Tips for Improving Guided Reading Lessons

Guided reading is an important component of a balanced literacy framework.  The other components consist of shared reading, interactive read aloud, book clubs, reading mini-lessons, and independent reading with reading conferences.   Powerful reading instruction should be offered in a variety of settings and provide students with multiple opportunities to engage in high-quality texts.  There should be opportunities for whole class, small group, and individual teaching all aimed at supporting the growth of our readers.

Don Holdaway defines guided reading as “a form of group instruction in which we introduce children to the techniques of reading new or unseen material for personal satisfaction and understanding”  (Fountas & Pinnell, p. 9).  The purpose of guided reading is to develop a strategic processing network that can be applied to other books. 

The following are some of my personal favorite tips, that I have learned along the way, for strengthening guided reading instruction.

Say “no” to every group, every day

It is not necessary to see all of our students for guided reading every day.  Ultimately, we want our students to be independent readers who are able to problem solve on their own.  Our strongest readers are well on their way to this goal and do not need as much small group support.  A typical plan for meeting with guided reading groups could be:

Guided Reading Meeting Schedule

Below grade level readers 5 days per week
On grade level readers 3-4 days per week
Above grade level readers 2-3 days per week

Without the added pressure to plan for and see every group every day we can put more energy into planning effective lessons for a few groups. We can also spend quality time with each group rather than speeding through our guided reading groups to be able to say we got them done.

Lesson plan for 15 minutes or less

If we are spending more than 15 minutes writing a guided reading lesson for a group we may be planning too much.  Fountas and Pinnell say that our plans for a group should be able to fit on a post-it note.  On our plans we should include:

  1. Prioritized teaching point(s).
  2. 1-2 sentences that tell the gist of the story – What is the story about?
  3.   A few words such as new vocabulary that students might not be able to figure out from the context of the story, words that might be new that you want students to take note of or any unusual words that students might not be able to figure out on their own.   If, when planning, we end up with a long list of words to preview that is a pretty good sign that the book might not be a good fit for this group.
  4. A plan for word work based on recent running records and lesson notes.
  5. Prompting language to support the comprehension conversation.

Use your running records to support planning

Running records allow us to know our readers as we closely observe them in the act of reading the new book from the previous lesson.  If we only do our running records because we are told to and do not use them to inform our instruction we will only be guessing at what our students really need.  Two of my favorite quotes regarding planning without using assessments, like running records, are:

“Teaching without assessment is teaching without the child” ~Irene Fountas

“Teaching without assessment is like throwing spaghetti against the wall and hoping something sticks.”  ~Terri Beeler   *if you have not joined the Fountas & Pinnell Literacy Learning Group on Facebook I highly recommend it for some great literacy discussions.

Guided reading provides differentiated instruction.  For each lesson, there will be 1-2 teaching points for the group. Then you will also have a teaching point for each student that might be the same or different from your group focus.  Individual focuses are worked on as you listen in on a portion of each student’s reading.

We have to be flexible with our preplanned teaching points.  As we are progressing through the lesson with a group or listening to an individual student read we may find that we need to change our focus because a more immediate need should be addressed.

Set the timer!

Guided reading lessons should last around 15-20 minutes per group.  Kindergarten lessons will be closer to 10 minutes.  Book introductions should never take longer than it takes for the child to read the book.  A timer really helps us to make sure that we are not talking too much or spending too much time on certain parts of the lesson.  We have to remember that word work should take no more than 2-3 minutes.

Understand the process of book selection

It is important for us to remember that we are teaching the reader, not the text (Fountas & Pinnell, p. 108).  We should choose books that support our teaching point(s) for the group and provide “just the right amount of challenge” (Fountas & Pinnell, p. 10).

When selecting books it helps to choose a series of 3-5 books that build on each other and then adjust as needed.  We want to choose books that are highly engaging and that students can sound mostly fluent on during the first read.  Students should only have a few places where they need to stop/slow down and do reading work.

If students are having to stop frequently, this should be a red flag for us, the book is probably too hard.  If we choose books that are too hard we will cause frustration and reinforce poor reading behaviors.  When books are too hard students will often over-rely on one or two sources of information because it is too difficult to pull everything together.  On the other hand, if books are too easy students will not have the opportunity to problem-solve and extend their network of reading strategies.

Fountas and Pinnell write about the importance of understanding the ten text characteristics in order to deliver meaningful instruction.  Understanding the ten text characteristics helps us to recognize the demands a particular book puts on the reader.

Take good notes

While teaching a lesson, the anecdotal notes we write on our lesson plan helps us to see if we need to adjust our preplanned teaching point(s).  When I am taking notes I write what the student does as well as my prompting language.  Taking note of my prompting language helps me to see if I am being balanced with my prompts and if my prompts are calling to action what I really want the student to do.  At the end of a lesson, we can use our notes (along with running records) to reflect on the lesson and plan future lessons.

Here are some other great guided reading resources.

What Are Some Ways to Effectively Record Anecdotes During Guided Reading?

12 Tips for Powerful Teaching in Guided Reading Lessons

Guided Reading:  The Romance and the Reality

Small group guided reading lessons are more powerful when done in conjunction with the other components of balanced literacy.  Each component of the balanced literacy framework provides varying levels of support.  With a carefully planned introduction, we make the guided reading text accessible for students to read on their own.  Guided reading allows students to apply their processing system and what they have learned from the text the day before to a previously unseen text.  Guided reading is a powerful means of helping students to develop an increasingly complex and effective systems of “strategic actions for processing and understanding written texts” (Fountas & Pinnell, p. 9)  I hope you enjoyed my favorite tips for making your guiding reading groups a more effective learning experience for your students.


Fountas, Irene C. and Pinnell, Gay Su.  Guided Reading:  Responsive Teaching Across the Grades: 2nd edition, Portsmouth:  Heinemann, 2017.  Print.

Fountas, Irene C. and Pinnell, Gay Su.  “Q & A:  Guided Reading,  2nd Edition.”

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