Q&A on Guided Reading in a PLC
The following is a Q&A email correspondence between Susan Huff, PLC at Work™ associate and principal in Spanish Fork, Utah, and Cynthia Watkins, a third-grade teacher in Asheville, North Carolina
Subject: PLC, Best Practice, and Tracking
Sorry for the confusing title, but all three areas are of concern to me right now. I am not new to the PLC format as I have used and liked the format, over my teaching career and my current elementary school is strongly pursuing its implementation this year.
I was hoping to blog with your site to find out research, or maybe a direction to research, to answer a fundamental question I have now. As part of our collaborative learning community and ensuring all students learn in our school, we are now sort of “tracking” students for guided reading each day. Tracking may not be the correct term, but I can find no other. We basically assess our third-grade team students (four classes) once every nine weeks around benchmark time, and then put together groups of students who travel to other rooms for guided reading instruction. There are two 20-minute sessions each day. Each teacher is responsible for about three groups. This is not a district policy. Does this format sound like best practice to you or does this format in any way coincide with any PLC guidance?
I would like to know what you as an organization think of this policy as well as where I could find more best practice research to either support or question this practice.
Thank you for your time,
Guided reading is something I am passionate about, but it is not “tracking” students. Tracking is a practice of placing students into different classes according to their academic abilities or placing students into a sequence of courses based on some academic assessment(s) where students are limited to certain courses. The practice of tracking does not support the PLC belief that all students can learn and should have access to high levels of learning.
Guided reading is providing differentiated instruction for students for part of the literacy block, in your case for two 20-minute blocks of time. At our elementary school, students receive 20 minutes of guided reading daily; students reading below grade level receive an additional 20-minute guided reading session, just like your school does for all students. Guided reading is part of a balanced literacy approach to teaching language arts in the elementary school. Our entire school district has used this approach to teaching reading for the past 13 or 14 years. Each day’s instruction includes three literacy blocks. The first literacy block of time (45 to 60 minutes) includes shared reading with grade-level text (most often a basal reader), word work and phonics, grammar, shared writing, and handwriting. The second literacy block is 60 minutes of guided reading where students are placed in small groups for strategic instruction and coaching within leveled text. While the teacher is working with a guided reading group, the rest of the class is working in the classroom in independent literacy activities. The third literacy block is writing instruction and writer’s workshop (45 to 60 minutes). The entire literacy block is two-and-a-half to three hours, depending on the grade level (more for lower grades).
Teachers use formal assessments and ongoing running records to monitor the progress of students in guided reading. Guided reading groups are flexible groups, which makes guided reading different from tracking. As individual students make progress, they are moved into more challenging leveled books so that they are continually reading at their instructional level, which is 90–95% accuracy. Assessment drives the make-up of the small group. If students read below 90% accuracy, the text is frustrational level. If students read a book at above 95% accuracy, the text is at his/her independent level. At our school, our teachers within a grade level also share students across the grade level for that additional guided reading session for struggling students, which addresses the PLC question of how do we provide more time and support for students who are not yet at grade level.
This is a very brief overview. However, I have some suggestions for great resources that explain more in depth. You also asked about research on guided reading; happily, there is much. My favorite source is the work of Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell from Ohio State University. Their research is reflected in several great books that I use:
- When Readers Struggle: Teaching That Works (Heinemann, 2009)
- Guiding Readers and Writers Grades 3–6: Teaching Comprehension, Genre, and Content Literacy (Heinemann, 2001)
- The Continuum of Literacy Learning: Behaviors and Understandings to Notice, Teach, and Support (Heinemann, 2007).
My favorite new literacy find is The Next Step in Guided Reading: Focused Assessments and Targeted Lessons for Helping Every Student Become a Better Reader by Jan Richardson (Scholastic, 2009). This is the best detailed support I have seen for teaching guided reading.
Congratulations on responding to the challenge to provide more time and support for students who struggle in reading. That’s what we do in a PLC!
Thank you so much for responding and responding in so much detail. I will look up the last resource you mentioned.
However, I wanted to say that I also am absolutely passionate about guided reading and have used the guidelines from Fountas/Pinnell and Lucy Calkins all my career. My difficulty, or to be blunt, my problem is having groups formed for guided reading across the entire grade level every nine weeks. This is the part I don’t think fits with flexible grouping and best developmentally appropriate practice.
My students rotate each day to different classrooms for either of the two 20-minute sessions. With our last current grouping, I only meet with one of my classroom students. There is another one-hour reading workshop block when after the minilesson, students independently read while I confer with them or meet with strategy groups. In reality this is not much time for reading and monitoring my students reading progress at their instructional level (they are reading at their independent level).
Apart from not working to the extent I wish to with my students, I find differentiation more difficult for those students not in a group in my room while I have my groups. I’m not sure what books they are reading or their assignments. I can’t bring them in and out of groups, as that would mean renegotiating the whole grade level.
I was trying to find research on the “across grade level” reading group practice in grades as low as third. I agree that as a PLC, we can develop plans for working with below grade level students by sometimes forming groups assigned to one teacher. But that is quite different to systematically grouping all students across the grade level.
I was trying to find out whether the PLC model necessarily needed the structure I have talked about above. I would think not. At the heart of PLC is the focus on “learning” and not “teaching.” Grade-level grouping by ability tested once every nine weeks (running records should be taken weekly in some cases) is a teaching structure. Learning with the wonderful strategy of guided reading within a classroom is a much more child oriented, flexible, and responsive to individual needs. Part of that response to students’ needs comes from knowing my students academically but also socially, emotionally, and behaviorally. It comes from my understanding their learning styles, motivation, etc.
I understand how the model used at my grade level presently might work in middle or high school, but elementary school is about building a community of learners within a classroom first and then within the school. Yes, I absolutely think we should, as a grade-level team, discuss student progress across grade level and be ready to intervene with our collective resources to struggling readers. But, I don’t think across grade-level fixed guided reading grouping meets that need.
What do you think about my argument above? I really appreciate your time.
All the best and thank you again,
Your frustration is well founded. The structure you described differentiates instruction and facilitates easier grouping, but removes you from direct knowledge and involvement with your own students and does not allow for students to move up levels as soon as they are able to read more challenging text. Our first-grade team tried something similar to what you described, but they were frustrated because they didn’t know exactly where their own students were reading. When you read with your own class of students in guided reading, you glean information that you use throughout the day to help individual students move forward. What our first-grade team decided to do was keep their own students for guided reading for the one-hour guided reading instructional block, and then at another time for 30 minutes, redistribute students reading below grade level among the team for a second guided reading—which then gives more time and support to struggling students. The students on or above grade level in reading are grouped together for enrichment. The big idea in a PLC is to provide more time and support for students who need it.
Our second-grade team groups students among the team like you do, but their groupings may change every week based on their ongoing running records and assessments. During the 60-minute guided reading block, students reading below grade level get two guided reading sessions among the team, while students reading on or above grade level get only one 20-minute guided reading and then spend 40 minutes in independent literacy activities. This structure works for them because they talk every day about student progress and move students weekly as needed.
Your system doesn’t give any additional time and support to struggling students. It is more about expediency (easier for teachers) than about improving student reading. It is a management structure that allows each teacher to have fewer leveled groups to prep for and teach. I think it’s only better for kids if there is no other way for you to fit in all your groups.
We have tried a couple of strategies to help with the problem of too many groups for one teacher. One strategy we use is to share "outliers" among the team. Let’s say I’m a first-grade teacher and I have one student reading on a level M (above level) and you have two students on level M. We could take my one level M student with your two students for guided reading. Or let’s say it works the other way: you have one-third grader on a level L and I have I have a couple on that level. We could make an "L" group among our two classes.
The way we buy more time for struggling students is that our above-level readers may only get guided reading three times a week and do a literature circle the other two days where they meet as a group without the teacher (or with a parent helper or classroom aide) to discuss the book they are reading.
You will love the Jan Richardson book on guided reading, but you will be frustrated when you read it that you don’t have your own students to monitor their progress. I think it’s usually more effective to keep your own students for guided reading, but share students across the grade level for additional time and support. In making instructional decisions in a PLC, we go back to the three big ideas and the four crucial questions. Which is the best structure for our school with our resources (time, people, money, space) to exemplify an unwavering focus on student learning and to respond to students who need more time and support?
For what it’s worth, I think you are right to be frustrated. Perhaps you could bring up your concerns for discussion with your team and reconsider what you are doing. What you are doing is not a "PLC model;" there is no specific PLC model for reading instruction. In a PLC, we try different things, evaluate the effectiveness of what we are doing, and make directional shifts where needed. We model reflective practice and ask ourselves if what we are doing is working. We collaborate and look at data to drive our instructional decisions. Your team should look for evidence to see if this is the most effective way to help students improve in reading and to help struggling students by giving them more time and support.
Let me know what you think.