The Guided Reading Teaching Approach: History
Please note this is an old version of this entry, which may differ significantly from the current revision.

The guided reading teaching approach is a commonly utilised practice that teachers have employed for over 20 years, both in Australia and abroad. What the approach entails, can be open to interpretation—an outcome that highlights the challenge of describing the approach in clear and unambiguous terms. 

  • guided reading
  • reading education
  • teaching
  • reading
  • teaching approaches

1. Introduction

The guided reading teaching approach is an internationally recognised practice [1] that Australian teachers have been using for over 20 years [2][3][4]; one of a “repertoire of teaching strategies” [5] (p. 10) that educators utilise when teaching children to read. An unambiguous definition of guided reading has proven elusive, however, leaving its translation and enactment open to interpretation both in Australia and abroad [4][6]. The challenge of clearly delineating what guided reading ‘is’ highlights its multilayered complexity, and the need for a more nuanced reconceptualisation of what the approach entails. Here it focuses on the issue of ambiguity by considering the possibility that guided reading may not be a singular ‘strategy’ at all, but rather an amalgamation of several teaching strategies as educators move “from teacher-directed to student-led practice” throughout a guided reading lesson [7] (p. 21). A new model was proposed for conceptualising guided reading—a reconceptualisation of the guided reading teaching approach that educators and researchers can draw upon to better understand, apply and/or evaluate their own and other’s use of the approach in practice. The model—named the barometer of agency in guided reading—was designed following an investigation into how the authors of six university-endorsed publications described the guided reading approach in their texts.

2. The Reading Teacher

John Hattie [8], Chair of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), states that “expert teaching should be by design, not chance”. That is, teachers must use their knowledge of how children learn and the conditions that best support child development, to plan for and implement effective programs. This is reflected in the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST), with the expectation that all teachers “know students and how they learn” and that they “know the content and how to teach it” [5] (p. 6—emphases added). At the granular level, this is accompanied with the expectation that highly accomplished teachers “select from a flexible and effective repertoire of teaching strategies to suit the physical, social and intellectual development and characteristics of students” [5] (p. 10), and at the most basic level that teachers will enter the profession with ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ of “literacy and numeracy teaching strategies and their application in teaching” [5] (p. 13). But what do these ‘strategies’ entail and how may they be applied with flexibility, when teaching children to read?
From 1996–1998, in Victoria, Australia, classroom teachers from 52 schools across the state engaged in a three-year Early Literacy Research Project (ELRP), designed to “develop a system-wide approach to maximising the literacy achievements of ‘at risk’ students in the early years of schooling (ages 5–8)” [2] (p. 1). The program’s design was centred around ensuring that teachers combined various internationally recognised teaching strategies, including modelled reading and writing, shared reading and writing, language experience, interactive writing, guided reading and writing, and independent reading “within a daily two-hour literacy block” that followed a twofold “three-part, whole-class, small-group, whole-class structure” [2] (pp. 4–5). The modelled reading strategy was to be used by teachers to engage in demonstrations, including ‘thinking aloud’ and/or explaining their actions while reading. Shared reading, while teacher-led, was to be used to read with children. During guided reading, children were to lead the reading activity with teacher support, and independent reading required that children read autonomously. Collectively, the strategies outlined above were designed to incrementally move the focus of teaching from a wholly teacher-led demonstration to self-regulated child-led activity. These reading-related teaching strategies had an internationally recognised history, being derived from the strategies of the gradual release of responsibility (GRR) model [9][10]—the only omission being that of collaborative teaching, where peers support and learn from peers [10]. The ELRP program had such a positive impact on student learning across the state [11] that a state-wide adoption of the teaching approaches followed, via the Early Years Literacy Program [12]—strategies that teachers continue to utilise in contemporary classrooms across Australia [3][4][7] and more widely on an international scale [1].
The definitions given above appear quite straightforward, but their enactment has proved anything but. For example, the one conducted with 1500 K-2 teachers from the UK, Ford and Opitz [6] (p. 313) found that two-thirds of their participants thought that the guided reading approach was a time for teacher demonstrations, “explicitly modeling for students a new skill or strategy”, even though demonstrations are characteristic of the modelled reading approach as per the GRR model outlined above. The reason for this apparent discord may lay in the fact that while the GRR is designed, as the name implies, to release “responsibility for the task” over to the child [9] (p. 338) with a move from a wholly teacher-led demonstration to wholly child-led activity, there has long been recognition that the process is nonlinear in application [1][10]. A decades-long tension exists between the desire to describe a one-size-fits-all model of effective teacher practice, and acknowledgement of the necessity for flexibility that responds to children’s needs and potentials as they present themselves. As a result, the GRR teaching strategies are often described in broad, simplistic terms, each approach above have been defined—descriptions that can appear quite rigid and dismissive of the need for flexibility, or, as with the definition for guided reading, can leave their enactment open to interpretation [4][6].

3. The Reading Learner

The Australian teaching standards place heavy emphasis on the actions of the teacher, most especially the expectation that teachers “select from a flexible and effective repertoire of teaching strategies” [5] (p. 10), and “know and understand literacy and numeracy teaching strategies and their application in teaching” [5] (p. 13). This is not at all surprising given that the standards, as the title implies, outline what is expected of a teacher. But what is expected of children when teachers are using particular teaching strategies, how are teachers to determine the most suitable strategy to employ for each child, and how much agency does this afford children in their own learning? To be truly agentic, Manyukhina and Wyse [13] (p. 227) suggest that learners must (1) have a “sense of agency”—they must be aware of themselves as agentic beings with the ability to “make a difference” to their own learning, and (2) have opportunities to “exercise their agency by playing an active role in directing the learning process” (p. 228). A highly accomplished teacher, therefore, will shift between strategies as they respond to children’s behaviours, allowing themselves to be guided by each child as they determine how much agency to ‘expect’ of children (i.e., how ‘active’ they expect children to be), depending on their assessment of each child’s level of skill and capabilities at any given moment. In return, each child has the potential to guide the teacher via his or her behaviours, showing the teacher when more or less support is required. In this respect, the GRR model is as much about the learner releasing responsibility to the teacher “to access support, when needed… to the extent only that is required”, as it is about the teacher releasing responsibility to the child [14] (pp. 24, 26).
The degree of agency that teachers can expect of children, depending on the task at hand, is informed by the intent to create conditions that will enable learning and development. Too difficult a task may generate frustration, providing children with negative experiences, as may tasks that are too easy and lack cognitive challenge [15]. Lack of challenge may also result in children becoming averse to facing challenges, lacking the practice, strategies, and resilience to “persist… when learning gets tough” [16] (p. 14). Mauyukhina and Wyse [14] (p. 228) emphasise that children’s sense of agency and actions are “temporally situated”—based on their past experiences, which will in turn influence their own expectations, attitudes, emotions, goals and motivation (or lack thereof). They state that “structural constraints and enablements”—the social environment that teachers create—will influence children’s actions “through mere anticipation” [14] (p. 227). That is, expectation of success or failure, including how success and/or failure is defined, will influence a child’s decision to pursue an action, or refrain. The teacher’s role, therefore, is to create environments that continue to provide—or facilitate—opportunities for children to develop positive relationships with reading—choosing strategies that set children up for success—so they are motivated and self-inclined to read for a variety of purposes, within and beyond the reading classroom.

4. Guided Reading

Guided reading has been identified as one of the most essential steps within the GRR model, serving as “a bridge from teacher ownership of a skill to student ownership” [17] (p. 218)—a step that is often overlooked when moving too quickly from modelled teaching to independent activity [10][18]. further suggestions is that rather than serving as a linear ‘bridge’ or ‘step’ from Point A to Point B, guided reading lessons are the most complex of all the GRR approaches, given that they provide the conditions through which teachers may employ all of the strategies encompassed within the GRR model from lesson beginning to lesson’s end [7]. A teacher may invite the children to share their knowledges and past experiences in connection to the text’s subject matter and to predict the text’s storyline via a picture walk; employing the shared reading approach during the text introduction [19]. They may model a particular “ideal form” [20] (p. 273) when introducing the lesson’s learning intention; that is, particular ways of thinking [4] that they want the children to apply when reading independently. This may be a decoding technique, strategies for deciphering meaning, metacognitive awareness of themselves as text-users, or ways of engaging critically with the text [21]. As children read from their own copy of the text, the teacher will offer one-on-one support when needed, while the other children in the group read independently and/or support each other via the collaborative reading approach [19][22]. Teachers will shift between strategies throughout a guided reading lesson as they respond to children’s changing needs and agentic potentials much like the responsive swing of an Aneroid barometer—a phenomenon referred to as the “ebb and flow of scaffolding” [23] (p. 57) (see Figure 1). This calls for “a sophisticated kind of decision-making” [18] (p. 255)—the ability to “select from a flexible and effective repertoire of teaching strategies” [5] (p. 10) that highlights the professional judgement and expertise that highly accomplished teachers are expected to bring to each guided reading lesson.
Figure 1. The barometer of agency in guided reading—the responsive swing of teaching and learning.

5. A Model for Evaluating Teacher Practice

Based on an investigation that analysed how the guided reading teaching approach has been described in professionally endorsed publications—publications that have been used in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) in Australian universities, it was found that even within a 15–20 minute guided reading lesson, a teacher’s adoption of the GRR model’s teaching strategies can be nonlinear in application. Teachers are expected to use their professional judgement to determine ‘how agentic’ they expect children to be throughout the lesson; that is, the degree to which they expect children to take “an active role in directing the learning process” [13] (p. 228) as they decode, use strategies for deciphering meaning, critically engage with texts and/or connect with texts on an affective and/or metacognitive level of engagement [14][21]. This requires “a sophisticated kind of decision-making” [18] (p. 255) on the part of the teacher, informed by an in-depth knowledge of each child’s needs and potentials, and attention to the degree of agency children appear to be ‘releasing’ to their teacher [14], or to their peers—that is, their agentic potential. Figure 2, a revision of Figure 1 that includes the joint-reciprocal reading strategy, captures this “ebb and flow of scaffolding” [23] (p. 57)—a useful model to use when (self-)evaluating teacher practice. The additional category, that of ‘teacher and child reading: joint-reciprocal reading’—where neither the child nor the teacher is assigned the role of ‘lead’, much as occurs during ‘choral reading’ when a group of children, or the educator and children, read aloud in unison [24] (p. 350)—was included in this revised model given that it featured in all of the analysed texts.
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Figure 2. The barometer of agency in guided reading—the responsive swing of teaching and learning (revised).
When adopting this model, it was proposed that educators view the teaching of reading as the needle of an Aneroid barometer that swings back and forth in response to changes in the atmospheric ‘pressure’ of the classroom, measured and powered by a teacher’s ongoing questionings, discussions and observations of and with children. Using such assessments, teachers determine the degree of agency they expect of children, at this moment, with this particular text, based upon the level of skill, motivation and engagement they determine the children to be exhibiting at this particular moment in time—an assessment that can change from moment to moment, throughout a single sitting.

This entry is adapted from the peer-reviewed paper 10.3390/educsci12060374


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