There continues to be a debate about whether to do guided reading or close reading and the truth is probably do both.  The English teacher has to do many things to meet all the needs of his or her students.  One of the areas that needs some clarification concerns reading.

Timothy, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, discusses this topic often.  Her is one of his responses to a letter:

Your letter points out an important fact about “guided reading.” It is a complex approach and cannot be summarized as simply teaching students with “instructional level texts”—though it is certainly that.

 Guided reading is a collection of approaches or techniques that have been assembled by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. Even the term “guided reading” was not original to them—it was a term used to characterize a basal reader’s lesson plan in the 1950s (one of its competitors marketed the alternative “directed reading activity”).

F&P’s version of guided reading, the one that has been so influential during the past two decades, gained popularity, at least in part, due to reading policies and programs of the late 1980s. California only allowed state money to be spent on core reading programs that were made up of previously published literature, and publishing companies were banned from altering these selections in any way to make them more readable.

What that meant was, for a brief period of time, core reading programs got harder to read—particularly in the early grades. As was documented at the time, teachers did not know how to teach beginning readers with materials that they couldn’t read. Often the teachers read the textbooks to the kids. It was part of the big blowup that became known as the “reading wars.”

 In that context, here comes F&P championing the long held belief that students need to be taught with relatively easy texts that would grow progressively more complex (during the 19thCentury, one popular basal program was named the “Gradual Readers”). 

Teachers grabbed for this as the best available alternative. A good choice given that the commercial reading programs were overshooting beginning readers’ abilities and lacked any guidance for teaching kids how to read the harder books.

 Now that guided reading is so widely used we can see that its immediate benefits—beginning readers make a surer start— are at least balanced by holding back older students from sufficient reading progress (can’t learn to read texts that no one will allow you to read).

The current pushback against guided reading that has come about due to Common Core is focused specifically on its idea of matching kids to texts in ways aimed at preventing them from confronting sufficient challenge. I’ve written before about the dearth of evidence supporting this idea—and there are many empirical examples of harder placements leading to greater amounts of learning (at least beyond beginning reading levels).

But your letter wisely points out that guided reading has other features, too. For example, many teachers have told me that they thought guided reading referred to small-group instruction. That certainly has been one of its hallmarks. Research has long supported the relative effectiveness of small-group teaching when compared with whole-class instruction (though this is complicated by the non-teaching time usually required by multiple small groups).

In small groups, teachers are able to interact more with each child, kids have more opportunities to respond, and are more likely to be noticed if they are struggling with something.

Thus, just because teaching kids at their supposed “instructional level” is nonsensical, devoting some instructional time to small group work—both under immediate and more distant teacher control–makes a lot of sense.

 Also, guided reading includes, well, guided reading. As I pointed out, originally the term guided reading referred to teachers guiding students through the reading of basal reader selections. The teacher would preteach new vocabulary from the selection, discuss relevant background information, set a reading purpose, and then have students reading portions of the selection orally and/or silently, followed by teacher questioning. The idea was to guide or direct students to read texts in a coherent and effective manner, with the idea that students would learn from the shared doing and would eventually apply these habits to their independent reading.

Of course, there have been controversies over what kinds of questions to ask or how much background review is appropriate or whether kids should read the entire selection before going through this kind of guided sequence. But, basically, the idea of teachers and students reading texts together in various ways makes a lot of sense, and at least some particular approaches for guiding or directing student comprehension have strong research support.

Finally, the F&P version of guided reading draws from Marie Clay’s “reading recovery,” a program aimed at beginning readers who are making a bad start. I don’t have much problem with the running records idea of observation with beginning readers, but I think that scheme of looking at how kids do with the “cueing systems” is not particularly apt for more advanced readers. By middle school, decoding schemes should be well integrated with meaning making, except for the most severely disabled readers.

Small group instruction should afford teachers opportunities to observe student problems with reading and interpretation, and this insight should be used to shape instruction.

So, while I would not limit students’ reading to instructional level texts—teach kids to read texts that match your state’s standards requirements—that would in no way prevent me from (1) working with small reading groups; (2) guiding students reading comprehension in a coherent manner; or, (3) observing students’ reading in ways appropriate to their grade level. Only part of guided reading is under challenge by Common Core, and it only that aspect of it that needs to change to meet your standards.

The purpose of comprehensive guided reading assessments is to find a student’s frustrational level of text. The level that a student is able to pass independently is her/his independent reading level and this is the level where most students should read by themselves.  Teachers, however, use this data to figure out where students are struggling with decoding, fluency and/or comprehension. The teacher then selects texts for Guided Reading that are 1-2 levels above the student’s independent level. These texts are usually the level that the student should be reading independently by the next assessment. Since Guided Reading offers scaffolded instruction, there is no reason why a student should be reading at their independent level at the table. The guided reading table is a safe space for students to experience frustration with text. Instructing at the student’s independent reading level would indeed miss the target for text complexity.  Guided Reading is always part of a balanced literacy framework that includes whole group instruction with a on-level or above-level text. It can certainly be true that though Guided Reading instruction is focused above the student’s current independent reading level, that frustrational level may still be several levels below grade level. For this reason, guided reading alone is not a solution for teaching reading, lest students never be exposed to adequately complex texts.

In my own practice, I love bringing close reading to the guided reading table and do not feel that they are mutually exclusive. It keeps my students on their toes and is particularly good for breaking up a longer novel study.  To make it easier on myself, I use this chart as a reminder:


I am wondering what other teachers believe and how they approach this conundrum. How do you use your students’ reading assessment data to inform your instruction? Do you feel that Guided Reading and close reading can cohabitate?

And beyond the Close Reading/Guided Reading question, here are two resources for reading that I have been reading about:

Alternatives to Round-Robin Reading


Literature Circles



To guide and close might be the better assumption, but how is the question? To read more from Tim Shanahan go to his blog: http://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/