Guided Reading with Adult Learners

I have a learner friend who is ready to read and enjoy trade fiction. She's been burning through the Little House series, unabridged, and may move on to the Green Gable books after.

I'm pleased at this, and celebrating with a post about what I've learned to call "guided reading".

I'm not sure where that label comes from. I learned the concept - if not the wording - in the context of family literacy, maybe in connection with Marie Clay's Reading Recovery program. Later, I worked my way through Fountas and Pinnell's 1996 Guided reading: Good first teaching for all children. By the time we were ready to write our how-to manual for the storytent program, we were making reference to "an adaptation of guided reading, which involves promoting specific reading strategies (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996). We use leveled books that are in children’s instructional ranges (not too hard, not too easy) and try, gently, to match up children and texts."

Contrary to the website claim that "Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell revolutionized classroom teaching with their systematic approach to small-group reading instruction" in the mid-90s, some form of guided reading has been around for 40 years or more.

Already in 1961, E.W. Dolch (of the famous "Dolch words", the 250 most common words in mid-century Grade Three readers) was advocating a guided reading type program known as independent reading. He explains this approach in the essay "Individualized Reading vs. Group Reading", captured in Joe Frost's Issues and innovations in the Teacher of Reading (1967).

Dolch (and others) had come to see that scaffolding means helping learners master tasks of increasing difficulty and complexity. More, it means meeting each learner where they are at, and giving them exactly "the help that he needs just when he needs it" (p. 141). "So 'a book suited to the child' is a basic rule of individualized reading" (p. 145).

This individualization, Dolch believed, was impossible within the lock-step group learning of basal readers and whole-class, blackboard instruction. Yes, learners might receive individual attention from teachers or facilitators during group instruction, but an individualized or specially tailored learning plan was something quite different.

Guided reading or individualized readings supposes the reader and/or their facilitator understands reading levels and has books available for each level. Allow me to share some of the books I use.

With adults who read at very low-level, I use titles from the Grass Roots Readers "Easy Reads" series (link), or the PRACE Pageturners Series (link). The GRP books are all at a conventional* reading level or r.l. of 1, while the PRACE readers reach up through to about a low r.l. of 3.

The Macmillan - Heinemann Guided Readers series (link) also provide r.l. 2 and 3 materials, as well as more difficult texts.

Once a learner feels competent with these books, Signal Hill offers the Janet Dailey romance novels (r.l. 3 or 4), while New Readers Press offers Agnes Hagen's Jack Sloan westerns (r.l. high 3) and Tony Jefferson P.I. novels (r.l. 4). (Sorry about all the fuzzy pictures.)

With support, readers at this level can also work through the Grass Roots Press Biographies series written by Terry Barber. There are, I think, now 24 titles in the series, and most are written at a r.l. of 4 or 5, with people and place names providing most of the reading challenges.

Anyone ready to attempt longer level 5 or 6 material can enjoy the Saddleback Classics novels & workbooks (Saddleback Publishing Inc.). Once again, if you can find them, there are Macmillan - Heinemann - Capstone Publishing books at this level.

Another set of titles I offer learners comes from the Quick Reads novels (link), sometimes available through Grass Roots Press, usually r.l. 5 or 6.

At this level (r.l. 5+), self-help books become accessible. Staying Well, a New Readers Press book written in collaboration with the American Institute for Preventive Medicine, and Living with Stress by Judy Murphy (Grass Roots Press) are two of my learners' favourites.

From there, it is a matter of finding low-level trade fiction. As I noted above, the Little House books sometimes work. Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe mysteries (The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye) score at a high 7 or low 8. I think Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, despite some tough patches, weighs in around the 7 or 8 level.

Nonfiction works may still be difficult for learners at this level - many are absolutely not ready to plough through GED workbooks - but there's no reason for them to avoid trade fiction. The key, now, is to read, read, read. Build vocabulary. Build speed. Build confidence.

Of course, at this point, they don't need a literacy facilitator anymore either. Now they're working on adult up-grading or basic education or GED prep or... something. But they've moved beyond needing help with their "literacy."

Which can, sometimes, lead to that last, most difficult lesson: you don't need me anymore.


Note: I use reading level (r.l.) to refer to the difficulty level scored on a scale between 1 and (say) 15. It's often said that newspapers are written at a r.l. of 9 (though I don't believe this), and that adults wanting to pass the GED tests need to be able to read materials at a r.l. of 10.

This scale is distinct from the I.A.L.S. and similar literacy assessments which score on a 1 through 5 scale. On the I.A.L.S. anyone reading r.l. 1, 2, 3 or 4 materials is at Level One, while the ability to read r.l. 5, 6, 7 or 8 materials puts you at Level Two. Thus, when people referencing international studies talk about the number of adults in "the lowest two levels", they mean adults who would have difficulty with high school materials (r.l. 9+).

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