When the National Literacy Strategy was first introduced, guided reading was the activity that most mystified primary teachers. What was it exactly, and what did it look like? Five or so years down the line, guided reading - particularly at key stage 2 - remains the weakest link in the strategy, still confused by many teachers with shared reading or interpreted as simply reading round the group.
"Some teachers feel threatened by it," says Barbara Conridge, of the Bedfordshire literacy team. Teachers of younger children have been reluctant to give up the time-honoured practice of hearing children read aloud individually, despite being told by Ofsted that this is inefficient and time-consuming. Teachers of older juniors have not, on the whole, been in the habit of "teaching" reading at all, relying mainly on silent reading sessions to keep children's interest going.
"At KS2, there have been too few examples of guided reading for teachers to follow," says Barbara Conridge. "It is easier to show what happens at key stage 1, when you're teaching children the basic searchlights of reading. But at KS2, you're looking to extend reading skills in different ways, by looking at interpretations of the text, heightened use of language, aspects of the author's craft."
The problem of guided reading has worried not only teachers, but also literacy strategy managers. In response, the University of London's Institute of Education has brought out a new handbook, Guiding Reading at Key Stage Two, a follow-up to its earlier success, Book Bands, for guided reading at KS1. Whereas Book Bands concentrates on lists of finely levelled fiction and non-fiction titles, to help teachers match books to groups of children, Guiding Reading sets out 24 exemplar lessons, to show the kinds of questions and discussions which will help deepen children's understanding of what they've read.
Like shared reading (when the teacher reads and discusses a text with the whole class), guided reading is a New Zealand import. Angela Hobsbaum, one of the authors of Guiding Reading, first came into contact with it through her work on a more celebrated New Zealand model, Reading Recovery. As with Reading Recovery, guided reading demands a careful matching of text to reader(s), so that each child can read almost all the text unaided. "It means you have got to know your class very well, and you need to know the text," says Angela Hobsbaum. "Getting the children's interest matters, and the quality of the text matters."
An ideal guided reading session will last 15 to 20 minutes, and involve four to six children, plus the teacher. Children might have read a section of their book beforehand; during the session they might read independently, as well as aloud. In discussion, pupils should be encouraged to explore their ideas and opinions, to deduce and infer from the text, to justify their opinions by reference to the text, and to make critical judgments about it.
And if that sounds taxing, Angela Hobsbaum acknowledges that "we are asking more of children, and of teachers, than we used to".
Guided reading, she says, is about "asking the right questions, and developing a critical sense. Done well, it teaches children more, because this is a chunk of time for which the teacher has planned. Putting the time into the planning enables you to teach strategically."
Finding the time for regular guided reading may be more difficult, however. Some teachers, unable to fit it into the literacy hour, take groups out during silent reading periods.
"It's difficult for teachers to organise, but if they can get it going, then there's great value there," says literacy specialist Sue Palmer. "Written comprehension exercises are the dull way of doing it. But this should be almost like a book club. It's an opportunity to get into the text, with lots of speaking and listening, and to have some quality time with the teacher."
Anita Wood, literacy co-ordinator at Thomas Buxton Junior School, in Tower Hamlets, east London, found trying to hear 30 children read individually "unmanageable" and is now a convert to guided reading.
"For our school, which is 100 per cent Bangladeshi, guided reading is really powerful, because the children need a high level of support with vocabulary to be able to read a harder text," she says.
Year 3 children still need more of a KS1 approach to guided reading, with more emphasis on decoding. "But by Year 6, you can have some really very mature discussions with them - about things that I didn't talk about until I was well into secondary school."
Guiding Reading by Angela Hobsbaum, Nikki Gamble and David Reedy is published by Institute of Education, University of London, at pound;20. Tel: 020 7612 6459 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org