Guided Reading Activities & Small-Group Instruction Best Practices

Best Practices Library

This session explores small-group instruction and reading behaviors for K–2 students. You will have an opportunity to examine the instructional sequence appropriate for small-group instruction and work with cueing systems.


Small-group reading is a small-group, assisted-literacy experience in which the teacher supports and guides the students with text on their instructional level. The teacher helps students develop an understanding of the text while prompting them to apply strategies they will need to become independent readers. Each small-group reading group consists of approximately two to six members. This small-group setting allows the teacher to introduce a new text each day and to ensure that the challenges are manageable. It also allows the teacher to assist and support the students as they respond to the text in varying ways.

Small-group reading is important because it enables teachers to observe students' reading behavior and provide support while they practice reading strategies. During small-group reading, students' reading abilities are matched to appropriate reading materials. This allows teachers to demonstrate specific reading behaviors and strategies within context.

It also provides opportunities for students to apply these strategies in order to develop competence through practice.

When Are Students Ready for Small-Group Reading?

Observations play a critical role in deciding what type of support students need during literacy experiences. To determine if students are ready to participate in a formal group setting, the teacher observes them during some of the following:

  • Shared reading
  • Independent reading
  • Buddy reading
  • Interactive writing
  • Journal writing

During reading and writing events, the teacher collects information regarding how students respond to print and how they interact with the text. Teachers should note the answers to the following questions (Dorn et al., 1998):

During Reading
  • Are students aware of early reading behaviors such as directionality and one-to-one matching?
  • Can they distinguish letters from words?
  • Can they locate a few high-frequency words in text? (e.g., I, a, the)
  • Do they join in during the shared reading experience and predict language structures?
  • Can they construct meaning using the pictures as a guide?
During Writing
  • Do students use letter forms when they write?
  • Do they link some sounds with symbols when they write?
  • Do they articulate words slowly as they write?

If the answer to some of these questions is yes, the teacher can group the students according to established needs. This provides the chance to teach reading strategies that students will need to read all types of text (Dorn, et al., 1998).

The teacher's knowledge of the reading process and observations of individual student's reading and writing behaviors are also used to determine if students are ready for guided reading. While some students are ready, others may need many more opportunities and experiences with print before taking an active part during the first reading of a guided-reading lesson.

Select Appropriate Texts

Prior to a small-group reading lesson, teachers select books they believe students can read successfully, with 90% accuracy or better. Book selection plays a major role in assisting students to learn at optimal rates. Selections based on students' interests, prior knowledge, and competencies spur their development by building upon strengths. This dynamic process stems from ongoing observation and assessments (e.g., oral reading records and writing samples).

In selecting appropriate books, teachers should consider text layout, book language, supportive and challenging features of the book, and a student's oral language and current strategies for problem solving at difficult points. A book should contain more supportive features than challenges. This places the focus on helping the student build a smoothly operating reading system. The following questions provide a framework for selecting an appropriate book for small-group reading (Dorn et al., 1998):

  • Are the concepts and vocabulary used in the book meaningful to students?
  • Are the structural language patterns within students’ control?
  • Do students recognize some letters and words used in the book so they can monitor their reading?
  • Does the book allow students to use their current strategies and competencies for problem-solving of unknown words?
  • Does the book promote fluency?
  • What are the supportive features of the book?
  • What are the challenging features of the book?
  • Are there more supportive features than challenging features?

As teachers select nonfiction leveled reading texts, they should remember that levels are fallible. Teachers should consider prior knowledge about the topic that students bring to the reading as an important factor in book selection. If prior knowledge of a topic is a limitation, the level of difficulty of the text may be altered to a higher level.

Set the Focus

The strengths and needs of the students in the group determine the focus of the guided-reading lesson. Through sensitive observation, the teacher can decide which specific reading strategies to foster. For example, students who do not take risks and stop at unknown words without any attempt at solving need to develop the strategy of predicting. They need to learn to search their sources of information in order to obtain meaning. Students who use meaning cues but tend to ignore visual cues need to learn how to direct their attention to the printed message. Students who process information very slowly need to develop fluency. Oral reading records and writing samples can help a teacher make good decisions about what strategies to foster next. The following questions can guide a teacher to set the proper focus for instruction (Clay, 1991; Fountas and Pinnell, 1996; Dorn et al., 1998):

  • Do students have early behaviors under control (e.g., one-to-one matching, directional movement, locating known and unknown words in a text)?
  • What cue sources do students rely on?
  • What strategies do students employ (e.g., searching the picture, using first-letter cues, rereading, using chunks)?
  • What strategies and cues do students ignore?
  • What processing behaviors do students exhibit at points of difficulty?
Small-Group Reading Sequence

Link Prior Knowledge

Reading involves more than learning to pronounce words. It also involves understanding and recognizing concepts from past experiences. New learning occurs as a result of relating new information to past experiences and past learning. This involves comparing, recognizing similarities and differences, evaluating, and interpreting information.

Linking prior knowledge, without direct reference to the book, orients students to the concepts, things, people, places, and environments that relate to the text and helps students make connections.

Book Introduction

Another crucial role of the teacher during small-group reading is to orient students to the book before the first reading. During this guided-participation setting, the teacher and the students collaborate in a conversation about a book that the teacher has chosen to fit the needs of the students' level of development. This orientation allows the teacher to support students by providing the overall meaning of the text. It prepares students to read the book by creating a supportive context for building meaning. The teacher relates the text to students' personal experiences, invites them to make predictions from the cover, and shares with them the book's title, author, and illustrator.

To help students integrate cues, the teacher prompts them to use meaning, structure, and visual cues in the orientation. First, the teacher provides students with a brief overview of the text and prompts them to discuss the pictures as they converse about the author's intended message. This helps students build meaning. The teacher incorporates structure into the book orientation by exposing students to recurring language patterns. The teacher is also careful to use precise vocabulary as the group engages in a conversation about the upcoming text. The teacher introduces visual or graphophonic cues to students by having them locate a known high-frequency word at the emergent level. Also, she might have the students predict the letter they would expect to find at the beginning of a word. As students gain more control over the visual aspects of print, the teacher directs their attention to predicting letters in initial, final, and medial positions.

The following example demonstrates a book introduction for the Early Level:

The teacher introduces the book Families to students by engaging them in a discussion that draws on their prior knowledge:

  • Teacher: The book that we are going to read today is about families. We can see from the photograph on the cover that the little boy has a small family. How many people are in your family?
  • Harrison: Three, my mom, dad, and me.
  • Ariana: Two, my mom and me.
  • Beth: I have one sister. There are four in my family.
  • Thad: I have a big family. There are six of us.

The teacher continues probing their prior knowledge by asking them where their families live, how their families help them, and their family rules.

After several students share their personal experience stories about their families, the teacher acknowledges their contributions and guides them back to the text.

  • Teacher: This book tells about many kinds of families. It also tells us how important families are and how they help us.

Next, the teacher and students have a short conversation about the text, making predictions based on the photographs and the concepts of the text. When Harrison predicts the word large for big, the teacher accepts his response because it will give the students an opportunity to problem solve and initiate cross-checking behavior.

To incorporate structure, the teacher has anticipated some of the language or specialized vocabulary of the text that students may find difficult, and she uses this language as the text is discussed in a conversational manner.

  • Teacher (pointing to the photograph on page 7): Look at this building. It is an apartment building. Some families live in an apartment.

Finally, the teacher directs students' attention to the visual information in the text and demonstrates how to use a known word to get to an unknown word.

  • Teacher: If you were going to read the word small, what chunk would you see at the end of the word?
  • Students: -all.
  • Teacher (Makes the word all with letter cards, then puts the letter cards sm in front of it.): That's right, if I put the letters sm in front of all, what new word did I make?
  • Students: Small
  • Teacher: Can you think of other words that begin like the word small?
  • Beth: Smoke
  • Thad: Smell

The teacher writes the students' responses on her wipe-off board.

  • Teacher: That's right! When we get to a word we do not know, we can look to see if there is a part of that word we know that can help us, just like the word all in small. Look on page 2 and find the word small. (The teacher wants to put the word back into the context of the story.) Some families are ___?
  • Students: Small
  • Teacher: That's right! Some families are small. Now, let's read the book.

First Reading of the Book

During the first reading, students acquire new knowledge as they interact with the text and the teacher. A critical element of the small-group reading lesson is that each member of the group has a copy of the book to be read. After the book has been introduced, the students have the background for constructing meaning as they read. As the students in the group begin whisper-reading at their own pace, the teacher observes as she “drops in” on individual students. Interruption of the reading is kept to a minimum. The teacher only intervenes when a student appears to be in jeopardy of losing the meaning of the text. The teacher then uses language prompts, according to each student's need, to help students apply problem-solving strategies at points of difficulty. Instructional interactions with the students are varied and determined by the strengths and needs of the individuals. Some of the following prompts may be used to direct the students' attention to a particular cue source (Clay, 1993b; Fountas and Pinnell, 1997; Dorn et al., 1998):

Language Prompts to Help Students Problem-Solve

When They Ignore Meaning or Semantic Cues
  • You said, _______. Does that make sense?
  • What word would make sense there?
  • Look at the picture. What's happening?
When Students Do Not Use Syntactic or Grammatical Structures
  • You said, ________. Does that sound right?
  • Go back and reread and think about what sounds right and looks right.
When Students Do Not Use Graphophonic or Visual Cues
  • Does _______ look right?
  • Look at the first letter. Get your mouth ready.
  • It could be _______, but look at ________. Check to make sure that what you read
  • looks right and makes sense.
  • Is there something about that word you know can help you?
  • Try that again.
  • What can you do to help yourself there?
Language to Link Reading and Writing
  • How would you start that word if you were writing it?
  • Say the word slowly. What sounds can you hear?
  • Can you find the word that has those letters?
Language to Praise or Validate Appropriate Literacy Behaviors
  • I like the way that you made each word match with your finger.
  • You went back and fixed the tricky part, didn't you? Good checking!
  • You were really thinking when you let the word ______, which you know, help you withthe word ______. Great job! That's what good readers do.

Teaching Points After the First Reading

After the first reading of the book, the teacher selects one or two important teaching points that extend the students' learning to a higher level. These points are based on the teacher's careful observations of the students' processing behaviors during the reading. The teacher uses the opportunity to validate strategies and activate strategies the children used or neglected during the first reading.

Example Teaching Points

Emergent Readers

Teaching Point 1 (Validation)

“I noticed that when some of you were reading, you went back and reread when you noticed that your finger didn't match the words you were saying. That's what good readers do.”

Teaching Point 2 (Activation)

“Also, I noticed that when several of you came to the word store, you started to say mall. How did you know that the word was not mall?” The students respond, “Because the word didn't start with an m.” The teacher then reminds the students that when they are reading, they always need to check the first letter to see if their prediction looks right, and makes sense.

Early and Transitional Readers

Teaching Point 1 (Validation)

“I like how, when you got to the word seeds, you took your finger and framed the word see that you know to help you. Good job!”

Teaching Point 2 (Activation)

  • What can you do to help yourself?
  • If you were writing that word, how world you start it?
  • Do you know something about that word to help you?
  • Do you know another word that ends like that?
  • Look at the parts or chunks in the word.
  • Think about the meaning of the word. Is it like any other words that you know?
Reading Behaviors

The following list of behaviors can serve as a guide to help in making sensitive observations about children's processing on text reading.

Levels 1-4 Emergent Readers

(By level 4, these behaviors should be self-regulated, or used independently by the student.)

  • Reads fluently; problem-solves on one or two things only
  • One-to-one matching
  • Directionality, or left to right
  • Return sweep
  • Knows a small core of high-frequency words that can be read fluently
  • Self-monitors, or checks himself, using high-frequency words
  • Rereads independently to confirm or deny predictions
  • Rereads by returning to the beginning of the sentence
  • Rereads at point of difficulty and articulates the first letter of the problem word
  • Checks prediction at point of difficulty with the picture (cross-checking)

Levels 5-8 Emergent/Early Readers

(By level 8, these behaviors should be self-regulated, or used independently by the student)

  • Reads fluently; problem-solves on one or two things only
  • Returns to reread closer to the point of difficulty
  • Begins to search through a difficult word for additional information
  • Fluently uses beginning chunks or parts of words, and ending sounds
  • Meaning and structure guide the reading
  • Integrates meaning, structure, and visual cues; is moving toward automaticity

Levels 9-12 Early Readers

(A self-extending system is developing; by levels 13-16, these behaviors should be self-regulated, or used independently by the student)

  • Reads fluently; problem-solves on one or two things only
  • Problem solves at the point of error
  • Searches through a difficult word and takes words apart using larger units
  • Meaning and structure guide the reading

Levels 13-24 Transitional Readers

(By level 18, these behaviors should be self-regulated, or used independently by the student)

  • Reads fluently; problem-solves on one or two things only
  • Reads expressively
  • Pre-processes, or problem-solves in the head before even making an error
  • Post-processes, or problem-solves in the head on errors
  • Selects books independently
  • Applies flexible strategies with good control of visual patterns
  • Solves words by analogy
  • Acquires rapidly expanding vocabulary and concept knowledge through reading