Teaching our Emergent Readers: Guidance From Carolyn Helmers & Susan Vincent

First, I will start out by saying that I had Intentional From the Start: Guiding Emergent Readers in Small Groups on my wish list for a while. After expressing my jealousy to a friend who received a copy from her employer, she generously bought me a copy for my birthday (Thanks, again, Gen!).

I have read Intentional From the Start from cover to cover twice and this book does not disappoint. Carolyn and Susan give the important work of teaching our earliest readers the attention that it deserves. You can preview the book here and there is also a study guide available, which I really appreciate because I always learn better when learning alongside others.

Reading is a Complex Process

I really appreciate how the book begins with addressing the fundamentals of teaching reading. Carolyn and Susan address the complex nature of reading, the fascinating changes that happen in the brain when children are learning, and the importance of teaching the whole brain. The authors explain the impact of emotions on learning by describing the physical reactions of the brain and how teachers can “set the stage” for how their students feel about literacy.

Literacy Centers

Susan and Carolyn provide a brief description of what the other students are doing at their literacy centers while the teacher is teaching guided reading groups. I like that Susan and Carolyn recognize that literacy centers may look different from year to year depending on the group of students. I especially love that the authors have created an online resource for teachers providing suggestion for literacy centers that reinforce the learning of different emergent reading behaviors.

The purpose of literacy centers is for children to engage in literacy activities that are interesting and fun, while providing the practice they need to solidify what they are learning at the small group reading table (p. 1, ch.3 online resource).

Guided Reading

Text Levels

Susan and Carolyn start clearly explain the purpose of using leveled texts during small group instruction. The authors go into detail about how to effectively choose books for children that they will allow them to be successful readers. There is a warning about the dangers of going “level crazy” and a reminder that leveled books are to be used as a scaffolding tool.

Susan and Carolyn provide text examples so that teachers can examine the differences not only between levels but also within the same level. It is important that teachers know their readers and the demands of the text that they are putting in front of them.

“To make the perfect instructional match, teachers need an expert understanding of three things: literacy acquisition theory, the children in their classroom, and the books on their shelves (p. 13).”

Reading Behaviors

Susan and Carolyn emphasize that teachers should be less focused on the letter levels and more focused on the behaviors and what books will help support students in learning those behaviors. Teachers have to know how young children learn, how literacy develops, what behaviors to look for and how they change over time. Therefore, the guided reading sections are not broken up by levels but rather by the behaviors students will learn: learning where to look, learning how to look at print, learning how to monitor and solve, and learning how to integrate information in print.


Teachers are reminded to always begin with assessing their students, analyzing the data and then using the data to plan next instructional moves. Each guided reading section contains the components of a guided reading lesson, which include reading (familiar and new), writing, high frequency words, letter work and word study. The authors include a detailed description of each component. Carolyn and Susan stress the importance of teaching the link between reading and writing. I love that each section provides an example lesson in which the teacher and student interactions are provided as well as the rationale for each teacher move.

Each of the guided reading sections include a chart about what the child knows and controls and what the child is ready to learn. I think these charts can help teachers have a better understanding about the progression of learning of our earliest readers.

The book includes a reminder to teachers that our earliest readers do not need to know a certain number of letters, letter sounds, or words to move into a level A text. It is important that teachers provide students with just the right amount of support needed to move them from pre-A text to Level A/B as quick as possible. The authors explain what behaviors are important for teachers to look for which is why it is important to take good notes during guided reading lessons.

Carolyn and Susan provide teachers with support on how to plan a strong book introduction and provide example lessons. Examples of scaffolded prompting to support the learning of a variety of behaviors are also included.

Anybody who has taught emergent readers knows the struggle that some students have transitioning from very patterned level A/B texts to less patterned level C texts. That’s why I love that Susan and Carolyn provide a lesson format that helps to scaffold the move to less patterned text.

Final thoughts

To sum it up, I honestly love everything about this book. This book will keep me grounded in the “why” behind the decisions that I make, help me to stay focused on the behaviors I am teaching, and remind me about the importance of choosing books that would best support those behaviors rather than simply looking at levels. Susan and Carolyn also emphasize that teachers need to be flexible because we know our children best and we need to be responsive to them and we also know what will work best in our own classrooms.

“As the expert on your children, you will decide what activity or combination of elements will best meet the needs of your particular group on any particular day (p. 109).”

Intentional From the Start: Guiding Readers in Small Groups is a great resource for classroom teachers, reading interventionists, or anybody who works with emergent readers. Susan and Carolyn support teachers with providing attention to securing letter knowledge and word learning while keeping the focus on meaning during purposeful reading and writing. I plan to keep this book at arms length to use as a resource while working with my youngest readers.

Want to read more?

Here are some links to other resources if you would like to read more about Intentional From the Start: Guiding Emergent Readers in Small Groups:

#G2great Twitter Chat in Wakelet

Literacy Lenses Blog post written by Mary Howard following the #G2great Twitter Chat

Dr. Sam Bommarito includes an interview with the authors on his blog

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