Photo: Michael Grover, ©Heinemann

Shared Reading in Small Groups: Supporting Struggling Readers

Written by Olivia Wahl

What Is Shared Reading?

I will never forget when I first fell in love with shared reading. I was teaching in San Diego and had the privilege of attending a professional development session with Brenda Parkes, the author of Read It Again! Revisiting Shared Reading (2000). As she stood on a stage rapping (yes . . . literally beatboxing) one of her big books, The Wolf’s Story, I was mesmerized. I could not wait to return to my classroom and apply her methods and thinking around shared reading with my first graders.

That year, all my children were English language learners with a range of seven native languages being spoken in my classroom. My school had an incredible leader who believed in a balanced approach to teaching literacy, and she partnered with a school in New York City, P.S. 116, as a mentor/model for our staff to emulate and learn from. We studied shared reading as an approach to teaching our children how to read literature and informational texts at benchmark levels together as a class based on the grade level and time of year. Children could access and understand the texts because we revisited each one over a series of days (four/five-day cycles) where each day children’s understanding grew richer and more in-depth.

How Can Shared Reading Be Used with Small Groups to Support Struggling Readers?

Shared reading is a bridge between reading aloud to children and/or working with readers in guided reading groups. Readers work to fluently read, reread, and understand benchmark (grade-level) texts during whole-class shared reading cycles. In guided reading small-group sessions, readers navigate texts at their instructional level (just above what they can read by themselves), highlighting the structures and qualities of texts they will soon be ready to read independently.

“When children, particularly those who are not reading at grade level, receive little to no shared reading practice, moving up to the next reading level is often too big a leap for them to make because they have no exposure to the texts they are growing into next. This can cause guided reading groups to plateau as students get stuck in a level.” (Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, Who’s Doing the Work? How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More [2016], pages 57 and 58.)

While I believe shared reading should be a ten- to fifteen-minute aspect of daily whole-class reading instruction, it can be tremendously effective with small groups to support children who are not yet reading at the grade-level benchmark. Teachers can alternate a week of children reading independently and being met with in guided reading and/or strategy groups (at their instructional level or based on need in independent level texts) with a week of children reading independently and being met with in shared reading cycle groups (with a text that is between the benchmark and their instructional level).

When children are struggling with dimensions of fluency and reading significantly below the benchmark for the time of year, often the gap between their instructional levels and the grade-level benchmarks cannot be closed by only using traditional guided reading and strategy lesson small-group approaches alone.

I support many teachers who feel concerned about children that seem “stuck” in their growth as readers even though they are working with them through guided reading and one-on-one conferring using highly engaging texts. We had to try something different and think outside the box. We realized that for these children, more guided reading was not the answer.

Over the last year, teachers and I found hope and almost immediate growth after using shared reading cycles with small groups of these readers. Jack is a little boy who sticks out in my mind who struggled with fluency (phrasing) and deeper interpretive and analytic understanding of his texts. Over each shared reading cycle, through rereading and deepening levels of thinking each day, he became more fluent and aware of how the texts worked that he was growing into, and his confidence grew too.

Within weeks, Jack became more fluent with his phrasing and began to grow, moving from “struggling” as a novice reader for his grade level to closing the gap between his instructional and the benchmark reading expectation. Most importantly, Jack loved to revisit the shared reading texts from small-group work as “warm-up rereading” before diving into his independent reading each day. By doing this, he naturally transferred what he was able to do in small-group shared reading cycles to his independent reading.

Teachers and I have implemented shared reading cycles in small groups based on the model created by Sarah Daunis and Maria Cassiani Iams in Text Savvy: Using a Shared Reading Framework to Build Comprehension. Each small-group session lasts between ten and fifteen minutes, and at the end of five-day cycles, children receive copies of the text to reread independently.

The graphic below (Figure 1) represents an adapted shared reading cycle based on the model created by Sarah and Maria.

Figure 1

Depending on the grade level and time of year, see the two tables below (Figures 2 and 3) for what this may look like with alternating weeks of shared and guided reading (does not include strategy groups instruction):

Figure 2
Figure 3

With my research and collaborative study over the last year, readers that have plateaued when only being met with in guided reading groups have made significant growth by teachers alternating weeks between small-group shared and guided reading. Readers have also shown a revitalized excitement for rereading texts they initially read during shared and guided reading sessions.

I became smitten with shared reading almost twenty years ago when I lived the pure joy it brought around reading into my first-grade classroom. Now, the love affair continues as I see children across the country finding renewed joy in successfully reading texts through shared reading cycles.

Works Cited

Burkins, Jan, and Kim Yaris. 2016. Who’s Doing the Work? How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More. Portland, ME, Stenhouse Publishers.

Daunis, Sarah, and Maria Cassiani Iams. 2007. Text Savvy: Using a Shared Reading Framework to Build Comprehension. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Olivia Wahl

Olivia Wahl has been an educator for over twenty years. She provides PreK-8 staff development in literacy instruction, focusing much of her time in school districts in New York, New Jersey, Indiana, North Carolina and Washington. Olivia has participated in coaching groups with the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City. Olivia has led institutes for teachers nationwide. Institutes have focused on helping teachers establish structures and routines needed for successful launching and sustainability of reader’s and writer’s workshops. She supports teachers with matching students to texts, conferring and using assessments to drive instruction and support responsive teaching. Olivia advocates for planning immersion through various balanced literacy components and reconceptualizing the Gradual Release of Responsibility to enhance student voice and engagement.