How to Improve Your Guided Reading Lessons

Among many terms in the reading world, Guided Reading is another that’s misunderstood, and I’ve written about those misunderstandings here. If we’re being honest, it’s also a place where we’ve made some pretty big mistakes.  In this post, I’ll share why guided reading is still a key instructional tool, and I give some important considerations we need to make when it comes to implementing it. Because it’s all about knowing better to do better for our kids!

In her book Understanding Texts & Readers, Jennifer Serravallo reminds us that guided reading is really a best fit for early readers, from kindergarten to about the end of first grade.   The reasons?  One, because this is when most children develop automaticity of the phonics skills necessary to read (as long as they’ve gotten that reading instruction in the first place), and are ready to more heavily focus on deeper, more nuanced comprehension.  Also, at those very early levels, there’s a definite variance from one to the next, so teachers do need to coach kids into next levels.  But after that, the levels sort of bleed into each other. The difference from one level to the next is very blurry.  


This is why it’s wise to think in terms of text bands, rather than singular levels.  J, K, and L, for example, are actually very similar.  It makes more sense to teach kids how to handle the complexity of these kinds of books as a group, rather than level-by-level.  As the levels get higher, there’s less and less difference between them.  

Around these levels–beginning at about second grade, generally speaking, is when it’s better to spend your time targeting your instruction with strategy groups–more focused, right-now instruction.  At these stages especially, kids all need such different things, grouping them together just by level isn’t as effective, which in itself can be a time-waster.   Strategy groups are MUCH less of a time demand for teachers and kids!  

So do we even need to use guided reading past first grade?


When kids are at the end of a text band, or when introducing a new genre or complex literary characteristic,  such as symbolism, flashback, or recognizing internal vs external struggle.  And that’s about it. 

What does this mean in practice?

Well, for example, after kids have been reading K/L and M,  it’s time to push them forward.  Now it’s time to think about the next band, say N/O/P.  Think about what’s going to challenge kids in these levels that will be new to kids, and begin guiding them into those challenges.  A fantastic resource for knowing where to go is Fountas and Pinnell’s Literacy Continuum.  You can find another phenomenal (and free!) resource on text bands in the resource section of Teachers College Reading & Writing Project.  

And then…

Let. Them. Read.  

This is the biggest way we can immediately improve our guided reading instruction. Step back a bit and let them grow, with texts in which you have provided the skills for them to take on.  Just as when we teach kids to ride a bike, we hold onto the back of their seat for a while, but not forever.  At some point, even though they’ll teeter and probably even fall, they have to gain control of their skills–and that comes with practice.  The same holds true for readers!


Which leads me to other ways to improve guided reading.  Releasing them to read and grow their skills without heavy hand-holding from you is critical.  Confer with them and coach them, of course–I’m not at all saying to let them go entirely.  But let them practice so they can grow without carrying them the entire way.  

Here are some more simple shifts you can make in your guided reading:

  1. Don’t give the introduction.  Rather, teach your kids how to become acquainted with text.  Teach them to think about the title, the genre, read the blurb, and get the gist of the text through the table of contents if there is one.  This is something all independent readers do, so it makes little sense to do it for them at the teacher table.  A “picture walk,” where you have to tell them the whole story takes away the need for kids to make their own meaning–and that’s the entire point of reading!
  2. Speaking of, don’t do a picture walk.  If you have to feed the words to your kids, the words are too hard.  Getting acquainted with the book should be plenty for them to understand the general meaning of the text.  While there should be some word-solving work for kids to do, nothing should be so out of reach for them that you have to feed them the words ahead of time.  
  3. This is so key, it bears repeating: remember its place.  Guided reading is meant to guide readers into the next level of complexity.  Guide them into–not carry them through.  
  4. Think carefully about what your kids need.  If they aren’t about to move into something more complex, then your time (and theirs) is much better spent in short strategy groups that are super targeted for specific needs.  
  5. Don’t just take notes–take the time to analyze your notes.  Emerging patterns across the class and among groups help you keep focused on specific needs, and leads to much more flexible grouping.  Stagnant groups that are together far too long is a very common guided reading  pitfall.  
  6. Make sure you’re using a variety of instructional tools. Sometimes, kids will need traditional guided reading.  But there’s also a big need for strategy groups and 1:1 conferences.  It’s always about balance, and it’s always about what kids need.    This will tremendously help you balance your time so you don’t feel so overwhelmed.   And don’t forget that shared reading and interactive read aloud is also a perfect time to weave in many reading skills that are tailor-made to your students’ needs.  
  7. This might go against your feelings, and most likely against what you’re being told by higher-ups, but please don’t meet with your low kids every single day.  This stifles them because they never get the chance to actually apply the skills you’re teaching them on their own.  Balance meeting in groups with them with 1:1 quick checks and much less time-intensive strategy groups.  They’re going to remain behind if you get in their way all the time.  
  8. Don’t skip word work!  Kids need targeted phonics and morphology practice so that they can transfer those skills to their own reading.  
  9. If you’re listening to kids read aloud, stagger their starts.  Get one student going, then a few sentences or a paragraph later, have the next student begin, and so on.  This avoids kids just echoing each other, so you get a much better feel for what each child can actually do.  
  10. Watch your prompting.  SOR advocates have it right–prompting kids to first “think what makes sense” or even worse, “check the picture” do not send the message that reading begins with unlocking the code of print.  To avoid that problem, ensure that your prompting is about print work first and foremost–but absolutely prompt to cross-check with meaning and structure.  This is the way MSV was meant to be used!  
  11. For our earliest of readers, be super careful with book selection.  There is a time and a big need for using controlled vocabulary books, which we often call “decodables.”  I promise, with careful selection, you CAN still do great comprehension work with these books.  Be sure to lean more heavily on those at the beginning, then mix in more authentic books.  When you do mix in more authentic texts, be sure you have taught them the skills needed to figure out new words they’ll encounter.
  12. Have students pause along the way for some stop and jots.  Guided reading is a perfect platform to teach them how to respond to reading in ways that hold and support their thinking.  It also sends the message that reading is thinking–which of course, it is.  Stopping to think throughout the book shows them how to do this.  Those jots are also great formative checks for you AND great group discussion starters!  

Guided reading absolutely does have a place in the classroom. But we have to be careful not to overuse it or to overly scaffold our kids.  Remember that guided reading is a bridge to independent reading, so the goal is always to push kids toward independence.  

What tips might you try?  I’d love to hear about it!

Want some help refining your guided reading lessons for greater impact and student independence?   Join my private FB group, DM me on Instagram, or send me an email

Was this post helpful?  Subscribe here to be the first to see new posts that will make an impact on your teaching! 

Related posts:  Small-Group Instruction:  What Does it Really Mean?, Mistakes We’ve Made with Guided Reading, Kids Are Readers, Not LettersWhat SOR Tells Us Good Readers Do That’s Completely Wrong, What’s Wrong with Sounding It Out?, Teach the Reader, Not Just Reading, Balanced Literacy Instruction: What it Actually Means

Add A Comment