How big is a group? To some teachers it means up to half the class, to others it is a select band of three or four. Some assume mixed-ability groupings, others expect to put like with like. Some teachers see their role as managing lots of groups doing lots of activities. Others favour direct teaching, a group at a time.
With the advent of the literacy hour, involving daily sessions of group reading in every primary classroom, teachers will soon have to get to grips with what "group reading" means for them. The National Literacy Strategy may help by narrowing down the options. Infant teachers in project schools are advised to aim at two ten-minute teacher-directed reading sessions, working with groups of about six children of the same level of ability. But there are plenty of other issues to be addressed.
While mainly appropriate to key stage 1, all the suggestions and strategies outlined here can be adapted for use with older children. Once teachers are familiar with the main practices and pitfalls, they will find group reading can mean different things at different times. A teacher may choose to use all four methods described, or various combinations. As long as we know what we're doing and why (and share the same vocabulary), there is no reason why there shouldn't be as many ways of tackling group reading as there are classrooms in the country.
* take it slowly, and establish techniques stage by stage. Year 1 teachers at The District Church of England primary school in Newton-le-Willows, Merseyside, found guided reading wasn't working, because children read at varying speeds. They devised a "training" stage, where the group read in chorus from a familiar large-format picture book, while the teacher ran her finger under the words to guide progress. Once the idea of simultaneous reading was established, children were given individual books and taught to point to the words themselves, as they kept up with their peers.
* take time planning storage. To ensure a reasonable life for sets of books, keep them in clearly labelled boxes (or see-through bags) in a central storage area. At Roskear School in Cornwall, teachers also store related teaching materials with the group sets - including any notes or commercial worksheets that come with the book (copied on to card for ease of access), and copies of worksheets teachers have made when using the set. Over the years, they've developed a bank of resources to go with each group-reading book.
* keep records of groups' achievement. Henry Pearson of Chester College of Education suggests keeping a scrapbook for each reading group, in which children's pictures, writing and phonic work about texts read can be mounted. At the end of a group session, children can be sent off to create something for the scrapbook. At the start of the next session it provides a focus for revision and discussion.
* try to ensure that your classroom organisation runs on castors. The National Literacy Project framework document insists time spent on management should be kept to a minimum, so activities devised for the rest of the class should be uncomplicated, well-organised and practicable. Establish clear routines so children don't need to interrupt you while you're with a group. For those who forget, display a symbol (for instance, a teddy wearing a "do not disturb" label) to which you can silently point.
* get stuck on stories. Key stage 1 teachers at Pinkie School, Musselburgh, Scotland, recommend group reading sessions for developing basic non-fiction reading skills, such as using an index or glossary, scanning a page for information, and getting the gist by reading headings and captions. They demonstrate these skills on shared texts. Then, in group reading sessions, every child practises the skills, under the teacher's supervision. Make sure you include plenty of good information books among the group sets you buy with your literacy strategy money - linking them, of course, to other national curriculum coverage.
* feel you always have to read something new. It can be just as useful to revisit a text the group read some time ago or one you have shared in a lesson. Repetition - as long as it doesn't get tedious - is an important part of learning to read.
NEXT WEEK: ideas for teachers of junior pupils
Sue Palmer is general editor of the Longman Book Project