When I first started teaching, I remember wondering, “what is guided reading?” What does that mean? What does that look like? How will that help my students? I don’t know if this is universal across districts, but it seemed to me that no one really knew… I heard different things from different people. Even different trainings I attended within my own district contradicted each other. Guided reading groups were my least favorite time of the day. I didn’t really know what to do or how to progress my student’s learning through them, yet they were a requirement.
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What I gathered from guided reading trainings – and started implementing
The best district training I went to actually modeled what it should look like. So what did my district say? The training facilitator suggested that guided reading is a method of running small reading groups in which you introduce a text, go on a picture walk, and introduce vocabulary before reading the text. You may even talk about the concept and assess background knowledge beforehand. Once students start reading, they suggested that you have students start at different times so they aren’t “relying” on the people next to them and also to have them read in a whisper. Then you should listen in on their reading and intervene as necessary. You can also tap in front of a student to cue them to read a little louder.
I ran my guided reading groups this way for years. Yet, I still didn’t look forward to them, and I didn’t feel my students were making significant progress. However, I did like that I could assess where students were struggling and correct it in the moment, but sometimes I missed where they were struggling because I was focused on someone else or they overheard another student so they didn’t make the mistake they would’ve made.
New District – New Principal – New Expectations
When I switched districts, our grade level worked together to lesson plan for the week. Half of us were to tackle the ELA lesson plans, including guided reading, and the other half were to tackle the Math lesson plans. I was adamant that I wanted to do the math lesson plans because I despised guided reading groups. Our lessons usually included reading a leveled text and using the lesson plan that came with the curriculum. I STILL dispised guided reading groups.
The next year, we had a new principal come in and completely change up how we ran our small groups in both reading and math. I will forever be grateful to her because small reading groups became my favorite time of the time, and I saw so much progress in my students.
Goodbye Guided Reading Groups!
We were no longer going to have “guided reading” groups, but instead, we were going to run small reading groups. We had 5 skills that we taught every single day in every single guided reading group (which now would be referred to as small reading groups – a much better name if you ask me). 5 skills in 30 minutes seemed impossible, but we quickly realized that it was indeed possible.
There were no steadfast rules for the time that we spent on each skill, and obviously, some groups needed to spend more time on one skill than another group did (e.g., low and high groups).
After implementing small reading groups this way for a year, I asked to be on the ELA side of writing lesson plans! I finally had a plan that was easy to follow and produced results. I didn’t have to guess or follow boring scripted lesson plans from the big box curriculum companies. Plus, I loved being able to implement a little bit of thematic learning into my day. In the fall, all my resources were fall themed and at Halloween, they had a Halloween twist.
But wait, what were the 5 skills??
I’m not going to let you read this whole blog post and let you leave without having the secret to success! So here it is in all of its glory: Phonological/Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension. I know, I know, that’s a lot to cover in 25-30 minutes, but I promise you it’s completely doable and honestly makes the groups go by so fast!
I’ll break each skill down and tell you approximately how long I spent on each skill, but remember; some groups won’t need as long for certain skills. Your high groups likely won’t need as much phonological awareness, and your low group probably needs to spend more time on phonics than on comprehension. The important thing is that you touch on each skill, even if it’s brief to provide a review or to touch on a skill they aren’t as ready for yet.
Phonological/Phonemic Awareness: 1-2 minutes
We cover one single component of phonological/phonemic awareness based on each group’s needs. One group may work on initial sounds, while another worked on segmenting. If you’re lucky enough to have a copy of Heggerty at your school, it’s a goldmine filled with tons of quick rapid-fire phonemic awareness “drills.”
If you don’t have access to this, it’s not an issue at all; you can come up with your own examples or pull them from your poem or comprehension passage (we’ll get to those in a bit). You only want to go through 10 “drills” max. You might say, “do cat and rat rhyme?” or “tell me a word that rhymes with bat” or even “which word does not rhyme in this set: bat, can, mat”
Depending on the skill you are working on, there is some overlap into the phonics skill area. For example, segmenting requires students to break down words into individual phonemes (sounds). I work on encoding and decoding within my phonics skill time.
Phonics: ~10 minutes
Different teachers approached this skill in different ways, but my preferred method was to work with Orthographic Mapping Mats. They are essentially spelling mats, similar to Elkonion boxes, where students segment a word into individual phonemes (sounds) and then determine the correct grapheme (letter(s)) to represent the sound (this means that one picture on the mat may have one single letter or multiple in the case of digraphs/trigraphs). Then they blend the sounds and read the word they wrote. So they are working on encoding skills but practicing decoding skills at the same time. If this sounds a little complicated, I promise it’s not, I have a TikTok video using my Fall Orthographic Mapping Mats with my daughter showing how she mapped out the word skim.
We worked on phonics skills that were taught whole group, and I moved at the pace of my individual groups. Some groups were working on CVC words, while others were ready for digraphs.
No matter what phonics program you’re using in your classroom, you can utilize Orthographic Mapping Mats to reinforce and enhance those skills in your small reading groups.
A quick note about nonsense words: If a particular group needed to work with nonsense words, we would work on that during this time as well. We would usually talk about the importance of reading nonsense words and then read through a list of 10 words or less and then move on. In case you’re wondering why they are important, it’s because many (but certainly not all) nonsense words are syllables within a larger word. For example, cac is a nonsense CVC word, but if you can read cac and you can read tus (both CVC nonsense words), then you can read cactus!
Fluency: 2-3 minutes
Poems are a great way to work on fluency and phonological awareness at the same time! Plus, who doesn’t love a good rhyming poem? The rhythm is so much fun that students really improve their intonation. We read the same poem every day for a week to help students improve their accuracy, rate, and intonation. The next week we would get a different poem. I liked to theme the poems around the time of the year or upcoming holidays. For example, August 26th is National Dog Day, so I created dog poems that went with the theme of the rest of my small reading group lesson plans.
Vocabulary: 4-5 minutes
I’m not going to lie, this often looked like me reviewing sight words from the week because my students really struggled, but ideally this time would have been used to improve their vocabulary repertoire by introducing words from the text we were going to read or other words we would encounter during the week. I created a set of dog-themed vocabulary words to go along with the dog theme of my small reading group lesson plans. Ideally, we would cover a few words a day throughout the week. After my small group, during their independent work time, they would work on the pages of their vocabulary book or play partner games designed to reinforce their vocabulary acquisition. Then, at the end of the week, or unit, we could play BINGO, do word searches, or do crossword puzzles with the vocabulary words!
Comprehension: ~10 minutes
Instead of reading leveled readers, we read actual books. In my new district, we used AR (Accelerated Reader) to level books. Students really enjoyed reading fun stories that weren’t repetitive, predictable text. Yes, it meant they had to work harder to read the story, but they did so with enthusiasm because the story was engaging. During and after reading, we would stop to discuss and ask comprehension questions.
We also used printable comprehension passages with questions. This was a great time to really focus on comprehension strategies such as paragraph shrinking and going back into the text to find the answer. This is something that, as adults, I think we take for granted. It becomes relatively easy for us to go back and find the answer in the text, but young readers often start the passage completely over, so it’s important to equip them with strategies for finding the answer quickly.
Remember earlier when I said National Dog Day is August 26th? Well, I created a passage about National Dog Day for my students with several extension activities, and it’s FREE.
If you are like the old me, my hope for you is that you will find a renewed love of small reading groups. You may follow the same structure as I outlined above, or maybe it sparked an idea in your mind about what would work for you, but I hope you know that small reading groups don’t have to be tedious. They don’t have to take forever to plan for. If you love what you’ve read and you want to implement this in your classroom but don’t know where to begin, you could also pick and choose resources and mash them together, or you could pick up my dog-themed small reading group bundle, print and go!
While I know some districts may require a form of “guided reading,” I would personally incorporate the aforementioned skills in my “guided reading” group. While working on the comprehension skill, you could implement the guided reading aspect to be in compliance. If you’re the type of teacher that is comfortable advocating for a change to your admin, then go for it! I was definitely not the type that was comfortable speaking up to my principal, especially in my earlier years, so I get that too.
No matter what situation you are in. Whether you have to implement guided reading or have the ability to run reading groups how you please, I hope that you feel inspired to implement teaching these 5 skills in your small reading groups daily.
Check out my post, 5 Must-Have Items for Your Classroom. Number 1 is my favorite!