Saturday, May 5, 2012

Middle-School Guided Reading

I'm going to talk a little bit about Guided Reading, an old teaching model that has been used for years in elementary classrooms.  The basic premise is homogeneous groups, working with the teacher, while the rest of the class is working in "stations."

Here are some links to pages about Guided Reading:

Short Summary of the Strategy from Saskatoon Public Schools

Scholastic Publication on Research base for Guided Reading

Overview of Guided Reading from Michigan State University

Here's a quote from the last link (Michigan State University):

What are the Other Students Doing While I’m Teaching Reading Groups? 
There are a variety of options. Students could be reading independently or in small Literature Circles / Book Clubs. Or they could be working in center activities related to reading. Whichever you choose, it is a routine that needs to be taught well in the first few weeks of school in order to be successful.
To me, this sounds a lot like "As long as they're busy, it doesn't much matter."  This is the biggest criticism of Guided Reading as a whole, in my opinion.  I don't think that most teachers do this, but it would be easy to just give the rest of the class busy-work, and focus on the "teacher group."  As long as students were diligently working on the "busy-work," it wouldn't seem to matter much, would it?

There are criteria to keep in mind for stations to be effective:

  1. Station work has to be independent work, so it can't be new material or too challenging, or students won't be able to do it without interrupting the teacher (which is bad).  So keep it relatively easy.
  2. The work must also be engaging enough to keep students focused for the duration of the station, usually at least 20 minutes.  
  3. Some assessment of this station work must occur, and must occur consistently, or students won't put any serious effort into completing it.  
The challenge with middle school students is that they are both less patient and more perceptive than typical elementary students with work that lacks a clear sense of purpose.  For example, unless you have built value into silent reading (or if you have a class full of focused readers, a rarity in middle school), you probably won't be able to get a group of students to focus on reading independently for any length of time with so much else going on in the room, and without the direct observation of the teacher.  Designing a good station can take a lot of time, and it often produces material from the students that requires additional time to read and respond to.  

So, in a middle-school setting, what do you need to do to make this work?  Here are some things that my co-workers and I have found (or have learned from others):
  • Create a consistent structure for students to use in the station, and follow it for a long time.  For example, use a Making Words book for a vocabulary station, and have students complete a vocabulary activity several times over several weeks using different words.  
  • Pre-teach station activities as much as you can, so that students are comfortable with the work before they attempt to complete it in the stations.  
  • Students often enjoy the stations if there is a chance to work with peers, and adding even a small element of "fun" increases the effectiveness enormously.  Having students analyze picture books, for example, can be very effective.  
  • Grade only one station, but don't let students know in advance which station will be graded.  
  • Practice the procedures as much as possible early in the school year, and follow them consistently.  Follow the same procedure for grouping and rotations.  Groups should change (flexible grouping is important), but the way that you tell the students what group they are in and what they are doing should stay the same.  I also use a timer and a signal to announce a change in rotation (a $5 Wal-Mart bicycle horn).  
  • Make sure that you have a procedure for early finishers.  
  • Be creative with the stations.  Nonfiction reading, for example, can be a very cool station.  We had success with material from our science books that we never managed to get to - the books were readily available, familiar to the students, and reasonably engaging.  
I'm sure I will think of more to say here, and I'm not pretending to be an expert on guided reading in middle school.  But if you're curious or considering using it in the upper grades, it's a powerful instructional strategy when used well.  It just takes a lot of prep time.  

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