Re-imagining guided reading in the 21st century

This is a guest post by Darla Salay. Darla was a former literacy coach with the New Jersey Department of Education. She now serves as a Curriculum Supervisor. You can read more at Darla’s blog, “At the Heart of Literacy“.

Five 8-year-olds sit around a kidney-shaped table.  After their teacher gives a book introduction for the non-fiction text, “Gorillas,” previews key vocabulary words, and sets a purpose for reading, the students begin reading silently, marking a few places with sticky notes that they’ll talk about with a partner after reading.  Add in a teaching point or two and some one-on-one coaching of readers and viola – you’ve duplicated a guided reading lesson that takes place in thousands of classrooms every day.

While these elements of guided reading are considered best practices and while they may help students access a new text, they don’t necessarily prepare students for world they’ll inhabit in the future. To those of us in the reading world, that reality may sting. But it’s true.

Here’s why:

According to experts, many of the skills we are teaching today will someday be outsourced or automated. According to Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, the “conceptual age” will belong to right-brain thinkers with skill sets like creativity, problem solving aptitude, and collaborative skills.

I know what you’re thinking—yes, we have to promote creativity and problem solving, but these have nothing to do with guided reading, the goal of which is to teach reading strategies, decoding, fluency, and comprehension.

I disagree.   

For one thing, there may come a day in the near future when students get much of the fluency, phonics, and vocabulary work they need through online tools or apps. Picture “guided reading” that looks like this: A student sets a goal for reading a number of words per minute and practices reading aloud with her fluency app. Next, she completes an online book of her choosing, she learns two new content vocabulary words, and she practices word building. After submitting her oral retelling into the computer for comprehension feedback, she records her score into her online journal. While we are not quite there yet, students already have a wealth of tools and apps to support reading development, and the list is growing every day.

Guided reading can and should look very different in today’s world, leaving behind any task a student can do on his or her own with tech support, and using group time for higher-level work. Below are three ways to ramp up guided reading. These categories can also become areas for students’ Reader’s Notebooks, whether their notebooks are print or online.

Design Thinking

(Why: Our future world needs problem solvers who can imagine and create solutions that may not exist. Students need the opportunity every day to practice imagining, creating, and innovating.)  

Discuss problems identified in texts during guided reading and ask students to create solutions. Rather than jotting down questions as they read, students can note possible solutions to problems. They can continue their work after the lesson during reading workshop, individually or in groups. For example, if students are learning about the disappearing gorilla population, they can develop an idea to protect gorillas.  Mini-lessons during a “design thinking guided reading lesson” might include how to brainstorm, how to defer judgment, and how to build on others’ ideas.

Think Like An Artist

(Why: More and more, our workforce needs creative thinkers who can generate original ideas and works. Students need opportunities to develop their creativity through writing and creating.)

Build opportunities into guided reading for creative work. For example, if students are reading about the Declaration of Independence, have them choose a medium to express the idea of independence. Students can use ideas from the text to write a speech, poem, blog, or they can create a mini-mural or online children’s book. Mini-lessons for developing creativity could include “unpacking” themes in the text, connecting ideas in the book to other topics (in this case slavery or the Holocaust) and how to choose the best medium for expression of a particular idea.

Notes from the Field

(Why: In our global “flat” world, our students have the ability to learn from just about anyone, anywhere, at any time.  In fact, their futures will require them to collaborate with people they will never meet face to face. Students need opportunities to extend their own learning by reaching out to experts.)

During guided reading, instead of having students determine importance by simply writing down ideas from the book, have students identify what is important and determine ways they can investigate the idea further. They might choose to interview someone, do research online, or connect with an expert in the world. One way to connect with experts is to set up a class Twitter account. Students can Tweet questions to experts such as NASA astronauts, scientists, or authors. (,

By the way, a great way to help students determine importance is to help them choose ideas that affect the way people work or live.

Five more ways to update your guided reading:

  1. Build Background Knowledge with Video: There is no place for teaching reading in today’s world without providing students with adequate background knowledge before delving into new content. It is simple to use an iPad in small groups to pull up relevant video or other resources to build background.
  2. Let Students Prepare Ahead of Time: Help students take ownership over their own learning by preparing for their guided reading group ahead of time. Tell students in the morning the topic they’ll be reading about and have them read and research that topic ahead of time during workshop, so they can literally bring something to the table. Even first graders know how to use search engines or the classroom library.
  3. Incorporate Mobile Devices: Utilize iPads, Tablets, Chrome Books, etc., during guided reading to allow access to digital texts and to use tools such as EVERNOTE, which students can use to store their digital notebooks. For students in grade four and above, is a great resource for leveled articles on the same topic for heterogeneous groups.    
  4. Teach High Level Strategies: We tend to over-teach strategies such as making connections, asking questions and visualizing. Many times, students have already mastered the strategy in question, or expectations are low for how the student displays mastery of that strategy. Lean toward high-end strategies like inference work, synthesizing, and interpretation.
  5. Writing: Allot at least ten minutes of each 30-minute lesson for writing. Often, writing is an after-thought or a quick way to close the guided reading lesson. Through extended writing, however, students can synthesize ideas and generate new understandings. Writing can also be extended during the workshop so students can go deeper with their topic.

We can’t keep teaching reading the same way because that’s the way we’ve always done it. The time is now to re-imagine a better guided reading, one that inspires creativity, innovation, and problem solving. One that engages learners in texts and gives them the strategies and skills to change the world.

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