking myself questions such as:

How does Guided Reading affect reading achievement?


Will boys and girls differ in their reaction to this method of instruction?


Is it worth my efforts to build time into my schedule to fit this strategy in?


What productive reading and writing activities could my other students be engaged in while I meet with 5-6 small guided reading groups?


To investigate these questions, I chose to observe several students with a variety of reading abilities during guided reading groups to compare any potential differences with regard to reading levels. I observed the students’ behavior and interactions during guided reading sessions and taped a few sessions. I assessed the students’ individual reading level before and after the time committed to this study to determine if the students’ reading level was affected by this strategy. I also interviewed several professionals in my building to determine their impression of guided reading and its impact on the learning in their classroom. The results of my study were limited by the length of time I was able to observe the students in my study. Given more exposure to this strategy, I believe the results would have demonstrated more clearly the benefits of this strategy on student learning.



As I began to sift through the massive amount of background research I have accumulated, I noticed several common themes. One of these trends includes the intense study of small group instruction and the implications of variables within these groupings. Several articles specifically looked at oral vs. silent reading as well as the depth of literacy strategies being taught (Anderson, Wilkinson & Mason, 1991; Wilkinson & Anderson, 1995; Whitehead, 1994). Other articles focused on the strategies associated with guided reading and implementation of this practice in classrooms (Feldt, Byrne & Bral, 1996; Taberski, 1998; Short, 1999; Mooney, 1995a).

Student performance is influenced by an emphasis on story meaning and by a smooth and continuous reading of a text (Anderson, Wilkinson & Mason, 1991). In addition, students learn and remember more when they were involved in taking active turns during small group instruction (Anderson, Wilkinson & Mason, 1991). Group size and the homogeneous nature of guided reading groups supports my research design. Several researchers felt that learning and cognitive processes were embedded in social contexts and, therefore, influenced the outcome of learning (Wilkinson & Anderson, 1995; Whitehead, 1994). Wilkinson and Anderson (1995) state that:

The academic content is mediated by the discourse or “extended

text” that is socially constructed by teacher and students as they

interact with one another and with the materials. (p. 713)

In order to construct meaning, each student must be actively involved in the guided reading lesson (Askew & Fountas, 1998). Short (1999) states that, “If all learning is inquiry, then reading is a process of inquiry.” The current pendulum swing in education, however, appears to focus on strategic reading at the expense of thoughtful reading (Short, 1999). I believe Short is commenting on the recent return to a Phonics focus which is leaving less time in the classroom for children to read complete texts. The students may not be allowed the time necessary to explore a book and create meaning for themselves.

Much research has discussed the finer points of the guided reading process. The researchers stress the major differences that set this instructional strategy apart from the hundreds of others. The importance of book selection surfaced as a central theme in the strategy of guided reading (Mooney, 1995a; Whitehead, 1994; Taberski, 1998; Kalfus & van der Schyff, 1995; Baltas & Shafer, 1996; Pinnell, 2000). The text must merit the readers’ time and be at their appropriate level (Mooney, 1995a, Taberski, 1998; Kalfus & van der Schyff, 1995; Pinnell, 2000). During the actual reading the teacher should be watching and listening at all times – anticipating the necessary support (Mooney, 1995a; Taberski, 1998; Mooney, Sept. 1995; Manning & Manning, 1996; Askew & Fountas, 1998; Pinnell, 2000). For the maximum benefit, the students should be developmentally grouped with roughly six children in a group (Mooney, 1995a; Taberski, 1998; Baltas & Shafer, 1996). Fountas & Pinnell (1999) noted that these groupings need to change due to the variations in the rate of progress of their participants. My personal theory, that small focused learning is beneficial to all students, is supported by this concept. In addition, the teacher needs to spend sufficient time introducing each text to activate prior knowledge and set the purpose for reading (Mooney, 1995a, Taberski, 1998; Whitehead, 1994; Bean & Pardi, 1984; Pinnell, 2000). I took these points into consideration as I implemented this strategy in my classroom.

Questioning during the reading should facilitate meaning, assist students in making connections and teach vital reading strategies (Mooney, 1995a; Taberski, 1998; Kalfus & van der Schyff, 1995; Mooney, 1995b; Manning & Manning, 1996; Baltas & Shafer, 1996). If the students believe an assignment will immediately follow, they will read with that in mind and not fully appreciate the author’s message (Mooney, 1995; Short, 1999). Students should not be asked to justify their reactions to a text until they have a chance to think them through (Mooney, 1995a). Kalfus & van der Schyff (1995) contend that children learn to read by reading, so we must supply the necessary variety of books. Children should find joy in their success as readers to ensure that reading remains a pleasure in their daily lives (Mooney, 1995a; Fountas & Pinnell, 1996).  As recently as 1998, Dymock found that 72% of his participants would rather play with their friends than read. The reason given was that playing was ‘fun’ and ‘more interesting’ (Dymock, 1998). My feeling is that we, as teachers, still have work to do to change reading’s image.

Some researchers noted that guided silent reading allowed the students to move at a faster pace and the groups were not distracted by the miscues of themselves or others (Wilkinson & Anderson, 1995). This allowed additional time to focus on a more thorough discussion of the story (Wilkinson & Anderson, 1995). Silent reading seemed to foster greater engagement because all students were involved in the reading process and students are reading to gain meaning- not to hear themselves read (Wilkinson & Anderson, 1995; Anderson, Wilkinson & Mason, 1991; Short, 1999; Feldt, Byrne & Bral, 1996). Students with low fluency experienced these benefits as well (Wilkinson and Anderson, 1995). Teachers should capitalize on this increased attention and hold students accountable for thorough silent reading (Wilkinson & Anderson, 1995; Whitehead, 1994). Instruction given during these guided reading sessions will create a foundation that supports students engaging in these behaviors intrinsically. 

Earlier research noted a relationship between miscues and teacher verbal feedback during reading groups (Hoffman, O’Neal, Kastler, Clements, Segel & Nash, 1984). The researchers found a negative relationship between error rate and achievement which supports Wilkinson & Anderson’s (1995) push toward silent reading (Hoffman et al., 1984).  Hoffman’s group contends that at higher success rates the students are getting more actual reading during the same amount of time engaged (1984). Those students performing at lower success rates were not able to use the same strategies due to constant disruptions in the reading flow (Hoffman et al., 1984). In addition, the researchers found that delayed feedback from the teacher was positively associated with continuations and self-corrections (Hoffman et al., 1984). This finding suggests that it would be beneficial to provide extended wait time before offering assistance to struggling students. Furthermore, their work aligns with the other works cited in this review in that, it demonstrates that the focus of guided reading should be based on meaning-seeking rather than decoding skills.

The guided reading approach should be considered one part of a balanced literacy program rather than a replacement for other strategies such as independent reading, shared reading, literature circles and read-alouds (Taberski, 1998; Short, 1999; Mooney, 1995b; Manning & Manning, 1996; Baltas & Shafer, 1996). In order to prepare our students for the rigors of education today, we need integrated, comprehensive approaches to literacy (Short, 1999; Baltas & Shafer, 1996). Teachers must be treated as professionals and make instructional choices based on knowledge of their students and of research, theory and practice (Short, 1999). The design implemented in my classroom takes these issues into account.

The articles I have reviewed have altered my view and understanding of the format and purpose of guided reading. The apparent benefits of silent reading encouraged me to investigate this tangent in my research. Many researchers experienced findings that support my belief that children will benefit from focused small group instruction. This strategy appears to offer an alternative to current practices that would allow for such instruction as a portion of my literacy program.


The subjects for this study are currently in second or third grade at a rural elementary school in Central NY. The socioeconomic status of this area is predominantly lower middle class or below. The students’ ages range from just seven to nine years old. Nineteen subjects were evaluated and participated in the study, but I will only discuss a few in detail. The research was conducted over roughly a six-week period causing significant limitations in growth potential.

I began my research with a baseline assessment piece. The assessment included a running record, retelling and several comprehension questions to determine each student’s present reading level according to Pinnell’s leveling system within the Scholastic 2000 program. Based on the results of this assessment, I assigned the students to ability groups for the guided reading sessions. I chose to observe several students with a variety of reading abilities. I observed the students’ behavior and interactions during guided reading sessions and taped a few sessions. I noted my observations on post-it notes during the session and set aside time each day to elaborate on the field notes for that session. I noted any categories or themes that arose as I reviewed my notes each week.

I also collected any pertinent student work associated with these meetings. This included written assignments completed by the students relating to story grammar, drawing conclusions, making inferences or predicting. These samples also included illustrations demonstrating an important scene or solution in a story the group read together. Finally, I reassessed the students in the same fashion as the baseline assessment. I analyzed the data as I collected it and reviewed any patterns that emerged. In addition, a second teacher reviewed the works collected and shared her input.

To maximize the benefits of guided reading, the students were developmentally grouped with no more than six children in one group. Most groups contained three or four students. I spent a sufficient amount of time introducing each text to activate prior knowledge and set the purpose for reading. The purpose differed for each text. The questioning that accompanied the reading focused on meaning-based strategies. For example, while reading the book How Much is That Guinea Pig in the Window? written by Joanne Rocklin, I asked the group, “Why did the class choose to purchase a guinea pig as their class pet?” The responses given required the students to understand the class’s financial limitations as well as the dynamics of how the choice was made.

The benefits of silent reading revealed in my review of literature encouraged me to add another facet to the affects I was investigating. I chose two groups of similar ability and varied the means of reading the same text. One group read the text silently while the other took turns reading aloud. The discussion that followed was identically structured but took whatever shape the discussion dictated.

While I met with the guided reading groups, the rest of my class engaged in literacy centers as outlined by Fountas & Pinnell (1996). I typically met with two or three groups a day. The literacy centers were set up to run without any interaction from myself. These rotating centers included independent reading, buddy reading, free writing, reader response journals, poetry, computer, ‘read the room’, art and literacy based games such as boggle. Each student was assigned four centers to complete each day during this one-hour period. The students began each day with independent reading, and the centers varied after that. They kept track of their accomplishments on a weekly center sheet. At the end of the week, the students evaluated whether or not they felt they were ‘independent and responsible’ with regards to the centers they completed.

In addition to my direct work with students, I initiated a survey (attached) to explore how other professionals in my building felt about guided reading. After creating the survey, I invited members of our staff to participate by answering the questions. I analyzed the results of the survey by looking for common themes and any data to support my findings.


Discussion of Findings

As a result of the observations I conducted in my classroom, the evidence collected and the results of the survey I initiated, I feel Guided Reading benefits the reading performance of most students. Of the students observed, each did demonstrate an increase in their instructional level when the secondary testing was completed. The work collected from guided reading groups evidenced a deepening of the meaning being contrived from text. Finally, the results of the surveys completed by teachers of varying years of experience with this strategy supported my findings and general beliefs regarding Guided Reading.

Over the course of the trial period in this study, actual time spent engaged in guided reading groups was about 4 weeks. The first two weeks were consumed with baseline testing. My entire classroom’s reading levels ranged from level “B”, which equates to a mid-Kindergarten level, to a level “T”, which is equivalent to a level at the end of fifth grade. I placed my students in seven guided reading groups based on these levels. The two largest groups were level “L” and “M.”  Level “L” is toward the end of second grade while level “M” is the end of second grade benchmark. This was roughly grade level appropriate for most of those students.

One student I chose to observe was Jennifer. She is a seven-year-old girl who lacks confidence in her reading ability. She has the tendency to rush through tasks in order to complete them in what she considers to be the appropriate amount of time. I believe that behavior affects Jennifer’s reading comprehension as she is not reading for the purpose of obtaining meaning. Jennifer scored at an instructional level “H” on the baseline assessment. This relates to one step below the end of first grade benchmark. As she is a second grader, this determined Jennifer to be slightly below grade level in reading. Jennifer met in a guided reading group with only two other students who were at her approximate level.

Instruction in this group focused on using a variety of strategies to determine unknown words such as using picture cues, reading on and returning to the word a sentence or two later, and discussing what word would make sense in a particular sentence. At lower levels, it is still important to develop word strategies. We also worked on extracting meaning from each given text. Jennifer was asked to discuss why a character acted a certain way, predict what might happen next in a story as well as identify the problem and solution within a story.

After six guided reading sessions, Jennifer was re-tested using the same assessment technique as the baseline score. At that time, she demonstrated independence at level “H” and scored in the instructional range for level “I”. That put Jennifer one step higher within my assessment structure and much closer to grade-level appropriate reading. She is more comfortable using the strategies we have focused on, but more instruction is still needed for Jennifer to use them independently.

I believe Jennifer’s improvement demonstrates a positive affect of guided reading on her reading ability. It is difficult, however, to isolate this strategy as the sole source for her improvement. I believe that the strategies we worked on in our guided reading group encouraged Jennifer to read text to determine meaning, which she wasn’t doing previously. Guided Reading appears to be a positive factor in her learning at this point.

A second student I observed closely was Logan. He is an enthusiastic eight-year-old third grader.  Logan was an experienced participant in this study due to the fact that his teacher last year utilized guided reading as a part of her literacy program. As a result of baseline testing, Logan was placed in the level “L” guided reading group. This put him one step below the end of second grade benchmark. Logan had made significant progress in the last year according to Mrs. Schultz, his second grade teacher. One possible reason for Logan’s struggles could be the speed at which he tackles most tasks. He tends to rush through a passage without checking to see if what he is reading makes sense.

The group that Logan was a part of contained four students. This group read a chapter book titled How much is that Guinea Pig in the Window? written by Joanne Rocklin . We began reading each chapter together and discussing events as they occurred.  The students would then complete the chapter silently at their seats and answer a given question in writing. One such question was “Which team came up with the best plan to earn money for the guinea pig’s food? Why was it the best plan?” After the students completed the chapter, this question required them to make a judgement based on the text and support their choice. The students were all able to respond meaningfully to this task.

After meeting with Logan’s group only five times, I reassessed his individual reading level as well. Logan scored in the independent range for level “L” and was in the instructional range for level “M.” His growth was determined to be one level in our assessment system. Because level “M” is the benchmark for the end of second/beginning of third grade, Logan is now close to the expected grade level equivalent. Logan is beginning to self-correct and check for meaning as he reads, but still needs reminders to do this as he reads aloud. Given that Logan’s reading ability has improved greatly over the past year, it is difficult to determine if Guided Reading is solely responsible for this growth. It is possible that Logan’s path for growth was already in motion before this intervention.

To explore the affect of silent reading on performance brought to my attention during my review of literature, I had two small groups participate in a structured activity. Since there were six students in the level “M” group, I split the group into two groups of three. I asked both groups to read the same book.         The first group was asked to read the book silently after a brief introduction.  We then discussed the elements of story grammar, such as what had gotten the story started, what the problem was, what the main character had attempted to solve the problem and finally what the solution had been. The second group read the text aloud, alternating turns, after the same introduction. The identical discussion format followed.

Based on the responses given during the subsequent discussion, I was not able to differentiate between the meaning obtained by each group. Wilkinson & Anderson (1995) suggested that oral reading would slow down the group and distract the participants from the text. Perhaps, their results were not demonstrated in my classroom because the students are ability grouped and therefore all reading at approximately the same pace and ability level. Another explanation could simply be the small sample with which I looked at this facet of instruction.  I actually agree with Wilkinson & Anderson’s (1995) findings in theory that miscues could be very distracting to other participants during small group reading instruction. I know from my own experience that it is during large group instruction. Given more time to explore this concept, I believe I would see evidence to support their findings in my literacy program.

Fellow teachers are a rich source of knowledge and experience in our chosen profession. There are many people that I work with who I consider to be true professionals. I chose to tap their wealth of knowledge with regard to my area of research, Guided Reading. Our building has been phasing in the Guided Reading component to our literacy program voluntarily over the past few years. It wasn’t until this school year that all staff members were asked to incorporate Guided Reading on a daily basis. As I mentioned previously, this was a daunting task for myself as well as others.

I distributed the attached survey to about fifteen teachers in my building who have varying degrees of experience with guided reading. The range consists of one teacher who loaned me many of the texts referenced in this paper to others who have just begun to utilize the strategy this school year. Their comments were eerily similar. The teachers were not asked to sign their name to the survey.

In response to the first question, “How does Guided Reading affect reading achievement?” many teachers noted that the students are reading at their own instructional level which enables the teacher to focus on the needs of each small group. One teacher stated, “It (guided reading) allows students to develop strategies in text at their instructional level.”  Another teacher also mentioned the flexible grouping that allows children to move at their own pace.

The next question concerned any practical benefits that had been demonstrated in classrooms. Several themes surfaced in the responses to this issue. Many teachers noted that children are working at their instructional level which creates an environment in which children are meeting success as they read and spending quality time reading. Another benefit covered was the interest level and length of the books. The students’ attention is held while allowing the teacher to meet with each group several times a week. Finally, rising self-confidence, increased fluency and strategy development were also mentioned.

The next question centered on any perceived difference between boys and girls with regard to their reaction to guided reading. In my own research, I did not note any difference in this area. Of the professionals who responded to my survey, no one noted any difference in their classrooms. I am confident that there is no difference between the benefits of the Guided  Reading strategy with regard to gender.

When I asked whether it was worth my efforts to build time into my schedule to accommodate this strategy, the answer was a resounding, YES! The message was clear that professionals in my building have bought into the benefits of this program. Specifics such as the growth seen in small groups, opportunity for directed instruction and authentic reading experience were added. One teacher eloquently stated, “Yes, you reach all students’ needs without just teaching to the middle.” The heartfelt opinions shared here mirror my personal philosophy with regard to reading instruction.

Finally, my last question concerned what productive activities should my other students engage in while I meet with guided reading groups. All but one of the responses given were similar, if not the same as, the literacy centers I outlined earlier. Fountas & Pinnell explain their suggestions in detail in Guided Reading (1996) which is a preferred reference in my district. This appears to be an area in which our classrooms are already aligned. One teacher shared that she is still struggling with this area. Her students are currently using the time to work on homework assignments and a math problem of the day.

In light of all the data gathered during the research phase of this project, I am cautiously confident that Guided Reading is worthy of the precious classroom time devoted to it each day. I have seen limited improvement in reading performance within my own classroom. Fellow professionals have also asserted their support for Guided Reading as well as many practical classroom benefits deemed a result of this strategy. Finally, although the earlier research reviewed did not directly test the affect of Guided Reading on reading achievement, it did illustrate many peripheral benefits which relate to elements of this strategy.



            According to Fountas & Pinnell (1996), the true test for any instructional strategy is:

…whether  the approach responds to the children’s learning needs and helps them develop a self-extending reading system, one that fuels its own learning and enables the reader to continue to learn through the act of reading. Good readers have self-extending systems; they are independent. (p. 9)

One benefit of Guided Reading is that the teacher doesn’t have to wait all year to determine if instruction was successful. The teacher is able to witness the students’ performance each day through observations and frequent running records (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996). Guided Reading offers an excellent path toward the ultimate goal of teaching individual students to read.

            There are many implications of a study such as mine. The first and foremost, I feel, is that my results do not necessarily demonstrate a positive impact of Guided Reading on students. Due to the length of time invested in this research, within the timeframe allotted, it was difficult to show significant growth in reading performance. The students I studied did each progress by one level within the assessment system utilized by my district. I also noted through observations, during small group participation and follow-up responses, increased use of several focused strategies for both Logan and Jennifer. I believe Guided Reading had affected both of these children in a positive manner and it is in their interest to continue.

            Another implication of the background research I did, as well as the work in my classroom, is that more quantitative research needs to be done. In order to determine with confidence what kind of affect Guided Reading has on students’ reading performance, a large well-structured research study would need to be undertaken. Perhaps an entire school or school district could adopt Guided Reading and chart students’ performance over the course of one or two school years. It would be difficult, however, to isolate Guided Reading as the sole impact on reading achievement which could be why I couldn’t locate such a study to review for this paper.

            On a strictly personal level, the greatest implication is that I now believe Guided Reading is worthy of the time is necessitates to be a portion of my literacy program. In essence, that is the fundamental reason I undertook this area of research.  Having been faced with the mandate to incorporate Guided Reading into my already overloaded schedule, I wanted some ‘proof’ that it was the best way to use that block of time. I needed to know that I was doing the best I could, as a teacher, to meet the needs of the students in my classroom. I have read about the benefits of Guided Reading in the journals, heard about them from other professionals and have now seen them in my own classroom. This is a strategy that will become a permanent portion of my balanced literacy program.

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