Reading in primary: which model is best?

One primary deputy head assesses whole-class, guided and independent reading models

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Somehow, I had ended up doing most of the work. I had switched from the traditional carousel guided reading model to whole-class reading and I had found myself designing lessons in such a way that I was doing the lion’s share of the reading. 

So, I have adapted my approach. The organisation of reading within my classroom now includes; the teacher read-aloud (where the teacher does the reading), the read-along (where children take it in turns to read aloud to the class) and independent reading (where children read the text silently to themselves). 

The teacher read-aloud

The teacher read-aloud is an essential part of a child’s reading education. It turns the reading into an event, where the most experienced reader in the room can expertly guide their children through the text. It does, however, have its limitations. 

Pros:

  • Children can be exposed to texts significantly beyond their independent reading ability. As the children do not have to decode the challenging text, their short-term memory can focus on comprehension. This is particularly important when tackling archaic texts using unfamiliar syntax. 
  • The teacher can model effective prosody. This explicit modelling of expression, emphasis, intonation, volume, speed and movement is essential for less-experienced readers and, if done regularly, children do start to imitate their teachers in their own reading. 
  • The teacher can aid comprehension through their use of prosody. Some of the subtleties of challenging literature can be lost on less-experienced readers when reading independently. If the teacher is reading aloud, they can consciously emphasise key words or control pace in order to draw their children’s attention to key points.
  • As the teacher reads aloud, they can explicitly model the key strategies they are deploying to make sense of the text. This metacognitive external monologue is vital for children to hear as it exposes the internal processes involved in comprehension. 
  • It develops listening stamina. There are a growing number of stimuli vying for children’s attention and the stamina required to sit and listen attentively is something that needs to be nurtured in school. The teacher read-aloud is a wonderful opportunity for this. 

Cons:

  • The most obvious limitation to this approach is that it does not build reading stamina in children. They develop their ability to sit and listen attentively and comprehend, but not to decode and comprehend. This approach alone, then, will not develop the reading stamina required of children when they progress through to secondary school or indeed further education.  
  • It could be used as an opportunity for some children to disengage. With the teacher’s focus on effective prosody and the modelling of strategies, it can be extremely difficult to ascertain whether the whole class is engaged.

The read-along

With the read-along (often referred to as the round robin), children take it in turns to read part of the text being studied, while the rest of the class follow along. I would rarely (if ever) attempt to get around the whole class in one session as this wouldn’t be an effective use of time. But asking a sample of children to tackle particular parts of the text is a great Assessment for Learning. As with the teacher read-aloud, this approach has clear advantages and limitations.

Pros:

  • It provides an opportunity for children to read aloud to an audience. This is essential in developing children’s confidence in reading and promotes the joy of performance.  
  • It provides vital data for the teacher. One of the key advantages of the traditional carousel guided model has over the whole-class model is that, in the former, the teacher hears each child read aloud at least once a week; in the latter, this is not always possible if the teacher uses only the read-aloud. Using the read-along overcomes this drawback and allows the teacher to hear readers even if only for a short period. 
  • It provides an opportunity for immediate correction. If a child struggles with a word or phrase, then the teacher can intervene. This helps to prevent children from developing poor reading habits such as skipping difficult words, or not noticing mistakes at all, which will compromise the development of their comprehension. 
  • It develops a culture of listening and respect. It provides a regular and structured opportunity for children to practise listening to their peers.  

 Cons: 

  • As with the read-aloud, only one person is doing the reading – this provides an opportunity for some to disengage. Making your choices of who reads next appear random can solve this issue. If children do not know whether it is them that will be reading next they are more likely to listen and follow attentively. 
  • It can place a limitation on your choice of text. In a class where reading confidence is likely to vary considerably, consideration must be given to the text you are asking them to read. You can differentiate by asking the more confident readers to read longer passages or passages where you know there are particular challenges, reserving the more manageable passages for less confident readers. This takes planning but the benefits are enormous. Even in challenging archaic texts or complex non-fiction there will be sentences the less confident readers can attempt. 
  • Before deploying this approach in the classroom, a culture of respect must be established. In addition, children’s confidence in reading and performing aloud to audiences must be developed. 

Independent reading

Children read the text independently. Ultimately, this is the end goal – for children to develop in confidence so that they are able to independently decode and comprehend texts appropriate for their age group. 

Pros:

  • Develops independent reading stamina. This is essential for future academic success. 
  • This is what they need to do in order to tackle standardised tests. 
  • Developing this skill through explicit practice opens the door to the world of literature. 

Cons:

  • It is likely to have a pronounced negative impact on the weakest readers; however, this approach also provides a clear opportunity for guided group work for children who may need additional support as the rest of the class tackle the text independently. Consideration would have to be given as to when these less confident readers read independently but this can be tackled with relative ease.
  • The more confident readers are likely to complete the passage more swiftly than less confident readers; however, having a carefully considered follow-up activity that assesses understanding, which has a high ceiling and low threshold, can overcome this. 
  • It is difficult to tell whether children are actually reading. Therefore, careful consideration must be given in order to make this reading accountable. 

Conclusion

Over the course of a reading unit, it is likely that using all three approaches will have the greatest benefits as opposed to focusing purely on one approach. It is, however, important that teachers take into consideration the needs of their class and the text in which they are studying and adapt appropriately if we are to maximise the impact of our classroom practice.

DM Crosby is deputy headteacher at Edale Rise Primary and Nursery School in Nottingham

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