Real Language at Work

Beyond Guided Reading
Travis Williams

I started the school year approaching reading in this way: We had shared reading with big books, songs, poems, etc. Then we had a Guided Reading/Literacy center block of time. I ran this pretty much the way it was outlined in Fountas and Pinnell's Guided Reading. It was also the way that my mentoring teacher had set up her classroom. From day one I was not happy with how this worked (that is not to say that there is anything wrong with the system, but for me it wasn't working). I tried various changes within the context of using literacy centers, more structure, less structure, different centers, etc. I did not feel like I had a grasp of what my children were doing during centers, and if what they were doing was helping them be better readers. My Guided Reading lessons were stale because I did not have the materials, and was trying to use decodable text supplied through the reading series, it just wasn't working. This is where I decided it was time to rethink the way I was approaching reading. Carol Avery says, "effective teaching is based on continuous decision making by a professional in response to the current context of the classroom" (Avery, 15). I knew that things were not where they needed to be so I began the task of reevaluating my beliefs about reading.

1. The first step in this process was for me to reflect my beliefs about reading. I knew that I believed that reading was a transactive process between the reader and the text (Rosenblatt, ?). I believed that reading was a balance between the three cues (graphophonemic, syntactic, and semantic). I believed that children should have choice in what they read, how they read, and what they did with the books that they read, and I believed in the words of Ken Goodman and Frank Smith that children learned to read, "by reading." Through this lens of my beliefs I looked at my current approach to teaching reading, I identified the following problems:

· Children were often engaged in non-reading tasks (games, making words, arranging at the pocket chart). I knew that all of these activities were helping with word and sound study, but I wanted them to be reading.
· Children had no tools in place to help them pick books that were "just-right" for them. They went to the Independent Reading station twice a week and chose a book and read, no guidance was done with this what so ever.
· The only time I read with kids was during our Guided Reading lessons, or when I was doing an assessment on them. I wanted time for individual conferencing.
· Children had no forum for talking about books, sharing strategies, or responding to literature.
· I had no idea what the children were reading, the types of books that they liked, or how they were growing as readers.
· I was not relaxed. I spent most of my time fighting management issues and not enough time working with readers on strategies, making notes, or just enjoying a book with a child.

Well identifying the problems was a good start but now I had to figure out how I was going to fix what was wrong.

2. The second step was for me to now explore the literature (both theory and practice) that was available about reading.
· Most of the theory I had identified when looking at the problems with my current organization of reading (Rosenblatt, Goodman, Smith, Cambourne). The bigger questions was how was I going to structure my classroom to fit that theory of how children read.
· I went to And With a Light Touch by Carol Avery and revisited her chapters on Reader's Workshop and Reading Response Theory. There I got in tuned with the power of reader's choosing what, how and where they were going to read. I also got from her ideas for Reading Mini-lessons (the using three cueing systems together to figure out a word, pg. 315).
· I read further and went through Conversations by Reggie Routman, where the ideas of shared and guided reading were described to me, I made sure that I had a good understanding of those ideas. I also read the great section of organizing a classroom library.
· I read the Reader's Workshop portion of Joanne Hindley's In the Company of Children. Here I got the feel for how a reader's workshop looks in a classroom, more ideas for mini-lessons, and a lot more ideas on the organization of books in the classroom (plus the beautiful pictures that showed me what a classroom could look like!).
· Reading Hindley's book lead me to the purchasing of a book called On Solid Ground by Sharon Taberski. I think everyone has a piece of professional literature that they turn to frequently. On Solid Ground is that book for me. In this book she spoke to the organization I was searching for, a reader's workshop where children read, specific ideas about the types of mini-lessons and shared reading lessons I could be doing, new and authentic ways to study words. From this book I got a model of how I would organize and conduct our reader's workshop. And it is important to note that it was our (the class and mine's) Reader's Workshop, not a carbon copy of Sharon's. I adapted it and made changes that worked with the needs and the situation we were in as a class.

3. The third step was to implement my ideas. Here is where I probably made the most mistakes! Enthusiasm can be a good and a bad thing. There were times that I went to fast, I slowed down. There were times that I went to slow, I sped up. And there were times that I totally lost the kids, I went back and got them and we kept at it. I continued to refine our structures in this reader's workshop. After Christmas many of the behavior problems were resolved, but we were still having writer's and reader's workshop in our seats. During a reader's workshop I observed several children moving in their seats in a way to suggest that they wanted no that they needed to stretch out, after that we opened the workshop and children could read where they chose. Looking back in my reflection journal I wrote, "I could no longer resist the kids need to choose where they read." I wonder now why I was ever resisting them at all, but through constant reflection I could see and consider these changes.

Travis Williams is a first grade teacher in Pfafftown, North Carolina. He just completed his first year of teaching, and looks forward to a career filled with learning and growing as a professional. He is interested in working with beginning teachers and recently presented on his first year at the Whole Language Umbrella's 13th International Conference.

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