Guided reading reimagined: How to close reading gaps with differentiation and scaffolding

The following blog was contributed by Lynne Kulich, director of early learning at NWEA.

My earliest reading memory is of my three-year-old self seated on my grandma’s lap in her living room while she read and reread Old Hat New Hat by Stan and Jan Berenstain. I don’t recall why I was so fond of that book, but I’m guessing the repetitive text with picture cues, which made it easy to decode and comprehend, had something to do with it. In addition, I love the main idea gleaned from the story: the perfect hat just might be that old hat made new again.

Guided reading is like that old hat/new hat notion; sometimes what’s old can be dusted off, be made new, and become a perfect fit.

What we now know about guided reading

According to NAEP data, only 35 percent of fourth graders nationally are proficient or above on state summative reading assessments. While this data is daunting, what’s even more frustrating is the data from two decades ago, which suggests fourth-grade proficiency scores haven’t changed significantly. Why aren’t we moving the needle for all students? The answer may surprise you.

While teachers, including myself, have certainly tried to implement best practices in hopes of closing reading gaps, we’ve also been limiting opportunities for students to be successfully engaged with complex, grade-level text. State proficiency exams require students to decode and comprehend text at—not below—grade level. If students are busy reading text at their instructional reading levels, albeit below grade level, how can we reasonably expect them to read grade-level text on the state summative exams and earn a proficient score? I wouldn’t want to try swimming laps in the deep end of the pool if I’ve only been allowed to tread in shallow water. The jump from the shallow end to the deep end is best accomplished gradually, with scaffolding. The same can be said about reading grade-level text.

What about that frustration factor? Are grade-level texts too frustrating for some students? Well, they may be challenging, but research suggests students aren’t turned off by complex text. Linda Gambrell and colleagues studied motivation and its relationship to reading in the ’80s. They looked at the effects of internal and external motivators on student reading behaviors. Their studies of the relationship of text difficulty and motivation suggest either no relationship or a much more complicated one than we previously considered. When students are challenged and their learning is obvious, teachers won’t need to worry about frustration or a lack of motivation. Instead, with appropriate support, students can successfully engage with grade-level text, and any frustration is mitigated.

How to help readers catch up

The standards are clear: there’s no time for remediation. So what’s your plan? Here’s what I would do, now that I know better.

  • Step 1: Administer a reading assessment like MAP® Reading Fluency™ that provides a complete picture of a student’s reading skills, from foundational skills, like phonological awareness and word recognition, to oral reading fluency.
  • Step 2: Use the assessment data to determine students’ skills gaps, and differentiate instruction and provide the scaffolding students need to read complex text at, not below, grade level. (Differentiation is the different activities students work on that are designed to meet diverse instructional needs. Scaffolding is the different support students need to be successful.) 
  • Step 3: Strategically plan guided reading with grade-level text. Create guided reading groups based on common skills gaps and zone of proximal development (ZPD) levels. Ask the following questions: Which students need to improve their reading rate or their reading comprehension skills? Who needs work on decoding single-syllable words? Who needs help segmenting phonemes or decoding CVC words? Let the answers help you group your students.
  • Step 4: Select your grade-level text. Consider using a science or social studies passage; they’re rich in vocabulary and expository content.

You’re a change warrior!

Remember, text complexity is a matter of equity. For decades, we have assigned struggling readers text below grade level. This denies them the opportunity to successfully read grade-level text, develop rich vocabulary and complex syntax, and build content knowledge. We can’t continue denying complex text to struggling readers and wondering why they can’t keep up with peers and meet grade-level expectations.

Trust the process. You’ll be amazed at the amount of growth your students make, and that “old hat” can become a perfect fit after all.

Read the rest of this article on the NWEA blog, Teach. Learn. Grow. Hear more from our literacy experts with our on-demand webinar “Data and practice: Science-backed strategies to improve early literacy right now.” Call us at 1-866-654-3246 to learn about how we support literacy instruction.