My earliest reading memory is of my three-year-old self seated on my grandma’s lap in her living room while she read and reread Old Hat New Hat by Stan and Jan Berenstain. I don’t recall why I was so fond of that book, but I’m guessing the repetitive text with picture cues, which made it easy to decode and comprehend, had something to do with it. In addition, I love the main idea gleaned from the story: the perfect hat just might be that old hat made new again.

Guided reading is like that old hat/new hat notion; sometimes what’s old can be dusted off, be made new, and become a perfect fit.

What we now know about guided reading

Dr. Lynne Kulich Early Learning Solutions, NWEA

In the early 2000s, I taught first-, second-, and third-grade students, and guided reading was a weekly practice in my classroom. Each fall I administered reading benchmark assessments in search of data to help me group my students for guided reading based on instructional reading levels. Three days per week I rotated through reading groups and supported students while they often read text below grade level. I assumed students would become too frustrated trying to read text at grade level, and this frustration would impede meaningful reading. Were my assumptions valid? Well, let’s just say I wish I could go back in time and redesign guided reading in my classroom.

State proficiency exams require students to decode and comprehend text at—not below—grade level.

According to NAEP data, only 35% of fourth-graders nationally are proficient or above on state summative reading assessments. While this data is daunting, what’s even more frustrating is the data from two decades ago, which suggests fourth-grade proficiency scores haven’t changed significantly.  Why aren’t we moving the needle for all students? The answer may surprise you.

While teachers, including myself, have certainly tried to implement best practices in hopes of closing reading gaps, we’ve also been limiting opportunities for students to be successfully engaged with complex, grade-level text. State proficiency exams require students to decode and comprehend text at—not below—grade level. If students are busy reading text at their instructional reading levels, albeit below grade level, how can we reasonably expect them to read grade-level text on the state summative exams and earn a proficient score? I wouldn’t want to try swimming laps in the deep end of the pool if I’ve only been allowed to tread in shallow water. The jump from the shallow end to the deep end is best accomplished gradually, with scaffolding. The same can be said about reading grade-level text.

What about that frustration factor? Are grade-level texts too frustrating for some students? Well, they may be challenging, but research suggests students aren’t “turned off” by complex text. Linda Gambrell and colleagues studied motivation and its relationship to reading in the ’80s. They looked at the effects internal and external motivators have on student reading behaviors. Their studies of the relationship of text difficulty and motivation suggest either no relationship or a much more complicated one than we previously considered. When students are challenged and their learning is obvious, teachers won’t need to worry about frustration or a lack of motivation. Instead, with appropriate support, students can successfully engage with grade-level text, and any frustration is mitigated.

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To hear more from Lynne on how to support readers this school year during our webinar, “Data and practice: Science-backed strategies to improve early literacy right now.” She and Cindy Jiban, principal academic lead in early learning at NWEA, further discuss straightforward, classroom-ready ways to use data to improve reading outcomes.

To watch the full webinar click here.