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Thanks to cur­ricu­lum changes, pri­maries are now shift­ing to­wards the whole-class ap­proach to read­ing. But is that choice – in­stead of im­ple­ment­ing guided read­ing – the right one? Sinéad Gaffney ref­er­ees the de­bate be­tween the two camps

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - EDITORIAL -

…but with a whole-class or guided ap­proach? Ex­plore the ar­gu­ments

As we seek to turn our word-point­ing four-year-olds into story-lov­ing, book-con­fi­dent, word-cu­ri­ous 11-year-olds, the choice of how we go about the busi­ness of teach­ing read­ing is one of the most im­por­tant de­ci­sions we will make. Back in the hey­day of Lit­er­acy Strate­gies, guided read­ing was strongly en­cour­aged and, over decades, it be­came the ex­pected prac­tice for teach­ing read­ing.

But the 2014 cur­ricu­lum changes have been a cat­a­lyst for de­bate: dif­fer­ent cur­ric­ula can re­quire dif­fer­ent ped­a­gog­i­cal ap­proaches and many teach­ers have now ditched guided read­ing in favour of whole-class read­ing.

Read­ing is imag­ined dif­fer­ently in the new cur­ricu­lum. Chil­dren are in­tro­duced to dif­fer­ent kinds of knowl­edge; the skills that are val­ued within it have changed: from statu­tory phon­ics be­ing the route to word-read­ing, to flu­ency you can mea­sure with a one-minute sand-timer; from an em­pha­sis on widen­ing vo­cab­u­lar­ies to in­tro­duc­ing chil­dren to high-qual­ity texts and Bri­tain’s lit­er­ary her­itage.

The val­ues and phi­los­o­phy un­der­pin­ning this cur­ricu­lum are dif­fer­ent from its pre­de­ces­sor’s. No won­der, then, that teach­ers are ex­plor­ing dif­fer­ent ways of teach­ing read­ing in their class­rooms. In par­tic­u­lar, there is a move now to­wards teach­ing chil­dren us­ing whole-class read­ing.

But is this switch the right one?

The case for whole-class read­ing

The 2014 cur­ricu­lum po­si­tions high-qual­ity lit­er­a­ture at the heart of read­ing and the wider English cur­ricu­lum. It places an onus on teach­ers to teach whole texts, and in key stage 2 many of these (but not all) need to be chil­dren’s nov­els. An ex­tract from a novel, the rest of which is never read, or an end­less string of life-sap­ping “com­pre­hen­sions” will, quite lit­er­ally, no longer make the grade in this cur­ricu­lum.

Let us pause to cel­e­brate this shift – it is un­doubt­edly a pos­i­tive move.

But then let it sink in: read­ing through five dif­fer­ent nov­els with five dif­fer­ent guided read­ing groups each week is hardly straight­for­ward. It re­quires teach­ers to have read more chil­dren’s nov­els than the typ­i­cal grad­u­ate en­ter­ing the pro­fes­sion has read. Be­yond that, it means that teach­ers need to know a large num­ber of chil­dren’s nov­els well enough to teach them: to be very fa­mil­iar with the plot and char­ac­ters, to know the un­usual vo­cab­u­lary that is likely to wob­ble chil­dren’s com­pre­hen­sion, to un­der­stand which parts of the novel to pause over and un­pick, to de­cide which as­pects of the novel’s sen­tence struc­ture or char­ac­ters’ per­spec­tives should be used as teach­ing points.

Let’s say that, most terms, your tra­di­tional five guided read­ing groups get through a novel each. Al­low­ing for some text reuse and over­lap, that’s po­ten­tially 15 age-ap­pro­pri­ate chil­dren’s nov­els that key stage 2 teach­ers need to know well. What­ever the cur­ricu­lum’s am­bi­tions, many teach­ers, even the book­ish ones, aren’t quite there yet.

As a re­sult, choos­ing a method such as whole-class read­ing, which re­duces the num­ber of texts that teach­ers need to keep track of, seems to make sense.

Also, a term that is now be­gin­ning to make it­self felt in every year group is “flu­ency”, and the cur­ricu­lum re­quires chil­dren in Year 2 and be­yond to be able to read at a pace of 90 words a minute. This stip­u­la­tion is less oner­ous than it may at first sound, but speed is not the essence of flu­ency. It re­quires prosody – the pat­terns of stress and in­to­na­tion that make the words read aloud sound nat­u­ral.

Proper flu­ency in­volves an in­di­ca­tion that the reader is not sim­ply gal­lop­ing through the words as her teacher hov­ers nearby with a sand-timer, but that she can com­mu­ni­cate her un­der­stand­ing of the words and punc­tu­a­tion as she reads. A flu­ent reader un­der­stands the mood of the text be­cause flu­ency is where word-read­ing and com­pre­hen­sion meet.

Teach­ers need to model this: those chil­dren who are reg­u­larly read to will pick this up in­stinc­tively, but it is such a fun­da­men­tal part of read­ing, whether aloud or in­ter­nally, that we need to pay it ex­plicit at­ten­tion in school. Chil­dren who have been read to well by adults will grasp flu­ency in their own read­ing far sooner and more eas­ily than those who haven’t.

Then there is the cur­ricu­lum’s in­sis­tence on chil­dren hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to read high-qual­ity chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. This isn’t in­tended just for the lucky few who are able to de­code and un­der­stand it eas­ily. It should be the right of every child and whole-class read­ing en­ables this.

If their teacher, or other chil­dren, are read­ing a text to them, then those chil­dren who are not yet very se­cure in their word-read­ing skills are not locked out of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the sen­tence struc­tures, stretch­ing vo­cab­u­lary, unan­tic­i­pated plot twists and com­pli­cated char­ac­ters they are more likely to ex­pe­ri­ence in more chal­leng­ing lit­er­a­ture.

Be­yond all this, chil­dren and teach­ers adore whole-class read­ing. Who doesn’t love their class cheer­ing at the prospect of the next les­son? Choose your texts care­fully and this will hap­pen, daily.

Pro­fes­sional pur­pose: re­stored.

How­ever, a word of warn­ing: whole-class read­ing needs to be more than just read­ing aloud to your class as they fol­low the text – en­joy­able, ca­reer-af­firm­ing and easy though that ex­pe­ri­ence un­de­ni­ably is.

The pur­pose of whole-class read­ing is to im­prove chil­dren’s com­pre­hen­sion skills: they need to walk out of the class­room bet­ter read­ers than they walked into it. Above all, this means you, the teacher, know­ing your text. You must be able to in­tro­duce key vo­cab­u­lary be­fore you stum­ble upon it and plan your ques­tion­ing prop­erly, demon­strat­ing to the chil­dren how we might go deep in our anal­y­sis. It re­quires teach­ing chil­dren how to select ev­i­dence when form­ing an opinion or an­swer­ing a ques­tion, and build­ing in op­por­tu­ni­ties for adult-led, skill-de­vel­op­ing de­bate around the au­thor’s mean­ing.

Many lessons will in­volve the chil­dren build­ing – and writ­ing – well-ar­gued, gram­mat­i­cally ac­cu­rate, cor­rectly spelled an­swers or de­fences for an opinion.

Whole-class read­ing can be fun, but Jack­anory it ain’t.

The case for guided read­ing

So now let us turn to the cur­rently rather un­fash­ion­able, of­ten ma­ligned and mis­un­der­stood al­ter­na­tive to the whole-class teach­ing of texts: guided read­ing.

For many of us, guided read­ing in­vokes mem­o­ries of spin­ning (and top­pling) plates, fran­tic lunchtimes set­ting out a carousel of pho­to­copied ac­tiv­i­ties and cringe-rid­den Of­sted ob­ser­va­tions that be­come the stuff of sleep­less nights.

But – wait, come back! – let me set out the case for re­tain­ing guided read­ing as part of your teach­ing ar­moury.

In out­lin­ing what chil­dren need to be­come good read­ers, it is no­table that much of what the 2014 cur­ricu­lum de­scribes lies out­side of the child. In both the for­mer and the new cur­ric­ula, the child’s en­joy­ment of what she reads is em­pha­sised, but in the 2014 ver­sion, read­ing en­ables chil­dren to “ac­quire knowl­edge and build on what they al­ready know”. Com­pre­hen­sion “draws from lin­guis­tic knowl­edge (in par­tic­u­lar of vo­cab­u­lary and gram­mar) and on knowl­edge of the world” and re­lies on “high-qual­ity dis­cus­sion with the teacher”.

Time and again, we are pre­sented with a ver­sion of read­ing that imag­ines it as a means for chil­dren to ac­cess a body of knowl­edge that can be de­fined and ex­ists be­yond them. In parts, the tone and con­tent of this cur­ricu­lum feels dif­fer­ent from the 1999 cur­ricu­lum, which wanted chil­dren to be­come “en­thu­si­as­tic and crit­i­cal read­ers of sto­ries, po­etry and drama” and imag­ined mean­ing as some­thing that was cre­ated through a child’s in­ter­ac­tion with text. In 1999, the mean­ing, the knowl­edge to be de­rived, was not a straight­for­ward given, whereas in this cur­ricu­lum the re­la­tion­ship be­tween reader and text is pre­sented as a more sim­ple process, based more on “know­ing” rather than in­ter­pret­ing.

While we do want chil­dren to ac­cess and ac­quire knowl­edge of the world through what they read, teach­ers should be wary of imag­in­ing read­ing as a straight­for­ward process of pick­ing up or sim­ply “know­ing” a writer’s in­tended mean­ing. This is es­pe­cially true of the high-qual­ity lit­er­a­ture so prized by the cur­ricu­lum.

Nikki Gam­ble has writ­ten that if our aim is to ex­pose chil­dren to good lit­er­a­ture, “it is in­evitable that they will en­counter texts that are ‘in­con­sid­er­ate’ – texts that are by de­sign am­bigu­ous or dif­fi­cult, or which chal­lenge the way we ex­pect to read”. Teach­ers need to un­der­stand the sense that chil­dren are mak­ing of the texts they read, es­pe­cially if those chil­dren are to de­rive plea­sure from these texts.

This is where guided read­ing comes in. Whole-class read­ing is an in­cred­i­bly use­ful tool when our aim is to teach the chil­dren es­sen­tials they need to know to un­der­stand or ap­pre­ci­ate a text. It’s of­ten a more ef­fi­cient use of time to teach the lin­guis­tic or gram­mar knowl­edge that a text re­quires to the whole class. Di­dac­tic teach­ing has a role in the teach­ing of read­ing, while whole-class dis­cus­sion and de­bate also al­low op­por­tu­ni­ties to hear some chil­dren’s opin­ions.

How­ever, whole-class read­ing does not pro­vide enough sup­port for all of our bud­ding read­ers. In or­der for teach­ers to gauge a child’s un­der­stand­ing, and then to deepen that un­der­stand­ing so it be­comes more re­flec­tive and nu­anced, we must dis­cuss it with the chil­dren. We need to cre­ate reg­u­lar op­por­tu­ni­ties to ex­plore, and check, their sense-mak­ing and shape our ques­tion­ing to where the child is now, and that is best done in smaller group con­ver­sa­tions.

It is dur­ing guided read­ing that you hear about the con­nec­tions chil­dren are re­ally mak­ing in their heads as they build bridges be­tween their own knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ences and the re­al­ity pre­sented in the text. Some­times, be­cause they are chil­dren and have less ex­pe­ri­ence of the world, these con­nec­tions are in­sub­stan­tial or a lit­tle too left-field. We need them to ex­press these

nascent thoughts to a more-knowl­edge­able other who knows them well in or­der to un­der­stand the source of their er­ror, so we can nudge them back on track. And some­times, be­cause they’re chil­dren look­ing at the world with fresh eyes, they help us to make con­nec­tions in a story or poem we hadn’t re­alised were there.

As al­ready dis­cussed, read­ing is not an act of writer-to-reader brain-dump, and this is es­pe­cially true of bet­ter lit­er­a­ture. What each reader takes from a text is slightly dif­fer­ent, be­cause each per­son’s ex­pe­ri­ence of life is not the same. In read­ing, there are no uni­ver­sal an­swers.

This, af­ter all, is the seed from which the Re­for­ma­tion and moder­nity it­self grew.

Talk­ing about what we have read in a smaller group, giv­ing chil­dren the time and space to ask their own ques­tions, draw­ing every child into a con­ver­sa­tion about a text so you and they can check their un­der­stand­ing, lis­ten­ing to their rea­sons for the pre­dic­tions they’re mak­ing: these are all nec­es­sary as­pects of teach­ing every child to read. If read­ing for en­joy­ment is a goal of the cur­ricu­lum, chil­dren need us to lead them (through deft ques­tion­ing and guid­ing, as well as through telling) to a sense that

read­ing is a sense-mak­ing process that con­nects the text with each of us.

And what of those pupils, up to a third of classes, who aren’t yet de­cod­ing flu­ently enough to be at age-re­lated ex­pec­ta­tions?

In KS1 and through­out KS2, they need very reg­u­lar op­por­tu­ni­ties to read aloud to their teacher so they can prac­tise and be taught how to im­prove those de­cod­ing skills that they are strug­gling with. In or­der to do that, they need to read texts that are pitched at their com­bined word-read­ing and com­pre­hen­sion skill level. Oth­er­wise, when are they go­ing to learn to read?

In my ex­pe­ri­ence, these chil­dren love whole-class read­ing every bit as much as their more flu­ent class­mates, but we can’t af­ford to waste any time as the end of pri­mary hur­tles to­wards them. Those chil­dren who need to make se­cure and rapid progress in their word-read­ing need time ded­i­cated to them by their teacher in which they get bet­ter at word-read­ing, while also im­prov­ing their un­der­stand­ing of what they read.

Where guided read­ing can fall down, in our real class­rooms, with those very real chil­dren we teach, is in its im­ple­men­ta­tion. If I want to fo­cus on a group of six chil­dren for some qual­ity time, the other 24 (or 25, or 26) don’t just melt into the back­ground for some re­spect­ful, self-di­rected learn­ing.

The chances are you have a few chil­dren who might see guided read­ing as an op­por­tu­nity to prat about now that their en­er­getic, mas­tery-learnin’ sergeant ma­jor seems to have changed gear. Guided read­ing takes time to build so that rou­tines are in place and be­hav­iour ex­pec­ta­tions are clear and rock-solid.

An aim of the cur­ricu­lum is that chil­dren “de­velop the habit of read­ing widely and of­ten”. We all know that this isn’t go­ing to hap­pen nat­u­rally in every child’s home, so it is some­thing we need to cre­ate the space for in our class­rooms, re­mem­ber­ing that habits are only formed by do­ing some­thing, in this case spend­ing time with a book, a lot. My ad­vice is: don’t make guided read­ing a time which re­quires you to pho­to­copy un­sat­is­fac­tory, down­loaded ac­tiv­i­ties that need to be ex­plained to every group each week. By and large, let guided read­ing be a time when chil­dren read.

I also like to have one writ­ing ac­tiv­ity, just for the group I read with yes­ter­day, fo­cus­ing on the as­pect of the book we dis­cussed the pre­vi­ous day.

So which is bet­ter? Since I be­came a teacher in the dy­ing days of the last cen­tury, pri­mary teach­ers in Eng­land have be­come much, much bet­ter at whole-class teach­ing. Most of my lessons have now be­come highly in­ter­ac­tive whole-class events, more of­ten than not built on a pacey struc­ture of re­peated “I say – you do” ex­changes, which keep ev­ery­body on their toes and learn­ing (OK, maybe that’s a par­tic­u­larly good day). I am us­ing di­rect teach­ing meth­ods a lot more ex­plic­itly than I ever have be­fore, and at the mo­ment, it seems to be work­ing.

But keep­ing that level of fo­cus up for a whole day, every day, is very hard work for pri­mary age chil­dren (never mind their teacher) – we would cer­tainly never ex­pect adults to show sim­i­lar lev­els of sus­tained con­cen­tra­tion. Guided read­ing of­fers ev­ery­one a wel­come break from this struc­ture (and the sound of my voice) – not so we can all have a chillax with a nice book and a me­an­der­ing chin­wag, but so we can fo­cus on teach­ing us­ing a dif­fer­ent struc­ture and the dif­fer­ent kind of learn­ing this will af­ford.

I won­der if the re­turn of whole-class teach­ing across the cur­ricu­lum means that teach­ers feel less con­fi­dent about en­gag­ing in other les­son struc­tures, and if this is one of the rea­sons why guided read­ing is suf­fer­ing a dip in pop­u­lar­ity. Is it time, whis­per it, for some group-work up­skilling again?

I love the whole-class ver­sus guided read­ing de­bate: we should dis­cuss and care deeply about the ef­fec­tive­ness of how we teach, es­pe­cially when it’s about pri­mary schools’ core pur­pose of teach­ing every child to read. But in this, as most other things, there is no right or wrong, no black or white. You need to choose the right tools for the job in hand and that is most likely to in­volve both whole-class and smaller group read­ing.

Sinéad Gaffney is a deputy head­teacher in Sh­effield and an SLE in English for Learn­ing Un­lim­ited TSA. Sinéad will be writ­ing a fol­low-up ar­ti­cle, pub­lished in Oc­to­ber, about how to com­bine the two ap­proaches. She tweets @shin­pad1

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