Guiding them on at key stage 3

It's Thursday period 8, and my tired and bedraggled Year 7s are enduring their English private reading lesson: bring in a book of choice and experience the pleasure of reading independently.

My heart sinks. Nearly half the boys have forgotten books (again) and grabbed anything on their way through the door in a panic. One boy at level 3 appears to be flicking through a copy of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, another is passing notes and most of them are simply pretending to read. I wonder whether any of them are likely to bring the same book in twice. The girls, though engaged, are reading books pitched below their ability - mostly uninspiring reads of teenage love. The atmosphere is strained.

Until recently, this was fairly typical of the key stage 3 pupils at my London comprehensive; few of them were passionate about reading or showed much understanding that it's a complex endeavour, requiring a range of meaning-making skills and strategies. We needed some kind of bridge between whole class and independent reading.

About a year ago, I set up a guided reading pilot scheme with my LEA literacy co-ordinator. We split the class into six groups and gave each a carefully selected fantasy novel, suitable for three different ability levels (thus there were six groups but three texts).

I taught the whole class active reading strategies (such as predicting, asking questions, visualising) through modelling and discussion. When their understanding of these was fairly secure, the guided reading sessions began. With some trepidation I found myself sitting with my six brightest pupils, about to discuss original sin and its relationship to Philip Pullman's Northern Lights.

What would the rest of my class be getting up to? How would my excellent teaching assistant feel about our role reversal? Thirty minutes later I was experiencing one of the buzzes that teaching gives us now and then. I realised I had never discussed a text properly with these pupils before - I'd mostly asked them questions publicly, waiting for the answers I'd already decided on. The session had told me more about the pupils' reading ability than I could have gained through a term's exercise-book marking. I'd moved them forward in a way I would never have been able to do through my carefully planned differentiated extension work sheets.

Most importantly we had all enjoyed it, including the two able but disaffected boys in the group, who now pride themselves on having worked through the trilogy. And the rest of the class? Well, I was relieved to have had a willing and enthusiastic TA in the room, and I'd had to turn round and talk to a few pupils, but overall it had worked.

I later realised it was new for me, but not for the Year 7s, who had had guided experience at primary level. I worked with the groups on a weekly rotation - seeing either one or two groups per guided reading lesson.

The following week I was with the weakest group, discussing how to choose a book and engage with an opening chapter. The set routine and guided sessions helped improve the motivation of the rest of the class.

The difference in the class's attitude towards reading was striking, and it soon became clear that the extra work was worthwhile, especially as planned sessions could be repeated the following year and re-used with other groups. Pupils began to discuss and evaluate their novels with confidence, using the strategies as supports for their ideas.

One term later I sought more formal feedback from the pupils. Responses showed an enthusiasm for reading across the whole group, one boy, Huzaifa, saying "Group reading is better because you can talk about it after and it's more fun and exciting reading to and with other people."

Their answers revealed the qualities of a critical reader. Manpreet wrote:

"My favourite reading strategy is predicting because I like trying to find out what would happen next by using all the information I know."

Hassan, a once unenthusiastic, lower ability pupil said: "I love visualising because it feels like you are really there and your heart beats faster."

Guided reading has been a liberating experience for me and my classes. My department has been trying it out for themselves since September and, although it is early days, the feedback is positive. On a recent course I was told the shocking statistic that 60 per cent of secondary school pupils go through lessons without having a meaningful conversation with a teacher. Guided reading offers a great deal more to both pupils and teachers than simply lowering this percentage.

Rachel Kitley is English co-ordinator at Greenford High School, Ealing

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