January 26th, 2011
In this installment of Questions & Authors, Pat Johnson, co-author of Catching Readers Before They Fall: Supporting Readers Who Struggle, K-4, talks about small groups for guided reading and how they can help students in grades 3-6 who are reading below their grade level. She offers some essentials that teachers need to remember when conducting these groups. Check back soon for more tips from Pat’s co-author, Katie Keier, on how to create in-school time for students to read, enjoy, and share books.
A common problem for students in grades 3-6 who are struggling putting a reading process system together is that they are often in books that are too hard for them. In order to avoid giving them “baby books,” they end up in novel unit groups and teachers try to pull them along with the other students. When the text is too difficult, the struggling reader expends all his energies figuring out the words and thus comprehension suffers. These readers often practice “fake reading” as they only pretend to look like they are engaged in these chapter books. We would suggest letting them participate in these chapter book literature circle discussions after they have listened to the book on a CD or allowing another student, parent, or volunteer to read the text to them. Then, in combination with that, these students participate in guided reading lessons with text that is more appropriate to their reading levels. Students in grades 3-6 who are still considered below grade level need some very focused teaching. Guided reading small group gatherings are the perfect place for this.
Here are a few essential elements that help make the teaching in small groups effective for these students:
- Use short text
- Keep meaning-making at the forefront
- Plan in ways that help you tailor the lesson to the specific needs of the group
- Allow talk time as you encourage students to negotiate the meaning of the text beyond the literal level and actually teach talking behaviors to maximize comprehension
Why short texts? We find that using short text in guided reading helps both the teacher and students focus better. Many high interest short texts can be found in children’s magazines or from the internet, in poetry, or in short stories or vignettes. It’s easier for struggling readers when the text is short. They don’t feel so overwhelmed and approach the task with a more “I can do this” attitude. Remember, guided reading is a time for the students to practice putting their system of strategies together. Problem solving is part of reading, and if they are appropriately matched to the text, they will be able to balance word solving along with comprehension. Also, the teacher can focus on the students’ comprehension better when the text is not a complete novel. The whole guided reading lesson from start to finish can be completed in 2-3 sessions without the students losing interest.
Making meaning. Always keep meaning-making at the forefront of the guided reading lesson. Even if you have the students practicing a particular strategic action — such as, maintaining fluency, asking questions and searching for answers as you read the text, or using context clues to help figure out the meanings of unknown words — it’s still crucial to have students realize that reading is about meaning-making. Fountas and Pinnell say, “Keep the language grounded in good texts so that students understand that their goal is to understand and notice more rather than to ‘do’ a strategy.” (p. 353). Let students respond to the text in a very conversational way. With short text it’s easier for students to go back to selected lines or paragraphs that confused them and get help from others in the group. They learn how to build meaning together.
Plan ahead. Just like any other teaching that we do, planning ahead for our guided reading lessons is especially important for struggling readers. I use a sheet that lists four areas that help me think through the lesson. Focus: Why have I called these students together? What have my assessments and anecdotal notes told me that these students need practice with? Text Introduction: I jot down a 2-3 sentence summary of what this text will be about and then add a hook or question that will invite the children to talk about the topic. Connection and Purpose: I connect the lesson to previous lessons and then give the students a purpose for reading. For example, “Read to find out as much as you can about this narrator, the “I” of this text.” Or “You just shared how dangerous tornadoes can be. Read to find out some ways to keep safe during a tornado.” Notes: I sometimes jot down a few ideas that are important for this text in order to get it’s full meaning. I want to be ready to guide the students back to the text if their talk gets too far off topic. Each teacher usually develops her own planning sheet based on what works for her and her students.
Time for talk. What sometimes happens in classroom whole-group discussions is that a few talkers do all the discussing. Struggling readers often become passive because they know there are others who will fill the silence. So, meeting in small groups with only these struggling readers offers them more opportunity to get their ideas out. They may be reluctant to talk and offer opinions until they see the environment as a safe place to share. It’s important that the teacher take time to actually “teach talking behaviors” as Maria Nichols says in Talking About Texts. Because of her work, I am more careful to support students as they learn to:
- Respond to each other
- Provide evidence for opinions
- Confirm for themselves rather than waiting for teacher approval
- Grasp that their idea can be put on hold to delve further into another student’s idea
- Realize that thoughts can be questioned.
In this supportive setting, the readers see that ideas and feelings you have about a text can change and grow over time.
No matter how you structure your reading workshop time, we hope that you are striving to meet the needs of the struggling readers in your classroom. Small group instruction, tailored to the students’ needs, is very effective in supporting these students to grow into proficient readers. Taking the time to find short, interesting texts for guided reading will add to your powerful teaching.
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