A George By Any Other Name: Guided Reading and the Common Core

  • Common Core State Standards
  • 11 October, 2014

Blast from the Past: This first posted on October 11, 2014; and reposted on June 6, 2018. Surprisingly, the term “guided reading” continues to confuse. When I talk about complex text the issue arises. These days there is another widely held conception of guided reading not discussed here, that it is the method that encourages kids to guess at words based on context. I’ll write about that soon, but for now, it would help if teachers recognized the contradiction between current guided reading encourages conceptions and what state educational standards require of teachers. Oh, and poor George Clooney continues to decline.

Once when visiting the Big Easy, a young woman who had clearly been over-served, stopped me and said, “You’re that guy.”

I smiled, bemused, unsure what to say. Her friends fanned out around me.

“You’re that guy. You’re that guy on TV.”

My grin grew idiotic. At first, I tried to explain that I wasn’t “that guy,” but that just seemed to convince them even more that I must be. They insisted.

I never figured out who she thought I was, but I copped to it, and thanked her for her support and asked her to keep watching. I’m pretty sure she had me confused with George Clooney (Cyndie says it more likely was Bozo the Clown). 

I’m still pretty sure it was Clooney, though my hair hasn’t really turned as much as his has. 

That got me thinking… It really matters that we know of who and what we are speaking. I know many of you are thinking: Tim Shanahan, George Clooney, what's the difference? But--believe it or not--there is a difference and it could matter to somebody.

That’s true of lots of things. Like guided reading, for instance. 

The term “guided reading” is causing a lot of confusion. Most of us now use it as shorthand to refer to those instructional procedures recommended by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell in their book, Guided Reading (1996, 2016) – much as many of you might use George as shorthand for Tim Shanahan. 

The problem with that conception of the term “guided reading” is that it actually conglomerates three separate aspects of instruction into one idea.

And, that’s where the problem is. When I say that the Common Core contradicts the fundamentals of guided reading—I mean George Clooney, and you’re thinking Tim Shanahan.

From the emails I receive and the audience comments at my presentations, it is evident to me that many of you—probably most of you—think of guided reading as instruction with leveled books; that is, with books matched to the students' instructional levels. Because of that, I often use “guided reading” as a shortcut key when I am criticizing the idea of leveling kids’ reading in those ways.

And that works great with some of my audience. They get what I’m saying. They definitely are not confusing me with either Mr. Clooney or Mr. Bozo.

But the Fountas and Pinnell version of guided reading means different things to different people. A significant part of my audience believes that guided reading is about small group teaching, and studies are pretty clear that small group teaching can be advantageous. Those individuals hear me challenge guided reading and they start seeing images of a clown with really big feet.

The term, “guided reading,” was not created by F&P. It was a term used by one of the basal reader companies (Scott Foresman’s Dick & Jane readers)  from the 1930s-1960s to describe their lesson plan in which teachers guided students to read a text by preteaching vocabulary, setting a purpose for reading, having kids read part of the text, and then discussing that portion in pursuit of a series of teacher questions. (A competing program at the time marketed a very similar routine called “directed reading”). 

Again, when I talk about the contradiction between “guided reading” and Common Core, some individuals are taking it that I’m criticizing the idea of reading a text under the supervision of a teacher. And, again, to these folks, they are definitely seeing grease paint and big shoes rather than a hunk.

Please understand: Research findings and Common Core standards stand in stark contradiction to the idea of teaching everybody (beyond beginners) at their so-called instructional level. The standards say nothing about small group instruction or communal readings in which teachers scaffold kids’ interactions with text. The criticisms are of the first, not of the second two. The notion that kids should be taught to read with relatively easy texts is great for beginners, but by grade 2, this approach is more likely to hold kids back than to help them to read better.

I hope that helps. 

By the way, I have made headway in convincing Cyndie that people really do confuse me with George Clooney. She is even warming to the idea. Of course, she has been dropping hints about a 7-carat diamond, but I’m sure we’ll work that problem out over time.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Anna Hicks Jun 15, 2017 11:19 AM


I enjoyed reading your post. It is refreshing to hear other people's take on guided reading. I also do the guided reading at my small group table and I really think that it benefits my 2nd grade students. I found it interesting that you said guided reading was founded in the 1950's. I had no idea the term had been used that long!Very interesting, funny article.

Anonymous Jun 15, 2017 11:19 AM


This discussion reminds me of the argument about Whole Word instruction and Phonics based instruction. A compromise with elements of both models seems to help a wider range of students. Our district uses reading instruction based on second grade level text but we have small group guided reading instruction where all students read texts on their instructional level. This means that during the reading lesson there is a great amount of scaffolding happening because I have readers who can't decode can or the and I have readers who are reading 4th grade level books. One thing almost all the students suffer from is comprehension that isn't on level with their reading skills. In other words, they are fourth grade level word callers but first grade level for comprehension. To move the students into deeper understanding of the text requires repeated readings and text that is worth reading multiple times. Jan Richardson's - The Next Step in Guided Reading is the mentor text that our school uses for our model of guided reading. It provides opportunities for reading a text two and three days with time spent on decoding and working on those strategies, comprehension activities and guided writing. I can't imagine giving my struggling readers who are unable to read cat a grade level text.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 15, 2017 11:19 AM


I think it would be better to follow the research than to make a compromise to keep everyone happy. The notion of giving kids parts of things that work and parts of things that don’t because some adult likes the parts that don’t doesn’t seem to me to be the best way to develop really strong readers. You might not be able to imagine teaching with grade level texts to students whose reading levels are below grade, but how will your students ever reach those levels by the time they graduate if no teacher ever does so. That simply passes the problem down the line to other teachers.

Anonymous Jun 15, 2017 11:20 AM


I was very intrigued by your post. I believe very strongly in the benefits of guided reading. I did not know the origin but the model that I currently use has been successful. Is the idea not to help students learn strategies and skills that groom them to be great readers? If you are using texts that are on the students instructional level and that level never changes there is an issue much greater than your choice of text. I also feel that guided reading is only a piece to the puzzle that is literacy instruction. There are so many other components and factors that can be discussed. With that in mind, I see benefits of using parts of some things. At the end of the day, we all want what is best for our students and to me that may mean going about things a different way or mixing programs.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 15, 2017 11:20 AM


Again, it comes down to what guided reading is. If it is teaching students from texts at the children's reading level as opposed to teaching students to read more demanding grade level texts, then that approach is inconsistent with the standards. If the idea is to guide students to use various skills or strategies while reading, then you should continue on. CCSS--and research-- is challenging the first idea not the second.

Taylor Robinson Jun 15, 2017 11:21 AM


I enjoyed reading your blog. I teach 1st grade and guided reading is crucial to their development as readers. I do guided reading at my small group table as well and I think it benefits my students. I believe it is less intimidating for them to read aloud in a smaller group of 4 or 5 kids rather than reading aloud during whole group with 19 or more kids listening to you. It also enables me to hear them read and see what they do when they read so I can better meet their personal needs as readers and teach them appropriate strategies that will help them become better readers.
I thought it was a very interesting and funny article. I love how you compared guided reading to George Clooney.

Anonymous Jun 15, 2017 11:21 AM


Please provide the research about how teaching students using instructional level texts does not yield results! I am a literacy coach with five years of successful guided reading with below-level ELL's, working with them at their instructional level for TWENTY MINUTES A DAY. The rest of our two-hour block is spent with students immersed in either an independent book of their choice (also about 20-25 minutes) or in grade level text (1+ hours). I feel confident that I am teaching CCSS Standard 10 because my students read complex text in whole group with my scaffolding. I understand you've probably posted it many times, but please post it again here so I can see the research about why these 20 minutes of my students' day, where I see them growing by leaps and bounds, is actually preventing them from achieving the Common Core standards!

Kathy Nolan Jun 07, 2018 01:36 PM

Cindy, hold out for that ring! It's really sparkly!

Laurie Cramton Jul 21, 2018 03:38 PM

I just recently had this discussion with colleagues. Our school is trained (some still in training) on the multi sensory structured literacy approach to teaching reading and spelling. The program emphasizes using controlled text in reading groups, only allow the students to read text where every word/pattern has been explicitly taught. Lower level readers being retaught and higher level readers moving forward within the program. My concern is that I’ve read research, granted not in depth, that students should be pushed to frustration level with scaffolding to make the text accessible in order to make the greatest gains in reading. I am concerned that this approach is in contradiction to keeping with the fidelity of the program and that some teachers may not have the understanding and/or skills to appropriately support students at the frustration level. We are moving away from the term guided reading to reading groups as I believe, as you mentioned, that guided reading connotes leveled reading, because different things will be happening in the small groups depending on student needs. What are your thoughts and opinions on keeping all students in controlled text vs frustration level?

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A George By Any Other Name: Guided Reading and the Common Core


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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