Last night, I laid alongside my first grade son Nathan as he read a book aloud to me. As he read, I found myself listening intently. On the heels of finishing Preventing Misguided Reading, I wanted to understand his reading process better. The authors of this book, Jan Miller Burkins and Melody M. Croft, emphasized time and again the importance of helping children develop “smoothly operating systems” for reading and understanding text. As I listened to Nathan, I thought a lot about his mistakes. What were they telling me about what he knows about text? How did he solve problems that caused him difficulty? Was his system smooth and efficient?
To most people, Nathan is an exceptional first grade reader. However, as I listened to him, I realized that though skilled, he tends to over-rely on guessing words he doesn’t know. Rather than attending to what he knows about letters and sounds, he looks at the first letter and approximates what should go there. Up until now, this has worked well for him. But as I listened, I realized that as the texts he reads grow increasingly more difficult and are supported with fewer picture cues, this won’t be efficient. He is going to need to integrate other strategies into his repertoire to support him as he moves forward.
As I sat analyzing Nathan’s reading behavior, it occurred to me how the work of the reader in a guided reading group is similar to the work of a teacher of guided reading. When children gather to read a book that has been carefully selected by the teacher to present a reasonable challenge, children call upon all of the skills and strategies they know to be able to read that text. With the support of the teacher, children put all of their information together in an effort to nudge forward, to gain greater proficiencies in reading. All the while, the teacher is doing the same thing—calling upon everything she knows about how children learn to read to assess and understand the readers who sit before her. Whose system is efficient? Who is having decoding issues? What, specifically, characterizes those decoding issues? Who is understanding? Who is going deep? Who is fluent? Who understands character? Who understands theme? For whom is this book too easy? Who is ready to move groups?
I read Preventing Misguided Reading because I have so many questions about how to make small group instruction more effective. As I sit here reflecting on what I read and what I learned, I think that it comes down to this: Good guided reading instruction relies on what we know about HOW children develop “smoothly operating systems.” It’s not the materials and it’s not the methodology. Very simply, the more we know and understand about the complex process of learning to read, the more effective our guided reading instruction will become.