When I blogged about some resources I'd made to brand the reading AFs, I promised a blog post about how and why my year group had abandoned the traditional method for teaching reading. The idea came from my wonderful year leader, Rhoda, so she has written this to share our reasons and method.
If you'd have asked me 18 months ago about the most effective way to teach reading across the primary phase I would have, without a doubt, talked about Guided Reading. I had always taught reading through this approach, it was just the way we did it. In fact, I was such an advocate that when I Ied English across my school I encouraged other colleagues to do the same. I’ve now changed my mind.
It was a conversation with a teacher at a TeachMeet Sussex meeting that got the cogs whirring. I heard him explain how his school had been advised not to do Guided Reading Sessions during OfSTED as it would be difficult to show progress which was above Requires Improvement. If that is the case, why is this still our chosen method of teaching?
These are my main issues with Guided Reading:
1) The Independent Groups Problem.
The nature of the Guided Reading approach means that although six children in my class receive focussed attention for the half hour session, the remainder are left to work independently. I find myself thinking up tasks which “keep them busy” rather than ones which will challenge and extend their learning as these often require some input and support from me. All too often I see children become disengaged with independent tasks as they are not pitched correctly while I become a wasted resource sitting with six children in the class. I don’t think I’m alone. In fact, this has been confirmed by OFSTED in their report Reading for Pleasure and Purpose when they said that reading sessions “took too little account of the needs of other groups in the class and the tasks set for them lacked challenge. In some instances, pupils were left to their own devices to read silently or share books. Although some enjoyed the opportunity, others merely flicked through their books with little apparent interest.”
2) Too much focus on assessment, not on teaching.
I have sat through many meetings listening awestruck to “super teachers” recount their ability to sit with a small group, ask focused and meaningful questions while simultaneously writing children’s responses down on post it notes. This is apparently useful for APP. I’ve never found this to be the case, just that I am drowning in post it notes while trying to decipher my failing handwriting. I feel that too much of the group session is focussed on assessment of reading, not on teaching of it.
3) Group work is not focused enough.
When observing teacher led groups in guided reading the questioning doesn’t seem to be focussed on one Assessment Focus (AF), rather it jumps around and covers a multitude of them superficially. The group is also inevitably dominated by the confident child, whereas those that are less confident get the chance to sit back. Inevitably a good teacher would set high expectations for participation from all members of the group. But it’s hard. And maybe a 25minute conversation isn’t always the best way to ascertain what they know and what their next steps are.
4) Written outcomes are required at KS2.
A child’s reading ability at the end of KS2 is assessed through a written outcome which doesn’t marry up with the approach of many primary schools. When I taught Year 6, I found it particularly hard to move my most able children from Level 5 to Level 6: although they were able readers, they just weren’t ready for that step up in expectation of written responses.
5) The difficult AFs need teaching.
As children move through KS2, they are required to become more analytical as readers. They are expected to have an awareness of authorial intent and the implication of historical and cultural context on a piece of writing. I don’t think we spend enough time actually teaching children to look for and be aware of this when reading. Rather, we skim over it with a couple of questions here and there. Also, many sessions, even in upper KS2, have a heavy focus on AF1, i.e. teachers hear children decode rather than discuss other AFs with them. It is interesting to note that AF1 stops being an assessment focus from L4 upwards.
I think for too long children in my class have made progress in reading despite my method of teaching and this year I was determined to change this. This is what we did:
1) We moved to teaching whole class reading instead of Guided Reading.
This statement often seems to be followed by sharp intake of breathe, shortly followed by, “How does it work?” To which I reply, “Just like any normal lesson.” Instead of having a 30minute session every day, we have moved to have 2 x 1hour sessions per week which all children take part in. We choose an AF for the lesson, we plan activities which allow children to access this AF and we adapt the lesson as it goes along to allow all groups to make progress. It also allows me to work with the children that need it the most at that time. I can differentiate through many ways: the difficulty of the text the children are working on; the questions I am asking them; the level of support they are receiving. The outcome of the lesson is mostly written. This removes the problem of independent groups, it allows me to focus on one AF in depth and it better prepares children for the expectation of written responses at the end of KS2.
2) This means we now have an extended focus on reading AFs.
Teaching whole class has allowed us to spend a greater amount of time on a focused AF rather than skimming over them. Recently, a reading lesson involved focussing in on a chapter of Charlotte’s Web. As a class we looked at how the reader’s feelings changed towards Charlotte as the chapter progressed. We charted our feelings on line graphs; we picked out phrases the author used to create these feeling within us; we even used the quotes we gathered to write a PEE response paragraph (Point Evidence Explanation) all focussed on AF5. Now, I am not saying that couldn’t be done in a 30minute Guided Reading session, but in this context, everyone could participate and feed off the responses of others. I could ask challenging questions that the whole class got to hear; I could support the lower ability because we could read the chapter together and highlight our quotes; we could take time to discuss the tricky vocabulary. It just seemed to work better and in a less contrived environment, without me worrying that my independent groups have lost the plot with their comprehension cards ten minutes ago.
3) We ensure weak readers still received AF1 support.
AF1 (decoding texts) is vital if children are to become effective readers but stops appearing on the APP grids at Level 4: It is the expectation that children are confident decoders of text by the time they reach level 4. For our children who are not confident decoders we have phonic support sessions which run in addition to our reading sessions. It is important that they get the focus on AF1 but this should not be at the detriment to the other AFs otherwise we end up with children who can bark at print but have poor comprehension skills.
4) We use branded Reading AFs.
We wanted to make our children aware of the reading skills they were using and we hoped this would give them a greater understanding of what makes a well rounded reader. I have tried this before when I taught Year 6 but this never got further than posters on a wall! We have created a simple logo for each AF and these are embedded in all our lessons: they appear on notebooks, teaching resources and children also receive a sticker with the logo on if they have demonstrated this skill in a piece of work. You can read more on this and see examples of our logos and download all the related resources here.
5) We introduced reading warm ups.
We now start off our Reading lessons with a “Read with R.I.C” activity. This is where the children look at a stimulus: it may be a poem, short video clip or a picture. They have three questions to answer which have Retrieval, Interpret and Choice focus. You can see examples of these here. These short activities make children aware of the AFs. They also allow lower ability children to access the different AF questions while removing the barrier of decoding text. Hopefully as their AF1 skills improve, they will be move likely to exhibit skills in AF3 and AF5 when responding to texts.
6) It’s brought enjoyment back - for teachers and children!
Finally, I like teaching reading again. I don’t get sick of asking the same questions but to different groups. I don’t get annoyed with frustrations of the Guided Reading carousel: someone in Dahl group was away so can’t do the follow up task; Rowling group have already done that comprehension; Jimmy’s forgotten his free choice book again so spends a good ten minutes dawdling at the book corner. The children look forward to reading sessions. We sometimes link our Guided Reading sessions to our Theme lessons and sometimes to our class readers which works well for us. This year our class readers are all Movie Books. We dress up as one of the characters and watch the film on the last afternoon of half term. There’s a buzz about reading and as a teacher I feel happy with where it’s going. And our progress data looks excellent too which keeps SLT happy.
I’m not arguing that Guided Reading doesn’t have a place in the primary classroom; I think that for children achieving up to a secure L3 it can be a valuable teaching method if planned effectively, especially when children still need to develop their skills in AFs 1,2,3. My question is, is this approach still enough for those children moving into L4? When children move into Level 4 there is greater emphasis on a child’s ability answer questions relating to AFs 4-7, finally being assessed through written responses at the end of KS2. In fact even further along the line, KS3 colleagues nationally find that reading results tend to drop at the beginning of Year 7. Could this be due to too little attention placed on written responses and the higher AFs by the end of KS2?
|Click to enlarge image.|
Graph taken from How do pupils progress during Key Stages 2 and 3? Department for Education 2011
Perhaps if we as primary colleagues armed our level 4 and 5 readers with a greater awareness of the skills required to become a well rounded reader and began to introduce our children to how to form written reading responses, we might make the transition from L3 onwards smoother for our children.
To see the blog post which contains explanations and downloads of the branding (now updated for the 2014 National Curriculum), please click here (opens in a new tab).