What do you think of Guided Reading for secondary school?

  • 28 September, 2018

Teacher question:

I read about the "research base" for guided reading, and Fountas & Pinnell’s exposition of this research mostly contains only position papers--no empirical, peer-reviewed research. I realize that many of the guided reading strategies can be found in research that predates F & P, but what about the effectiveness of guided reading itself? The reason I’m asking is because “guided reading” is now being promoted for high school. What do you think of guided reading for adolescents?

Shanahan's response:

As usual, it all depends on how you define things.

What do you mean by guided reading?

The F & P version of guided reading is certainly the most known form, but it isn’t the only one and when I speak to teachers about it they have different perceptions of what I’m saying.

Guided reading these days is a veritable elephant to the blind—snake to one man, rope to another, wall to a third.

I criticize some aspect of guided reading, and the response might be that I’m opposing small group instruction. I’m not, but if you think guided reading is about avoiding whole class teaching then you’ll blanch at my complaints.

My sense is, that despite the complexity of F & P’s guided reading approach, both advocates and denigrators tend to focus on one characteristic or other.

I’ve already noted there are those who believe that guided reading and small-group instruction are synonymous. Small groups are important to guided reading, but it certainly isn’t the same thing. There are many other kinds of small-group pedagogy, including explicit phonics groups and cooperative reading groups.

To me the key element of F & P’s guided reading is the idea that kids need to be taught with texts of particular levels of difficulty (that’s the definition the International Literacy Association has in its Literacy Glossary). Supposedly if kids are matched to texts properly they’ll make surer progress in learning to read. Research hasn’t been supportive of that idea and in practice it usually means students get less opportunity to deal with content at their cognitive, motivational, and social levels -- a big issue in high school—since graded-text adjustments are more likely to be down than up.

Lately I’ve noticed that many critics emphasize the specific kinds of guidance that students are given in the F & P scheme. Particularly offensive to them is the guidance aimed at getting kids to guess words based on pictures or promoting the use of the “three cueing systems” to read words.

The term “guided reading” originated in the 1930s. It quite accurately refers to what happens when teachers lead students in a communal reading, and that is true of F & P’s scheme as well. In their guided reading, teachers escort groups of students through a text every bit as much as the teachers did back in “Dick and Jane” days (in fact, that’s where the term came from originally). I wish we’d reserve “guided reading” for this communal reading, reserving “Guided Reading” for the F & P variety—though I suppose that cow is already out of the barn.

You note that some of the strategies within guided reading (such as preteaching vocabulary, talking about prior knowledge, or questioning kids after a reading) long have had a research base, and that is correct—though there are, as of yet, no convincing studies of the efficacy of guided reading itself. And, in this case, what is true for elementary reading is the case for secondary students.

What do I think of guided reading for secondary students?

I have no problem with small group teaching in middle school and high school, though it is harder to manage this profitably because of the shortness of the instructional periods. Don’t group solely for the sake of small group teaching, but I certainly wouldn’t discourage teachers from using small groups when they make sense; when they amplify your teaching rather than reducing the amount of teaching.

But matching kids to texts on the basis of reading levels makes no more sense with secondary students than with elementary ones, and the same can be said about teaching students to read words through anything but orthographic cues. Neither matching kids to texts based on reading levels or teaching cueing students are supported by research, and there are reasons for rejecting both (e.g., research finds we can raise reading achievement by teaching with harder books than those prescribed by guided reading; poor readers depend upon semantic and syntactic cues to recognize words, but good readers do not).

At secondary level, I would certainly include various kinds of communal reading—under teacher guidance. Having classes/groups of students read common texts with teacher scaffolding is a good idea, whether we are talking about the reading of a short story in an English class or a chapter from a science book. Such communal reading opportunities well managed promote mature interpretations of particular texts or the development of comprehension strategies.

Communal reading here doesn’t mean reading a text aloud—either with the teacher reading to the students or the kids taking turns round-robin style. Guided reading focuses on reading comprehension and, except with the youngest readers, that is best practiced through silent reading.

This guided/communal reading can take many forms. For example, reciprocal teaching guides students to read texts while learning to use particular strategies (predicting, summarizing, questioning, clarifying)—and gradually fades or withdraws guidance as students gain proficiency with the strategies (the I do, we do it, you do it approach). Or, close reading is another way to communally explore text—this approach aimed at developing a rich interpretation on the basis of a careful consideration of what texts say and how it says it (e.g., repetition of ideas, use of literary devices).

That means I very much support the idea of “guided reading” with secondary students—but I wouldn’t “Guided Reading.”


See what others have to say about this topic.

Stephanie Sep 28, 2018 11:38 PM

I agree

Chandra Sep 29, 2018 12:09 AM

On point again, Shanahan. I can always count on you for a no nonsense practical application of research based best practices.

Tim Shanahan Sep 29, 2018 03:25 AM

Thank you

Harriett Janetos Sep 29, 2018 04:22 AM

I'm glad you've revisited the problems with the 3-cueing system, which figures prominently in the F & P miscue analysis. I noticed, Tim, that you're on the editorial board of The Reading Teacher. I don't know how much influence you have (there are a lot of names on that board!), but it seems like the The Reading Teacher has been getting softer on science recently with articles often referring to the 3-cueing system, so I'm wondering whether the editors read your blog. I write to them on a fairly regular basis, but I'm just a voice crying in the wilderness. Your voice, on the other hand, carries a lot more weight. Just a thought.

Becki Krsnak Oct 02, 2018 01:14 AM

Spot on, as always!

Jamie Maligan Oct 08, 2018 08:30 PM

We have recently been instructed to do Guided reading with year 7 and year 9 pupils. The majority of the pupils actually enjoy reading independently and have made good progress. The idea here is that pupils are given a book and take it in turns to read. There is no particular questions linked to the books and I am concerned that some pupils will switch off to reading as the opportunity of exploring books of their choice has been taken away from them and they are now being dictated to.

Debra B. Oct 18, 2018 02:02 PM

Thank you Tim!! I spoke to you this summer about the phonics debate regarding letter vs. sound being taught first, during your presentation at ULit in NYC. I have been receiving your newsletter ever since and it has been such a great resource!! Great information! I always learn from your thoughts. And thank you to the teachers who send in such great questions and comments.
I will be doing a series of Guided Reading PD's for K to 2 staff soon. I use the research-decide-teach method. I intro the book including gist (discuss prior knowledge), syntax and tricky words. The students read independently and I lean in/listen in/coach in to each student separately and note reading behaviors/miscues. We discuss meaning of the text as a group and I move on to a teaching point based on my my notes from listening/coaching in. I choose a teaching point based on the needs of the majority of the group. I always have text level behaviors and teaching points on hand to refer to if necessary. I was thinking of breaking down the PD into 4 sessions. I am using page 13 from F&P's 2017 edition of their text: Guided Reading as a basis which clearly and concisely outlines what the teacher and students do before, during and after reading. Any resources, thoughts or suggestions would be great! Looking forward to reading your next newsletter!!

Stephanie Wade Mar 01, 2022 05:54 AM

Lately, I'm curious... How does the Four Part Processor for Word Recognition Model relate to the Cueing Domains?


Is it that we EVENTUALLY use the processors when a fully skilled reader and we encounter a unknown word? Is it that the prompts should not be used? Is error analysis the major problem? I was taught to start with graphophonic, so I never had to use the guessing strategies.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 01, 2022 01:47 PM

Good readers rely substantially (though not entirely) upon graphophonemic information in recognizing words... but they do use semantic information intentionally when trying to determine the meaning of words. We all "guess" when things don't work -- such as when a page is damaged and we can't really see a word or part of a word. However, that doesn't require instruction.


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What do you think of Guided Reading for secondary school?


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