Does everyone know what to do?" Louise Hopcraft asks, halfway through literacy hour. "Okay. Off you go." As the children of Year 3 at Parsons Street primary disperse to their independent activities, Louise turns to today's guided reading group.
Six children of similar ability - teetering on the edge of reading fluency - are sitting round a table. Louise has chosen a short adventure story they should be able to read easily (90 per cent reading accuracy is the suggested level), and gives each child a copy. They begin by talking about its cover and pictures, what it might be about, relating discussion to work on adventure stories in shared-reading sessions.
Louise also uses this discussion to preview tricky vocabulary, then hands each child a sheet of paper with three questions, carefully spaced. "Read these first. Then, as you find out the answers from the story, jot them down on the sheet." The group revises the rules they've developed for dealing with an unknown word - "Sound it out, read it out, break it up" - and they're off. Each child reads silently, at his or her own pace.
Louise bends down beside one boy, and places a hand on his shoulder. At her touch, he switches from silent to audible reading; when she removes her hand, he reads silently again. She moves slowly round the table, "listening in" like this to each reader, prompting where necessary to help with problematic words.
She also keeps an eye on the question sheets. When one child writes a wrong answer, she goes straight over: "Let's go back and read again." Under the teacher's guiding hand, the child re-reads, realises her mistake and swiftly corrects the answer on the sheet.
After 15 minutes, everyone has finished. "Was it a good adventure story?" Louise asks, and they talk about its similarities with the book the class is sharing. Watching this lesson, I understand why National Literacy Strategy gurus are so keen on guided reading as an opportunity for children to "orchestrate their reading strategies".
But what about younger children, not yet able to read silently? The new Guided Reading video from the National Literacy Strategy illustrates that infant reading sessions need not be an unproductive cacophony. The children, well-prepared for the text in the preview session, read quietly to themselves. The teacher moves round the group, "tuning in" to individuals above the general mumble, and at the end congratulates children on particularly effective strategies.
And older, more fluent readers? By later key stage 2, the emphasis should be on discussion. Fluent readers can prepare reading during group time the day before, perhaps armed with a prompt sheet alerting them to the features of the text to be discussed.
This leaves time with the teacher for developing higher order skills - the appreciation and interpretation of fiction and poetry, or critical reading of non-fiction. You can see extracts from a number of key stage 2 guided reading sessions on the video included with the next package of materials from the NLS, due to arrive in schools in late May.
* Six-point plan for guided reading success
The following checklist was compiled from a conversation with Kevan Collins, the National Literacy Strategy's spokesman on guided reading:
1 Choose the right book for the group: At key stage 1, the major factor is level of difficulty. Many schools are organising their books according to the 12 levels in the Reading Recovery Book Bands (see below) which list all major reading scheme books and many popular trade titles. At key stage 2, the emphasis moves towards choosing the right type of text.
2 Know what you want to teach: Providing opportunities for children to develop fluency and comprehension go without saying, but always have specific teaching targets in mind as well, relevant to the group's needs.
3 Share objectives with the children: Explain clearly what those targets are. The more children understand what you're after, the more likely they are to achieve it.
4 Preview the book constructively: Preliminary discussion should prepare children to read independently, hooking them into the book and giving them a reason to read.
5 Support children's independent reading: When children stumble in their reading, provide prompts which help them solve their own problems. The broader the range of prompts you offer, the broader the range of strategies they will develop.
6 Pull it all together: At the end, take a few minutes to highlight the successful strategies children have used. Ask the group to consider "What have we learned today?" Book Bands for Guided Reading UK Reading Recovery, National Network, Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London, WC1H 0AL (0171 580 1122) Guided Reading (key stage 1) video available free, with commentary sheets, from LEA literacy consultants