The problem with guided reading and the hidden key to success

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There are so many reading programmes around that promise to solve ‘the’ problem with reading. A strange claim really considering that there is no one problem with reading, there are many problems that require many different solutions. There is no ‘one-size’ programme that can ever think to do this as the real key is about knowing each individual student, their background, how they come to be a weak/poor/disillusioned reader and break down the barriers that are stopping them.
This is probably a far bigger conversation than this blog post but what I do want to focus on is the way guided reading schemes work. Unfortunately and I mean this more in secondary than primary, there seems to be an over reliance on phonics when listening and guiding someone’s reading.
Yes, we all know phonics plays an important part in initial reading as the many strands of accessing texts and printed words come together to form tighter bonds of interwoven ‘reading rope’ but if at some stage in this process something has gone wrong then reading can be hampered.
Therefore, once a student gets to secondary school and all the strands have not been tied together then there needs to be a focus on all the strands and not just one.
Guided reading focuses on the student being able to break down the word they are trying to read. Some help may be given with some sounds, maybe initial etc but the student is encouraged to spend the time to get the word right.
Here, for me is the fundamental problem. When working with a student on their reading they want to feel that they are successfully doing it, they are capable of reading and that they are not, as they have probably felt previously, a failure at reading. By spending time with a student that is struggling with a word and intensifying it by either not helping and letting the silence drip with failure or offering a small morsel of sound like a mother would to a small child “ah ah” we forget the most important thing. Fluency. Fluency is the key because as we spend time in the black hole of that silence everything that student has just read in that sentence has been completely lost, turned inside out and vaporised. Comprehension is just as important as decoding skills and the two aren’t mutually exclusive, in the fact that if you improve decoding you won’t automatically improve comprehension. In actual fact comprehension is a lot harder to teach than decoding as it comes from an individual’s knowledge and experience, things that can be learnt.
Focussing on fluency then is the key. If instead of stopping a reader when they get to a hard word they are given the word and allowed to continue straight away there is good chance that the student will remember what else had happened in the sentence/paragraph. Their working memory hasn’t been taken up with trying to decode it so can work on analysing the meaning. Remember we only have enough space for 7 plus or minus 2 ideas. What is also more likely to happen is that the student will also remember that word so the next time they come across it they can remember how it sounded and independently recite it, as they are seeing the word in context within the sentence they are also more likely to comprehend its meaning.
I have had great success using this technique as part of our 10 week reading intervention using new technologies. In just 10 weeks our minimum improvement is 18 months in reading age and we have run this with 40 students over 4 years now. The evidence that fluency is key is startling. After interviewing students using different methods students were more likely to overestimate their mistakes when we focused on decoding words and were more likely to underestimate their mistakes when we focused on fluency. Focusing on fluency also led to a greater enjoyment in reading, a feeling of being successful at it and more likely to improve in their reading abilities because of it.
So for me there is an inherent problem with guided reading schemes as they fail to put enough emphasis on the real key to a successful programme fluency.

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