Updated: May 11, 2020
It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.
~Sir Edmund Hillary
Not too long ago, I had been hired to visit an amazing school working on transitioning their literacy framework, resources, practices and so forth. I had the privilege to be able to do on-site observations and coaching with phenomenal teachers who flung their doors open wanting to grow in their craft. Their motto, “Why settle for good when you can be the best?” My reaction? Let's do this!
So in a day's work, I walked into a classroom to do a quick observation and coaching session with a fantastic teacher during her literacy block. She was trying out some ideas that I had shared with her a few months prior. Through supportive research, praxis, and commitment, we both saw MANY wonderful things going on; but most importantly we saw kiddos being page turners, devouring the words that stirred up their thinking and imaginations, AND they were LOVING it!
This 2nd-year teacher had managed to get these kiddos to actually want to pick up a book, want to read the book, want to read more about the topic from the book, and would complain if they had to...wait for this...stop reading books! Did I mention that they actually liked reading? Every. Single. Kiddo.
As I was leaving her room and heading out the building, I had a 3rd grade teacher who ran out of her room (stay calm-it was her planning time 😁) yelling, "Wait, wait, wait! You can’t leave! I just have to pick your brain-it will only take a couple of minutes.”
Her brain picking question? In her own words, “With all the debate of leveled readers, interventions, do strategies, don’t do strategies just let kids read what they want to read, you’re wrong, I’m right, etc. what do I do about Guided Reading in my room? I’m so confused!”
In a secret way, I was glad she was because I was beyond excited to have this “literacy geek talk” with her! What a GREAT TOPIC to discuss and what a treat for me I thought!
I immediately asked when she was free so that we could have our collegial brain picking chat.
“Right now! I’m free right now!”
Now, one thing I often share with my younger siblings who are also educators, that I also share with my fellow colleagues, is to not be distracted by the noise in our field.
It is so easy to lose focus, trying to figure out the hidden agendas behind the politics and opinions of others. It’s easy to lose focus when caught up in the ongoing debates concerning the constant pendulum swing in literacy. It's easy to lose focus when placing your attention and time on witnessing people swinging at each other while avoiding addressing the elephant in the room. It’s also easy to lose focus when succumbing to the status quo on social media when it’s used as a platform for painting facades that lead to some folks, unfortunately, losing sight of what we do and why we do it.
Remember, successful people stay focused.
Why bring that up? Well, when the opportunity presents itself to just focus on the most important thing- how do we support our kiddos in reading- then I’m all about buffering out the noise and focusing on discussions that revolve around best practices, what research supports, and what we see with our own two eyes (aka praxis).
So when this progressive thinking 3rd grade teacher wanted to have a focused conversation on guided literacy support, I started by taking out my cellphone to share with her one of my favorite videos of my son’s indoor rock-climbing attempt when he was younger.
Wait? What does indoor rock-climbing have to do with her question about Guided Reading you ask? Nothing and everything! (Pull up a chair and join me as we make connections together!)
You see, Guided Reading is like indoor rock-climbing.
When my son first tried rock-climbing, he managed to hang on to one rock and was able to take ONE step before falling. I thought, "this can't be that hard". I later came to find out with my own attempt at rock-climbing that it wasn't easy-that's for sure!
But it only took my son a few attempts with his coach (aka his dad) right by his side, teaching him what to do and how to do it, that he was able to grasp the concept. He went from barely hanging onto one rock for dear life, to learning how to move along several rocks strategically. Sure he fell a few times, but he realized rather quickly that he had two choices: 1-to quit or 2-to keep on keepin' on.
He also realized that even if he fell, he had a few things working in his favor. He had a harness that would catch him, his father that would grab him at the first sight of a slip, and his mother who would somehow manage to capture in slow-motion the dramatic fall on video (to prove a point eventually) and miraculously still be able to break his fall. So he had “safety nets” all around him. On top of that, he had people rooting for him, reassuring him that he could do this.
After a few visits, a few scrapes, a few falls, a few embarrassing moments of his own mother running across yelling, “OMG- are you okay?” only to latch him onto the harness to get him up again before answering the question, AJ finally figured it out. He just needed to be equipped with the right tools, figure out how to be strategic, had to keep on practicing, and had to learn how to cope with failed attempts while turning those attempts into reasons for trying. Mindset and persistence goes a long way!
Look at him go! Click the video to see for yourself.
AJ’s experience serves as a reminder that we are always attempting to climb up the "literacy wall" by looking for certain "steps" to help us with the climb. The adventure and excitement of getting to the top are what drives us to finish that climb!
Sure we may fall a few times along the way, but the real learning comes from when we pick ourselves up and keep on trying till we figure it out. We also know that with practice paired with the right strategies, we'll eventually reach the top in our own time. Let me repeat, in our own time. Not on your time, their own time.
So what is guided support in literacy and what should it look like?
Guided support is delivered through a combination of what great researchers and teachers have shared in the past. It includes the integration of the 5 pillars of reading, holding meaningful discussions, having accountable talks, ensuring opportunities to integrate writing, word study/vocabulary building, tying in skills and strategies, technology, inquiry, but most importantly, learning how to read in a MEANINGFUL, ENGAGING, and yes, in a FUN way!
In order for any small group in literacy to be successful, you have to as an educator, do a couple of things to get to the “fun”. You have to build relationships between literacy and yourself, build relationships between your students and yourself, and along with relationship building, you have to teach students how to build a relationship with literacy themselves.
Then the fun begins!
Now, I’m not saying relationship building is a piece of cake. I’ve had my share of working with readers who are still trying to grapple with this thing called "reading" and often come to me already discouraged and aware that they lag behind their fellow readers. And when being introduced as, "Dr. G.G., the Reading Specialist"...well let's just say it's evident that I have my work cut out when my seven year olds meet me for the first time and have a side conversation that often ends with, "How is she going to fix our problems with reading if she isn't even a real doctor?" (shaking my head and smiling at the same time).
But my goal for all of my kiddos that I work with is simple- I want them to LOVE the fact that they can read and that they LOVE reading what they read. Whether it be fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, comics, online articles or the Chick-Fil-A menu-whatever it is, students NEED to leave our classrooms feeling that they are equipped to pick up a piece of literature on their own and experience the wonders of reading.
In order to get to this point, practicing is crucial. In comes guided support and independent reading with conferring sessions. Now, independent reading, while great in practice and needed for kids to grow in multiple areas in literacy, can also be a detrimental period of time if students are not equipped with the proper tools or side coaching. So we have be cautious of how we support our readers when they are with us, and when they are not.
Think of it this way, do you become better at something when you practice it incorrectly? Yes you do. You become better at doing it wrong. And when you realize it’s wrong, think about the time lost, and the time it will take to unlearn and relearn this habit correctly.
One might say, kids can learn from reading pictures during independent reading with any text or complexity of a text. I agree. Others might say, kids can learn from using context clues during independent reading with any text or complexity of a text. I agree. Many would argue that independent reading with choice of any text or complexity of a text is important to keep kids motivated. I agree. In fact, I’ll probably with almost everything regarding to the importance of independent reading.
But, I’ve also seen kids who want to know how to read something that they chose and just aren’t there...yet.
So with that said, guided support in literacy has to coincide with meeting kiddos where they are at and getting them to that place of where you both know they want to be.
Guided support in literacy should therefore, be tailored, customized, and built on what EVERY child in a class NEEDS and WANTS. In my Reading Specialist days, this included all of my 85 kiddos, K-5 who loved this concept.
What about levels?
Well, levels were simply a tool for myself and my students to use if needed. Until mass productions of existing and ongoing publishing of leveled books/materials (both print and online) from reputable companies and authors disappear, we take information concerning levels as an opportunity to educate ourselves on our students and where we are at in understanding the implications of literacy behaviors as literacy educators. So, levels in a nutshell, are simply a reference tool-nothing more.
“Leveling up” doesn't necessarily have to translate to moving up levels; it can also translate to having goals established on a monthly basis on reading behaviors, expressing in-depth thoughts in literacy journals (we LOVED using Richard Allington's Giggles, Goosebumps & Tears concept) and using tools or multiple strategies if and when needed to demonstrate growth as a reader.
I often found that while manuals and checklists were easy and quick to use, reading behaviors, observations and student input (what they shared with me as a reader to another reader), were what informed instructional decisions best.
I also found that when my own students understood that guided support in literacy simply meant having a personal trainer in literacy, they actually looked forward to our sessions together. They knew that I was going to coach them along the way, carefully giving them strategic feedback, empowering them with tools, and building up their confidence to the point of which they would not be afraid to try, fail and try again. In fact, after a certain point, they were going to want to take risks guaranteed! Why? Because they knew that no matter what, they were going to have a solid safety net (me) throughout this experience.
Asides from learning how to read, students also learned how to extend this experience as an invitation to others. After all, everyone has a right to read.
(Check out ILA's Children's Rights to Read here).
So through "auditioning" trials and landing a "recording deal"as being official readers for audio books, students integrated the use of QR codes and other apps to provide all students the opportunity to experience the splendor of all books. No restrictions.
This, I found, not only empowered students as readers but reflected the nature of an environment that supported equity in accessing literature.
Transitioning from becoming readers and writers to becoming advocates of reading and writing is ultimately the goal for our students during guided support. What does this mean? Well, it means that selection of books in bookshelves are made in partnership with your students; it means that while the state and those who write curriculum guide the direction in what students should learn, that we also allow a space for our students to share what it is that they want to learn; and last it means that the learning and teaching is done collaboratively between both you and your students.
Inquiry is at the sole of learning, constructivism is at the heart of growing, and equity to accessing literacy is simply a non-negotiable.
Final casual thoughts-
Remember that as educators, we all have the privilege to witness a climb. WE get to do that!
Also remember that guided support in literacy is two-fold. It is not only about coaching a child in becoming literate, but opening their literary hearts to falling in love with literacy and sharing all that it has to offer with others.
There’s no secret. No magic bullet. No specific algorithm that is driven by some formulaic approach correlated to some fixed all-in-one program that can do this. It simply comes down to you and your kiddos.
Exemplary teachers suggest that teaching cannot be packaged. Exemplary teaching is responsive to children's needs not regurgitation of a common script.
So build those relationships with your kiddos and literacy! Build on learning about one another; learning about one's self as a reader/literacy teacher; and learning from one another through a literacy partnership! Grow your craft with books and conversations! And know, that in the end, the heights your reach together are what matter most!
Here's to the climb.
Your #1 fan,
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