Mistakes We’ve Made with Guided Reading

Among many other things in literacy instruction, small group instruction–especially guided reading– has become yet another term that’s widely misunderstood and therefore widely misconstrued…and hotly debated.

For whatever reason, small group instruction has become synonymous with the term “guided reading.” And I do agree with this. But it’s not the same definition that’s the most popular. In a previous post, I wrote about my definitions of small group instruction and guided reading.  It echoes how literacy expert Jan Richardson defines it: 

“During guided reading, a teacher meets with a small group of students and differentiates instruction by targeting specific learning needs, providing appropriate scaffolding, and gradually reducing support to promote independence.”

Jan Richardson

By definition, we guide readers when we meet them in small groups for differentiated instruction.  But this does not only mean following the widely implemented Fountas and Pinnell leveled, guided reading approach. 

This approach is one way to meet readers’ needs, but it’s most certainly not the only way. 

I’m not going to rehash here what I’ve already written about, but I encourage you to read that previous post to understand the many, many ways we can guide readers in small group instruction.  

In this post, I want to share the caveats involved with Fountas and Pinnell’s traditional method. This method is actually very much the same as just about every guided reading structure you’ll find today, including Richardson’s–so these are caveats to think about no matter whose framework you’re using.

My aim here is to help you think about these caveats so that you can better tailor your instruction to meet the needs of your kids. 

Let me be very clear.  My aim is not to tell you that guided reading is bad.  It’s not. But it has a very specific place, and there are things we really need to consider to get it right.

What a Guided Reading lesson typically entails:

Ok.  First things first.  In a typical guided reading lesson, the teacher chooses a leveled book for a small group of students.  It’s a book that’s meant to nudge kids forward, meaning there will be some challenges for the child.  That’s the point, because the teacher’s role is to instruct kids on those challenges, so that kids can learn how to tackle them, thereby equipping them to handle increasingly more complex text.  

The lesson typically begins with a short book introduction, some teaching on vocabulary, perhaps some complex sentence structure work, and then the teacher listens in as kids read.  The teacher is listening for where kids need to be coached and does so individually.  When kids are done reading, the teacher makes a teaching point that will fit the group of readers based on what she saw them do, and facilitates a discussion of the meaning of the text.  There’s usually some word work in a lesson, and often, some sort of written response.  A set of lessons for a group is usually 2-3 days.    


None of this is bad or wrong.  But there are lots of ways the implementation of guided reading has gone wrong.  

Here are 15 ways we’ve gone wrong:

  1. Teachers often keep groups together FAR too long.  This work is meant to prepare kids for the next level of text complexity so that they can take it on for themselves.  Too often, teachers carry kids all the way through, never releasing them to have a go on their own.
  2. Kids–especially the kids who are struggling–spend more time being told what to read because the bulk of their reading time is spent with the teacher.  This means they get very little time truly applying the work on their own, actually reading.  
  3. On the flip side, because struggling readers get so much of the teacher’s time, stronger readers get little to none.  
  4. Or…teachers try to fit every single student into a group, even if the kids in the group don’t really need the same things.  
  5. The timing.  These lessons include everything but the kitchen sink, so they are long…20-30 minutes!  This then means that no teacher can possibly actually get to see all their kids in a given week.
  6. Many times, kids just need work on something specific–not everything but the kitchen sink.  Using one static lesson format every time means you’re spending time on things kids don’t necessarily need.  
  7. Much more concerning, teachers can end up following the publisher’s lesson plan instead of following their kids and developing their own plans…thereby not meeting students’ needs–and wasting a lot of time.
  8. Word work is often skipped.  This is a prime opportunity to teach sound-symbol relationships, how to decode words, including morphology, depending on the readers’ needs.  
  9. Even though it’s long been out of favor, some teachers continue to have their kids read round-robin style.  This is also known as “popcorn” reading.  This takes away too much of the available time kids have to read, and  their practice time is severely reduced.  It also means kids check out during the lesson, because it’s not their turn.
  10. The book introduction.  If the point is to get kids to be independent readers, why would we tell them what the book is all about?  
  11. Many schools have adopted the practice of telling kids what level they are, and many classroom libraries, especially in the primary grades, are set up by level.  This is completely against what Fountas and Pinnell intended, and is incredibly limiting to kids.  It also sends the wrong message.  Kids are readers, not levels
  12. Teachers can fall into the trap of using resources from just one publisher.  Because the texts are carefully written as scaffolds into new complexity, this can very much limit kids. 
  13. The books are teacher-chosen, thereby taking away student choice.
  14. Here’s a big one–teachers spend all their time meeting small groups, and little to no time conferring with kids.  This means they don’t have a big piece of real-time data, which is needed for planning next steps that are most responsive to students’ needs.  
  15. And a really, really big one: prompts teachers have been giving have led kids to guess words.  By telling kids to “think what makes sense” at an unknown word instead of working through it, they have taken away the most reliable key to solving the word and inadvertently led kids to believe that thinking about the context, along with the first letter or two, to make a guess, is reading.  For a long while, there were loads of TPT files being sold that led teachers to use even more ridiculous prompting, like “skippy the frog,” “flippy dolphin,” and “eagle eye.” 

That last point is the biggest argument that the very loud science of reading advocates are shouting about…and they are totally correct.  

If you are cringing because you’ve done one or two of these things yourself, give yourself some grace.  You are not alone.  I myself skipped word work every now and then because of the time factor.  

But when we know better, we do better, right?  

I know what you’re thinking.  Do we even need guided reading?  It doesn’t sound good!

The answer is absolutely yes…but in moderation, with careful design, and for a specific purpose.

In next week’s post, I’ll share what that purpose is.  I’ll also share how to make some simple shifts to tailor your guided reading instruction to better meet the needs of readers who are past that first grade-ish range.  

For now, consider the pitfalls I’ve shared here, and think about your own instruction.  What’s one consideration you might make to strengthen it?  What’s one question that comes up for you when it comes to guided reading?

I’d love to hear from you!  Join my private FB group, or DM me on Instagram!  

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Related posts:  Small-Group Instruction:  What Does it Really Mean?, Kids Are Readers, Not LettersWhat SOR Tells Us Good Readers Do That’s Completely Wrong, What’s Wrong with Sounding It Out?, 13 Reasons I Love (and Hate) the F & P Reading Assessment, Teach the Reader, Not Just Reading, Know Better, Do Better

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