What’s the best path to take for your primary reading strategy?

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
25th October 2017, 12:00pm
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Sinéad Gaffney


What’s the best path to take for your primary reading strategy?


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.

The conclusion

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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