Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Answer to a Well Balanced Reading Diet: Guided Reading Blog # 5 in the Guided Reading Series

Balanced-DietNew York State has a standard that requires students to read at least 25 books a year. Before I left my third grade classroom to become a staff developer, I made the goal to read 25 books front and center. In addition to number of books, I was also concerned about type of books. I wanted my students to have a varied reading diet so in my classroom, the requirement to read 25 books came with a caveat: five had to be realistic fiction, five had to be poetry, five had to be picture books, five had to be non-fiction, and five could be whatever the student chose. (and then there was the hope that they’d read many books beyond the 25 required…)

Fast forward ten years. Since leaving the classroom, I have continued to advocate for varied reading diets and recently my opinionated (and exasperated) fifth grade son said to me, “I hate it when teachers tell me what I HAVE to read. Why does it matter? Why can’t I always read what I want to read?”

So, he got me thinking. Why does it matter that children have varied reading diets? In my mind, it comes back to this: A varied reading diet introduces children to a wide range of vocabulary, it develops background knowledge, and calls upon a wide range of reading strategies. As teachers, we want students to be armed with well-packed toolboxes and if the only thing they ever read is, say, Magic Tree House, the reading process will become so automatic (inherently good) that they won’t need to practice the skills and strategies they will need for the next series or genre they feel ready for.

Basically, I felt that if I didn’t nudge my students to stretch themselves, they’d never have the tools they’d need to be good readers.

Enter guided reading.

By definition, guided reading is the time when children read instructional level texts with the support and guidance of a teacher. The purpose of these small group lessons is to accomplish exactly what I alluded to before: toolbox packing. It’s the time when I think about my students and their needs as readers. What do they need to know? What can I do to help them know this better?

One of the things they may need is guidance about new reading genres. Maybe they don’t pick up biographies because they don’t have the tools they need to navigate the text. Maybe the intersection of facts with make-believe is too complicated for a reader picking up historical fiction for the first time. Guided reading gives us the opportunity to support readers as they venture into new genres. In hindsight, my students might have groaned as much as my son at my “varied reading diet” requirement because as I have confessed before, I didn’t do guided reading. I didn’t say to them, “these are the things that you will need to be able to read these texts,” and in return they might have been saying things like, “Do I have to? I hate mystery.” Loosely translated, what that might have really been saying is, “Do I have to? I have no idea how to read that genre.”

In this series, I have questioned guided reading as a viable intermediate structure and wondered if it is more suited to primary aged children who have so much to learn about learning to read. However, when I think in terms of varied reading diet and packing reading toolboxes with the skills and strategies needed to handle a wide variety of texts, I realize even when children have a large stash of sight words and can decode new words in milliseconds, they are still learning to read. When I ask the question, “Does guided reading have a place in the intermediate classroom?” The answer is simple and indisputable: YES.

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