How to Switch to Whole-Class Guided Reading

Three years ago, we ditched the carousel and transitioned to whole-class guided reading. I’ve never looked back.

Hello 👋 parts of this blog are now outdated. Please see my latest blog about our new approach to reading comprehension:

My Deputy recently asked if I would outline our approach to whole-class guided reading for a neighbouring school who are making the leap. It stirred some troubling memories of the way we used to do things; I can honestly say that for our school, the traditional carousel was the biggest single barrier to progress in reading.

That’s not to say that a carousel cannot be done well or made meaningful. I’m sure it can. I will leave the pitfalls of traditional guided reading for another post — you will know deep down if it is accelerating progress in your school or not.

How we do it:

One Book (or Text) Per Child

This is a non-negotiable. We tinkered with one between three, then one between two; it didn’t work. Being able to position and re-position a text while reading is something that we as adults take for granted. Our aim is to have each child reading the same word at the same time — one book/text per child allows for maximum absorption and minimum distraction. Yes, if you can’t afford the books, it can sometimes mean photocopying (8 pages will fit comfortably on a 2-sided A3 sheet).

Rulers Ready

Luckily I had seen another school do this before we transitioned and it really works. Each child uses a ruler to read line by line. It gives the teacher an instant snapshot of who is on task and who has drifted off. The children know that the teacher may ask them to take over at any point, and they don’t want to be caught napping. If someone does momentarily lose concentration, a quick glance at their partner’s ruler means they can get back up to speed quickly.

Length vs. Stretch

This can be a difficult balance. The trick is to find books which don’t take 6 months to finish but do stretch the children in terms of vocabulary and inference. I’ll be putting a list together soon of books which have worked well, however 120–150 pages is a good rule of thumb.

Keep SEND children in class

I’ll get on to how we structure our sessions later in the post, but let me just state one important principle now: involve all SEND children in every session, whether they can read the text independently or not. This is the group that has made the most progress through whole-class reading. More on the ‘how’ in a moment.

Approximately One Intervention Per Paragraph

This is a very rough guide, but I just wanted to emphasise the importance of constant modelling and questioning, as well as ‘reading between the lines’. I also play ‘guess the question’ e.g. “I have written an inference question about this paragraph on the next slide. Can anybody guess what it is?” The children write down their questions and get a point if they have the same question as me.

How We Structure Whole-Class Guided Reading Lessons:

Think of the lesson (and the chapter/extract) in 4 parts:

PART 1: Teacher reads to class, modelling expression and inference

This is absolutely crucial. You are the magic carpet. As you begin to read, the children are transported to the scene — every detail of the setting, every nuance in the dialogue is amplified and made real in their minds. Once you have dropped them off in the thick of the action, they can slowly begin to take the reins.

Activity (a) As you read, get the children to hoover up every last piece of new vocabulary. Stop and give children time to write down these words in their guided reading books. We use a ‘word web’ format so children can connect the new words to words they already know when necessary. Quiz the children on these words at the beginning of the next day’s lesson (and at every other opportunity).

Which other words have the same prefix? What connects these words?

Activity (b) 60 second retrieval quiz. I put a 60 minute timer on the board and flash through a series of multiple choice questions on the board. The time-pressure means that children remain incredibly focussed and it gives me a valuable opportunity to do some formative assessment.

PART 2: Children begin to take over.

Get individual children to take over the reading out loud. This is a good opportunity to check in with your ‘middle’ attainers and get them to practise nuanced expression, as well as making sure that key children are keeping up.

“Tariq, read that line again, but this time really convince us that your life is on the line.”

Activity (c) Quick-fire round of ‘Find and Copy’. Approximately 5 questions in 5 minutes — children record answers in their books.

“Find and copy one word from the 3rd paragraph which tells us that Maria is beginning to have second thoughts about her decision to follow Jim into the woods.”

PART 3: Children read independently.

Ask children to read the next section independently. Be clear about where they need to start and where they need to finish. Have an ‘if you finish early…’ activity ready too.

This is the part that makes people nervous about whole-class guided reading, for the obvious reason that there are children in the room who can’t access the text independently. You may have other workarounds, but we make sure that these children are sitting next to someone who can read the text fluently.

They quietly read the rest of the chapter to their partner, keeping it as close to a whisper as possible. Remarkably, this doesn’t seem to distract the other children at all, and in some cases means that they become even more absorbed in the text in order to block out the background noise (as anyone who has ever read on a bus knows how to do).

PART 4: Differentiated questions

Children spend the final 15 minutes (each session lasts about 40–45 minutes) answering questions in their guided reading books. These can be differentiated for SEND children to address specific skill gaps. However, don’t differentiate for the sake of differentiation. Remember… they will all be sitting the same paper in Year 6!


Don’t your SEND children struggle?

Many teachers assume that their SEN children will not be able to participate in whole-class guided reading lessons. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to keep them in the lesson, on the same text as everyone else. I promise that you will be surprised.

No two children will experience the text in the same way, and there is no doubt that SEND children will find it very challenging. Mine also find school trips challenging, however I don’t know many teachers who would leave them at school simply because they might not fully take in every word of the museum workshop.

But what if they’re not fluent?

There are two important considerations here:

  1. Whole-class guided reading means that children are reading text 5 days a week. Before we switched to this model, our SEND children read properly once a week, then wasted a lot of time on activities such as character profiles or pointless diary entries, which did nothing to make them fluent readers. By including them in whole-class reading lessons, we literally quintupled the time they spend trying to decode text.
  2. Whole-class reading is not a substitute for teaching children how to decode fluently. The only way that it can be meaningful for children who cannot decode is in addition to fluency sessions, not instead of. We make sure that every single child who cannot fluently decode age-appropriate texts spends at least 20 minutes a day working solely on fluency. This either takes place during assembly or in the afternoons. Some teachers also use Friday’s lesson to set independent questions for the rest of the class while they take a group to work on decoding and fluency strategies such as repeated reading or catch up phonics programs.

How do you fit it in?

The structure that I outlined above is the ideal, but in reality we often mix and match some of the activities and strategies listed. However, most of our lessons do follow this structure, and each session lasts between 40–45 minutes.

This means that our writing lessons are shorter than they used to be. However, reading is the key that unlocks EVERYTHING else in literacy. I promise you…double the time that your children spend reading, and you will absolutely reap what you sow.

Spelling will improve, grammar will improve and composition will fly through the roof as the children double their exposure to complex sentences and descriptive language.

When do you start whole-class reading lessons?

From Year 2 onwards.

I hope that helps. If anyone would like to talk further about the nitty gritty of how to make the transition away from the traditional carousel, please get in touch!

Twitter: @solomon_teach