Guided or Whole-class Reading: Which is Best?
Estimated Reading Time - 13 minutes
That’s a very good question and one which Primary schools across England have been debating for a few years now. The choice about how we teach children to read, notably when they have moved on from a focus on phonics, is undoubtedly one of the most important choices schools will make. In Kent, over recent years, there’s been a clear shift away from guided reading towards a whole-class approach – particularly in key stage 2. This can be a hot-topic for debate, with conflicting views on both sides of the argument: which approach is best? Which pedagogy has better results? Which one do the children respond to in more positive ways? Do pupils make better progress through whole-class reading lessons, now that many no longer learn through guided reading? And which do teachers prefer?
Why did things change?
As far back as 2017 Sinead Gaffney, working at the time for a Teaching School Alliance in Sheffield, wrote an informative article in the Times Education Supplement on this very subject, exploring the pros and cons of each approach. She cites the switch to the 2014 National Curriculum as a catalyst for change:
"Back in the heyday of Literacy Strategies, guided reading was strongly encouraged and, over decades, it became the expected practice for teaching reading. But the 2014 curriculum changes have been a catalyst for debate…Reading is imagined differently in the new curriculum. Children are introduced to different kinds of knowledge; the skills that are valued within it have changed. The values and philosophy underpinning this curriculum are different from its predecessor’s. No wonder, then, that teachers are exploring different ways of teaching reading in their classrooms. In particular, there is a move now towards teaching children using whole-class reading."
Kent certainly bears witness to that shift. These broad changes to the English curriculum and educational discourse, however, do not give us the whole story. Looking back, it must be admitted that guided reading practices were sometimes difficult to master: some teachers complained of the difficulty of managing a whole class of children, when focusing on one or two groups at a time. The work of the unguided groups was sometimes aptly described as a ‘holding’ rather than ‘learning’ activity. (This was easier to manage in key stage 1, where activities for the non-guided groups were more typical of their usual classroom experience.) In addition, school leaders showed concern about whether or not children were stagnating within their group, not being challenged to reach their potential by ‘moving up’ to a harder text. Sometimes children were generally only heard to read aloud once a week, when it was their group’s turn. And low-level disruption by some pupils could be a problem in some classrooms.
Education advisers were alerted to a further issue in some schools – that the whole gamut of knowledge, skills and understanding required to become an effective reader were not necessarily being carefully planned, taught or tracked from year group to year group. Children were sometimes observed simply ‘reading aloud in their group, with a few decent questions thrown in’ by the supporting adult. This was especially true in key stage 2 once children had passed beyond the realm of ‘phonics first’. School leaders could not be sure that all the reading skills and strategies necessary were being taught, and coverage was sometimes left rather more to luck than judgement. Who was actually teaching the children to read? What specifically were they learning? Who was keeping a record of that? How was the reading curriculum being sequenced in cumulative ways to ensure long term learning?
Whole-class reading and its possibilities
When in charge of the whole class and engaged in shared discussion about stories, characters, events, information and so on, the teacher has a strong measure of control over the direction of that discussion; they can ask searching, well-directed questions, and gather all the children in at once in that defined area of learning.
Along with their teacher’s guidance, children can be supported as a large group to process the text, to get inside what’s going on, and then to make plausible predictions about where it might be going next. The teacher gets instant feedback about their pupils’ success, and the gist of where they might need more help. The very fact that everyone in the room is working on the same rich text offers that extra opportunity for a shared buzz of excitement, or horror, or humour, or a new opportunity for vocabulary-enrichment. Everyone joins in, and nobody should be left out. To coin the phrase of the day – though not a favourite of mine – a whole-class approach sounds like a ‘no-brainer’. What’s more, the teacher can be sure that everyone in the room has at least listened to the teaching of the chosen reading skill or strategy planned for that day. There’s even the hope that most pupils have absorbed it too, and are well on the way to achieving the learning outcome – if not that lesson, then by the end of a teaching sequence.
Gaffney points out that the very direction of the Programme of Study for Primary English is sending us down this path:
"The 2014 curriculum positions high-quality literature at the heart of reading and the wider English curriculum. It places an onus on teachers to teach whole texts, and in key stage 2 many of these (but not all) need to be children’s novels. An extract from a novel, the rest of which is never read, or an endless string of life-sapping “comprehensions” will, quite literally, no longer make the grade in this curriculum."
Guided reading groups in key stage 2 would struggle, if not find it impossible, to offer sufficient reading time in order to access a large number of whole texts, and teachers would have difficulty knowing such a number of texts well enough to teach them successfully for each ability group – when through a guided reading scenario. A whole-class approach meets this need, by significantly reducing the number of shared texts which children will meet each term or year. The teacher can pick a suitable text of high quality, making sure to provide balance and breadth through their choices across the academic year. The previous five-or-so guided reading groups are now all reading the same thing. The potential glass ceiling laid previously upon novice readers has been removed, and all readers can fly.
A whole-class reading lesson, too, offers opportunities to model, demonstrate and practise reading aloud with fluency and expression, when children can listen to the expert and then have a go for themselves, making their reading aloud sound natural and confident. In addition, the whole-class lesson offers those useful moments to address a point of grammatical terminology, encompassing every listener at once on a given point. Guided reading lessons can only do that for a group at a time.
"The purpose of whole-class reading," Gaffney says, "is to improve children’s comprehension skills: they need to walk out of the classroom better readers than they walked into it. Above all, this means you, the teacher, knowing your text. You must be able to introduce key vocabulary before you stumble upon it and plan your questioning properly, demonstrating to the children how we might go deep in our analysis. It requires teaching children how to select evidence when forming an opinion or answering a question, and building in opportunities for adult-led, skill-developing debate around the author’s meaning."
Do you sense a ‘but’?
Many schools in Kent, and most significantly in key stage 1, however, have held on to their treasured guided reading lessons with pride and fervour – and not without reason. Let’s now explore what guided reading can provide, which a whole-class approach may possibly neglect.
Guided reading and its unique strengths
Gaffney’s opening comments about guided reading will strike a chord for some experienced teachers:
"For many of us, guided reading invokes memories of spinning (and toppling) plates, frantic lunchtimes setting out a carousel of photocopied activities and cringe-ridden Ofsted observations that become the stuff of sleepless nights."
Nevertheless, it is surely crucial to explore why so many educationists, teachers and reading experts love guided reading, and hold great store by what it has to offer our children. If we have ‘gone off’ guided reading, we need to know what children are missing! What could we have done better? Was it our fault that we gave up? If there are aspects of guided reading that cannot be provided through any other system, what could we do to salvage those valuable assets and ensure that we preserve them – at least in part – for the pupils we are entrusted with.
When we teach in a one-to-thirty situation, we cannot possibly gauge the individual learning, reactions or achievement of every one of those readers. Teaching children to read is not simply a matter of picking up the writer’s intended meaning. Nikki Gamble, a renowned expert and Director of ‘Just Imagine’ – an organisation which promotes literacy using high-quality children’s literature (also keynote speaker at our Primary English conference ‘Good Readers = Good Writers’ 11 October 2022) - makes the crucial point that teachers need to understand the sense that children are making of the texts they read. A guided reading group is surely the better place to offer that particular opportunity, aside from a one-to-one reading situation. How can we know that a child has misunderstood the nuance of a particular word, if we work one-to-thirty on a daily basis in all our reading lessons? How do we pick up on all those misconceptions? How do we know how much of the text our lower 20% of readers have, or have not, understood – in any depth – when the more able pupils are the typical responders and contributors to our spoken questions? It is crucial that we continue to offer that eagle-eye over the success or otherwise of the very pupils about whom we should be most concerned.
Accessing the text
One of the true assets of a guided reading set-up is surely that the text is highly likely to suit the small number of readers of that group, falling within the 90% accessibility required for successful reading, in which the child can assert some level of independence, whilst also benefitting from the adult’s guidance and instruction when needed – for example with an explanation of a challenging new word, or an intricate sentence which requires unpicking in order to support its meaning. The adult can be there, not only to question but to listen: to really know how well the child is understanding and accessing that text. Certainly guided reading provides a more robust support system for our lower ability readers than does a whole-class approach, unless the latter is well managed and flexible. The accessibility of the single text, chosen for the entire class, is unlikely to meet everyone’s needs. Teachers have to find clever ways to help their less able readers to feel included; confident; successful. Above all, they need to be alert to how those children are coping – rather than assuming that ‘the lesson went really well’, based on a general performance and positive response of the majority. A mistake which is easy to make.
The value of group conversation is undeniable in any classroom, and especially when teaching children to read in enjoyable and meaningful ways. It is well documented that pupils’ weaknesses in oracy impacts significantly on their performance across the curriculum, and many pupils benefit enormously from the back-and-forth dialogue that small-group conversation can provide. For some children, school is the only place where this happens.
Mentioned already is the importance of the teacher making an accurate assessment of what individual readers have understood and processed. Having made that assessment, however, and having gathered that picture of success or otherwise, the teacher of a small group can shape and select their questioning and prompting, to lead that struggling child towards a greater and sharper understanding. They can help the child to make connections where those connections have failed. They can carefully provide suitable synonyms necessary for these children to access new vocabulary. They can spend time listening while the less able reader explains the text back to them, showing what they have grasped so far. They can find time for the child to ask their own questions. And they can keep a careful record of these pupils’ progress, in order to ensure their individual reading book is suitable, and that future lesson objectives are just right.
Whichever approach we adopt – whether through guided or whole-class reading – we know from the Ofsted Inspection framework – that we are required to help children to become fluent, independent readers in order that they can access the rest of the curriculum and be ready eventually for secondary school. Children throughout their primary school career need regular opportunities to read aloud to an adult in order to practise (and be corrected upon) their decoding skills, and to practise using the appropriate expression and intonation which shows their understanding. Whilst a whole-class approach can indubitably offer this activity just as well as a guided reading lesson, we need to think carefully about our less able readers: is the chosen class text too difficult for them to access in this way – in other words, to read aloud with fluency and expression? Can we, and should we, adapt sections of that text (if it is outside their 90% reading level) so that they can practise this fluent reading? These are, after all, the very children on whom we should be focusing, to assist them in developing this confidence in their reading. We can’t ignore their needs for perhaps four or five reading lessons a week.
What's it to be?
The purpose of this article is not to put schools off doing what they believe in, or to change the choices they’ve made. All pedagogical styles can be done well or done badly, or indeed fall somewhere in that mediocre band which is neither impressive nor hopeless, but which begs improvement. Both choices can let down some pupils, particularly our less able ones – the very children we should be raising to centre point of our radar.
Teachers should be especially mindful of meeting the needs of these pupils, whichever pedagogical approach they use. The best choice, surely, is to incorporate the strengths of both systems. If the reading lesson is to open in a one-to-thirty scenario, with that buzz of shared conversation about a known character or exciting plot, together with that all-embracing clarity of teaching the chosen reading outcome of the day to every child in the room, then after 15-20 minutes or so, it can be seamlessly followed by group-learning situations, paired teaching, one-to-one where relevant, or even with children leading their own groups, having received the necessary training to do this successfully – a whole range of pedagogical approaches, which allow for more focused work with those children who need it. The plenary offers that moment when everyone can come back together again, to draw together that learning outcome of the lesson, and to share what children have discovered for themselves. The teacher needs a break too! No teacher can sustain a 1:30 situation for a whole hour with any degree of effectiveness. Children sometimes need to work alone or in smaller groups. They need to practise their reading. They need their teacher to stop talking. They need to learn to read.
About The Author
Penny is part of The Education People's Primary School Improvement Service, she is a specialist subject advisor for English. Penny was an advanced skills teacher for literacy, and has been an English adviser and specialist for over 11 years. Penny is passionate about English and enjoys working with schools to support them, and their pupils, to achieve their highest potential.