Stages 1&2: The Theory

We have spent many 100s of hours observing and trialling what is considered to be 'best practice' in the teaching and learning of reading and this is what we have come up with. 

We base our approach to beginner reading pedagogy on the following two concepts.

1. A Developmental Progression

Michael Pressley's research with beginning readers has resulted in him making the following pronouncement.

“When a reader slowly analyses a word into component sounds and blends them, a great deal of capacity is consumed with little left over for comprehension of the word, let alone understanding the overall meaning of the sentence.”

“Reading Instruction that Works: The Case for Balanced Teaching”  - Michael Pressley Fourth Edition 2015.

This suggests that, for the beginning reader, an attempt to teach the three subsets of reading skills (Decoding, Constructing Meaning, Critical Thinking) all at once from the very beginning is flawed and inevitably leads the beginning reader into cognitive overload. The result is frustration, confusion, and an ongoing sense of not being good enough as the teacher micro manages the learning situation with lots and lots of teachable moments.

To simplify the process and allow the learner to experience success and consolidate learning before tackling something more demanding, we have created our developmental continuum which provides direction for instruction across the school.

This gives the teacher of students in their first 2-3 years of instruction, the mandate to focus on decoding and not clutter up their teaching with any unnecessary attention to Constructing Meaning and Critical Thinking - they are just not ready for this while they are wrestling with cracking the code  (decoding). By all means explore this higher order thinking in Shared Reading and after reading discussions but we think it is important to steer way from this during Guided Reading.

Please be reassured, we know that those first years MUST be about more than phonics. There must be a strong engagement in the message of the text, and we have ways of doing this without asking the reader to construct meaning WHILE they are decoding.

2. An Understanding of Effective Teaching and Learning

Learning to 'crack the code' revolves around a large number of small pieces that must be learnt, memorised and integrated into a word attack strategy - sight words, letter sound relationships, digraphs... Some children intuitively absorb all of these without much instruction. Most need careful scaffolding until the brain finally 'cracks the code'.

We think that the best approach to this specific skill learning (as with most learning) goes like this. The learner needs an Explanation to get them going. Modelling is very motivating because the learner sees what it is they need to do and they get excited about the possibility of doing it!  Guided Practice gets them 'on the bike', actually experiencing what the required learning feels like. And then comes the stage where the learner needs to be allowed to go away and play around with the skill without having someone looking over their shoulder all the time. We call this Independent Practice - a necessary precursor to Fluency and one that is so often overlooked in today's hectic classroom. 

Where Do Our Guided Reading Lessons Fit into That?

Most teachers would say that they do their 'teaching' of reading in their guided reading session.

Our approach is slightly different and our 15 years of experience with this tells us that this is where we get fantastic gains in confidence, excitement and motivation from our readers.

We say that the Explicit Teaching (Explain, Model, Guided Practice) should occur in the your phonics lessons and your Shared Book lessons, and what everyone refers to as 'Guided Reading' lessons (small ability group lessons) should actually be the learners' Independent Practice. This is their opportunity to wrestle with the art of decoding without being micro managed. Our job is to carefully monitor if there is any transfer of the skills we have been teaching into this authentic reading context (today's book) and then make plans to address the needs that become evident.

Our '5 Bits' guided reading routine is not a free for all of random reading practice while the teacher looks on ... far from it. As you can see from the picture above it looks like any guided reading lesson you would expect to see. There is nothing gimmicky about the delivery. In fact when you see it in action you might think there is nothing that you aren't already doing. The difference comes from the way it is done. It provides you with a very tight structure to get you through that daily text in the 10 minutes you have with each group. There is a very careful balance between decoding practise and the reader being drawn into the fun, excitement and wonder of the story (such an important ingredient) while reducing teacher talk and allowing them to do the work.

Students love the routine. They know exactly what is going to happen. They know that on every page there are going to be the same five bits where they can experience SUCCESS.  They feel secure, confident and in charge of their reading. AND they make progress!

FAQs about SharpReading Stages 1 & 2

What text level do I start them on?

Having established that there is reading readiness, the next challenge is to identify their instructional reading level - text that is slightly challenging but, with your support, they will be able to successfully read.

The graphic below shows the SharpReading Stages 1, 2 and 3 and an approximate correlation with a phonics progression, PM Readers ( a well used UK reading system with 30 levels) and  NZ's "Ready to Read" series which uses a colours system to show text book levels. Notice in the first year there is an expectation that students will move through 4 or 5 levels.  This is because the level of difficulty does not change so much in the early books but is vital for early development, success and confidence building.

Establish what level your student is at by testing them with a PM Benchmark test or a Running Record Assessment.  You will need to source these tests yourself and there are a number of video and written explanations on how to deliver these them. For copyright reasons we have not elaborated on them here.   

Once the starting level has been established you can group students of similar ability...and that is where the fun begins. Most classrooms we work in have a wide range of ability and the potential of 8+ groups. You will have to compromise because it is difficult to manage more than six if you are wanting to see each group daily. Aim for a maximum of six or seven in a group with not too much spread within the group.

How often should I take Stage 1&2 Lessons?

The 5 Bits routine was initially designed for New Zealand classrooms where teachers allocate about an hour every day for their reading programme with an expectation that they will read with every child each day. With six reading groups that equates to 10 minutes per group. That means that whatever you do in that 10 minutes has to be VERY efficient for it to have any impact. As you will see, our 5 Bits routine is VERY efficient!

Students can never get too much mileage reading when they are developing their decoding fluency.  The re-reading of books from a browser box (a box of books the students have read in a guided reading session), buddy reading, and reading at home should be built into your reading programme expectations. 

If you can achieve at least three-four guided lessons per week with each child plus other mileage reading activities, then be reassured, you are doing a good job.

What do I do with the rest of the class?

It is absolutely essential that you are not interrupted during guided reading and that your students know how important these lessons are to each group.  If you are constantly being interrupted or having to manage the rest of your class while your students are reading you will not be able to do the very valuable monitoring that your students need. 

There are a lot of programmes that help teachers with managing the rest of the class and a lot of them revolve around quiet, independent literacy activities that can be repeated day after day with changing content.  They often involve rotating the students from activity to activity, usually coinciding with the end of each reading group lesson (every 10 minutes). 

Don't be put off by those who say it is impossible for 5 year olds to work quietly and independently for 10 minute blocks of time.  It can be challenging we know! BUT there is very sound research that highlights the incredible importance of students learning to stay on task and manage themselves, by themselves (in the presence of others) for periods of time. (The Dunedin Study). Think of it as not only a necessity for your sanity while taking reading groups, but also a vital life skill. 

Quiet, independent work in a classroom of 5-7 year olds will not just happen. The activities need to be taught and you need to police quiet focussed work until they get the hang of it. At the beginning of the school year or a new term we recommend you take a week or two to set this up before even attempting reading groups.


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