Back in the mists of time (or 2003ish for those of you with long memories) the buzz in English teaching was using guided reading to delivery the Reading Strategies (note the capital letters!) Acres of tress were pulped in order to further our understanding of how to do this (check out www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/studentsuccess/thinkliteracy/files/Reading.pdf for an example) and thousands of hours of CPD were dedicated to training secondary teachers to able to teach students in this way.
Back then I was working in a school which had just failed an Ofsted inspection and my main concern was behaviour management. If I’m supposed to be working with a small group what the hell are the rest of the class going to get up to? Many years on, I’ve got behaviour licked (by & large) but guided reading has dropped completely and utterly off the education radar.
In my current role as Head of English I have been dealing with the twin concerns of timetabling issues which mean Year 7 & 8 classes are often split between 2 teachers (1 of whom might be a non-specialist); and the lofty aim of getting kids to enjoy reading. My attempt at a solution to both of these problems was to introduced timetabled Reading lessons. This meant that the 2:1 splits worked because the Reading lesson could be taught by someone other than the main English teacher without too much disruption. It also meant that there would be time to read for fun.
At my school we use Accelerated Reader to help motivate and engage readers and the idea was that students would pick an AR book from the school library, read at their own pace, then complete the AR test so that their progress could be in some way measured. Yes, I am aware of the problem of trying measure something essentially unquantifiable and that ‘not everything that counts can be counted’. We also provided students with a Reading Menu of book related activities so that after 30 mins they could take a break from the hard work of actually reading. The teacher’s role in all this was to be seen as a role model – they would bring their own book and read it. Maybe they’d share interesting passages or recommendations too.
A year in and it came time to review the system. Students reported that the new Reading lessons were popular; they mostly like the AR tests and they certainly seemed to have read a lot more if library records were anything to go by. My problem was that it didn’t seem particularly purposeful and I was sure there were simple ways to ensure students were supported in improving their reading skills.
After some thought, and some discussion with my amazingly creative, patient and organised team, I was reminded about guided reading. Great, I thought, let’s make sure we’re all doing that. The only problem was, that the with one exception, the rest of my team had either qualified after 2004 and thus missed the training, or they’d been on maternity leave. Or drunk. Or both! (This last is a joke: I want to make it quite clear that to my knowledge, no one in my faculty has ever been concurrently inebriated and pregnant.)
So, Dee Murphy, our second in faculty started to put together some CPD on guided reading in order that we could all sing from the same hymn sheet. She duly started researching developments since 2004. Well, as far as we could see there weren’t any. Nothing. Nada. I had expected loads of stuff linking AFs to the reading strategies and other exciting developments. But no, guided reading seems to have fallen off the edge of the world.
I’m aware that lots of primaries do lots of good stuff, and that lots of English teachers (myself included) were implicitly teaching reading strategies in an ad hoc way but that was about it. The CPD session that we eventually put together focussed on re-introducing the Reading Strategies (skimming, scanning, questioning, visualising, close reading, empathising, reading backwards & forwards, predicting & inferring). This was a Road to Damascus experience for those attending. Quite literally no one knew anything beforehand, which is always intensely gratifying when leading INSET.
The resulting burst of creativity has been humbling to watch and exciting to be part of. Guided reading has become a regular feature of lessons and most importantly students really enjoy it. I’m currently studying Martyn Pig for GCSE Literature and students are really benefitting from my rediscovery of how to do this in a structured way. It fits in fantastically well with my Critical Skills agenda and the need for teachers to get out of the way so that learning can happen. I’ve experimented with putting students in teams and giving them reading challenges (they love this!) in a CS stylee. With Reading Spies (see my Learning Spies post), naturally. Reading spies observe a student lead guided reading session and then give feedback on how the reading strats were used.
What I have found particularly gratifying is that all the reasons why I struggled to make Guided Reading work in 2004 have now been sorted; all the stuff I’ve learned over the past 3 years or so makes it an absolute pleasure to ‘teach’ in this way and sometimes I just sit back and watch the students calmly reading and feel that this must be some way towards achieving the Holy Grail of English teaching.
It’s too early to report on the impact of all this but I’m confident that students’ reading will show progress. I’m really looking forward to next year’s reading lessons – I have a Yr 7 and a Yr 8 reading class and have lots of ideas I want to experiment with. The potential danger is that we might stymie reading for pleasure with all this focus on progress but I’m determined that this must not happen. Will let you know how we get on…