Should We Stop Using Guided Reading Because of Common Core?

  • balanced literacy beginning reading
  • 30 August, 2016

Teacher letter:

I am now a literacy specialist in a middle school and am hoping you can give me your opinion on the process of the guided reading method of reading instruction. I completely agree with you that the F&P levels are ludicrously low and it would be difficult to transition students to the end goal of CCSS using these levels. However, I’m curious what you think about the usefulness of listening to individuals read in a small group, using running records to track a struggling reader’s progress with CCSS grade-level text used in the classroom, and explicitly teaching strategies and vocabulary in a small group. Is there research that supports this idea? I am desperately trying to figure out how I can most effectively serve a large number of students grades 6-8, many of whom came from elementary schools that use F&P methods.

Shanahan response:

         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.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Anonymous Apr 06, 2017 05:01 PM

I have to incorporate small groups into my lesson plans. I teach struggling 3rd grade readers. I have an one hour and 20 minute block for all literacy skills- reading writing grammar and word study. I am struggling with knowing how to schedule the literacy block so that I can teach all literacy skills. Does anyone have any ideas? 8/31/16

Mary Apr 06, 2017 05:01 PM

If your struggling 3rd grade readers are more than 1 year behind, you can still catch them up to grade level in a year or a year and a half, but it will take 90 minutes daily of a research-based phonics program. Reading Mastery Signatures is the one the teachers in the schools where I have consulted or coached like best because it integrates Core Knowledge geography, science, vocal, oral language, spelling, comprehension and increasingly carefully designed difficult phonics, until students reach the advanced reading stage. Like all Direct Instruction programs, you cannot just pick it up and teach it...technical training is needed to articulate linguistic letter sounds, to use stretch blending, to blend past stop sounds, and most importantly to do effective error corrections. You don't have time to waste. Each year your struggling readers fall further behind in word reading, the longer it will take them to catch up. And if they can't read the words,i t's tragic that the far more difficult to teach comprehension becomes less urgent because THEY CAN"T READ THE TEXT and they feel horrible about themselves/their peers regard them as "stupid" even though there is no correlation with reading. IT takes elem students about 500 trials to relearn mistakes they have learned through dysteachia. I recommend Lemov's book "Practice Perfect" and its description of knowing what "smart" practice that leads to results is. 9/1/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:02 PM

Definitely kids who are struggling with decoding will benefit from explicit, systematic phonics instruction. The vast majority of primary grade students who struggle with reading, tend to struggle with decoding. However, not all students--even in the primary grades--who find texts hard to read are struggling to read the words. Vocabulary, grammar, cohesion, text structure, literary devices, graphics, etc. can all be sources of difficulty. (And, as students get older, the likelihood that decoding is the source of their difficulty becomes relatively less and less likely.)

tim 9/2/16

Anonymous Apr 06, 2017 05:02 PM

Thank you Mary! Should I forgo writing and just focus on reading? 9/4/16

Anonymous Apr 06, 2017 05:03 PM

Thanks! This is alot to consider! With only 1hr and 20 mininute block daily, what should be a nonnegotiable for reading instruction?

Mary Apr 06, 2017 05:03 PM

I certainly agree about the text complexity, vocabulary and fuguratve langaue issues, but to date out of the hundreds of older students I've done 2 days of comprehensive reading testing with I've only had a handful who could skillfully and fluently read multisyllabic words or had the skills to decode the smaller parts. Sounds of oi, au, tion had never made it to long term memory. Exceptions usually were kids diagnosed with Aspergers. This experience reflects "word caller" myth research. I'm observing now that older low readers in a hard core Fountas and Pinell district look immediately at your mouth for any difficult words instead of text. Rereadings and oral memorization of text have left their mark. It's a bit scary . 9/4/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:04 PM

The lower the level of reading ability, the greater the chance that someone will suffer from decoding problems; older students who are far behind included. However, as low readers reading levels get harder, decoding becomes less of a problem (or not the only problem). That's the reason why studies do not show improvements in reading comprehension and spelling resulting from phonics teaching. Thus, if you have an 8th grader who is 5-6 years behind, I'd bet on a decoding problem (but would test to be sure). While an 8th grader reading like a 5th or 6th grader, may need some decoding help, it is unlikely that is the major problem (and, the lion's share of 8th graders who are behind will be 1-3 levels below grade--not 4-8 levels below). 9/4/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:04 PM


It isn't possible to give a complete answer to your question, because I don't know what is going on the rest of the day. Let's say, kids spend a lot of time in science and social studies classes reading complex text under the supervision of teachers. That would free up some reading comprehension instruction time in these reading classes.

If your school only allows reading/writing to be taught for 320 minutes per week to 3rd graders, I think you need to start with a conversation about that. But while that conversation goes on, I would try to prove 80 minutes per week of reading comprehension work, 80 minutes of writing, 80 minutes of fluency time, and 80 minutes devoted to words (decoding and word meaning). How that would play out in any given day, I'd leave to you.

tim 9/4/16

Bridget Erickson Apr 06, 2017 05:05 PM

I agree with Tim's response to Mary that we need to be careful of focusing so heavily on decoding with struggling readers in the intermediate and middle grades, particularly for culturally and/or linguistically diverse students. Making the language of school - syntax, linguistic genres, vocabulary- explicit is necessary for students to comprehend the complex texts of the CCSS.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:05 PM

I am wondering what your feeling is about Fountas and Pinnell's Literacy Continuum and Prompting Guides. I have heard you speak about the dangers in relying heavily on text leveling, but wondered whether you might place more value on these other aspects of the F & P system. Many teachers to whom I speak find the training they have received in the Literacy Continuum and learning what to listen for in children's reading to push for progress extremely useful. Do you value these practices, as defined by F & P? If not, what other professional development do you feel would be useful in helping teachers push for progress in small group teaching?

Many thanks for your advice. 2/4/17

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:06 PM


There are many aspects of what Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell do that I think are quite good. We differ basically in two regards:

(1) The idea that one needs to level books for children beyond beginning reading. (for the reasons already given)

(2) The idea that one should emphasize context (semantic or syntactic) in word recognition. (because, as the research makes clear, that is the approach that poor readers take, not the one used by good readers)

Various practices, including how they level beginning books, are based on these premises, and so we would disagree on those practices. However, beyond that, I think there suggestions and guidance can be very good.

tim 2/4/17

Amanda Vining Apr 06, 2017 05:06 PM

Would you clarify you second point to anonymous? I want to make sure I am understanding it correctly.

Are you saying having kids think about language goes against research, and if so, what research are you referring to?


Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:07 PM


No, I'm not saying that we should neglect teaching students to think about language, but the word recognition of good readers is dominated by decoding (e.g., phonology, orthography), not semantics and syntactics. Thus, the idea of teaching cueing systems to aide in word recognition is to teach children to read like poor readers rather than good readers. Context can be helpful when a student is trying to figure out the meaning of an unknown word, but it is the wrong system to encourage if you are trying to facilitate students' reading/decoding of words.

There are many studies showing this, but here is a good example (and it cites many more).
Relation between early reading acquisition and word decoding with and without context: A longitudinal study of first-grade children.
Stanovich, Keith E.; Cunningham, Anne E.; Feeman, Dorothy J.
Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 76(4), Aug 1984, 668-677

good luck.

tim 2/14/17

Jennifer Nov 11, 2019 03:22 AM

What are your thoughts on the following for K-2 students?

- 90 minutes knowledge building curriculum using complex text daily
- 45 minutes explicit phonics instruction based on OG methods daily
-45 minutes small group guided reading with fluid groupings daily. (Fluid groups are based on teacher anecdotal notes with movement among groups every 4.5 weeks.)

I’d really appreciate guidance related to continuing with guided reading within the described literacy block. Also, considering ways to provide beginning writers with more opportunities to receive feedback and instruction on improving writing.

Any advice and research would be greatly appreciated.

Jackie Brownell Sep 10, 2020 12:27 AM

Actually guided reading came from Marie Clay's work and the success of Reading Recovery. It was not a reaction to difficult texts in basals but a result of Clay's research on what successful readers do. By creating a continuum based on her observations of effective readers over time she helped guide instruction to meet students where they were in order to move them to their next steps. Guided reading is not the entirety of literacy instruction but it is one tool to address individual needs and offer students opportunities to experience success as readers. In this way they practice making meaning to grow as readers and thinkers with thought and purpose. By only offering students grade level texts that they cannot access we will be reverting back to whole lanugage when we expected students to acquire growth through exposure. There needs to be a balance of exposure to grade level text AND meeting students where they are. I have been in literacy education for over 30 years and taught everything from programmed reading, Open Court, whole language, basals, and balanced literacy. This has been the most successful approach I have witnessed and experienced as a teacher, reading specialist, iteracy coach, literacy trainer and supervisor. Let's not polarize literacy in this way. It is not a one or the other approach. There is research that supports both practices and we should be open to all ideas and philosophies that work.

Elizabeth Kettle Jan 25, 2024 09:37 PM

My school has been using F&P Guided reading for some years. three times per week in the ELA block, and 10-15 minutes is devoted each day to a teacher read-aloud using a novel at or above grade level. In addition, young students and older students who need extra support in decoding participate in various Wilson programs, while students who struggle with comprehension receive Lindamood Bell's Visualizing and Verbalizing program. (This is accomplished because for 1/2 hour each morning, all students attend their small group, with those reading at or above grade level enjoying Book Club.) Finally, selected readers also meet several times per week in a pull-out if they are deemed appropriate for F&P's LLI instruction. We serve students who have suffered trauma and neglect, and therefore come to us, as a rule, significantly behind in terms of their reading skills. While I agree that Fountas and Pinnell Guided Reading, on its own, is not ideal as a comprehensive program, we have found that it has an important place in an educational setting that gives literacy the primary focus and is willing to devote the necessary time, training, and resources to do so as effectively as possible. We will soon be featured on Viewpoint with Dennis Quaid. Check us out!

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Should We Stop Using Guided Reading Because of Common Core?


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