Too Often, Guided Reading Is Faux Differentiation


So, you’ve been told you have to differentiate instruction in your classroom. And you want to differentiate, because every education self-help book you’ve read instructs you to differentiate.

If you’re anything like me when I was an elementary teacher, you’ve turned to guided reading as your go-to for differentiation. Bonus: your education self-help books also mention guided reading. Lots and lots of guided reading. Winning!

You pull out your leveled reading data. Organize your students in reading level-based groups. Color code the groups. Name them something cute. Raid the school bookroom hoping you can find enough sets of books at the levels you need. Adjust your groups when you can’t find enough of the books you need. Draw the perfect anchor chart. Scour Pinterest for a fun note-taking template. You intend to give each group a just-right text – while doing similar activities, and asking similar comprehension questions, across groups.  

It feels like you are on your way to a more tailored experience for each learner. You are about to crush differentiation.

There’s just one problem: children whose reading levels look the same often need very different things. And that’s where guided reading can miss the mark: too often, it’s faux differentiation.

That’s right. While it may feel like a solid approach to differentiation, grouping kids by reading level may not produce the results you are hoping for in terms of students’ literacy achievement.  

For starters, grouping kids by reading level doesn’t have the research base that you may think it does. Timothy Shanahan has written at length about the dearth of evidence supporting the practice of matching kids to text levels; he notes that “after 70 years there still isn’t any research supporting the idea of matching kids to books (beyond grade 1).” Also, the practice of grouping kids by reading level is an equity issue: low level readers can go the entire year without ever engaging with a grade-appropriate complex text. In practice, kids at the bottom often languish at the bottom, and achievement gaps widen.

I understand the lure of guided reading as a routine for small group instruction, because small group work is hailed by experts as a research-based practice. Yet the goal of small group time is that students receive just-right instruction. In guided reading, students arrive to a small group table with a variety of needs… a few can’t decode, a few struggle with text structure, most need help with vocabulary, many need comprehension support… yet even comprehension support can mean so many things! Well-meaning teachers provide a bit of this and a bit of that for each group. The result: group work that isn’t focused or rich enough.

Having seen this issue in classroom after classroom, I was thrilled to discover a simple yet powerful approach to differentiation based on skills, built into the free  Bookworms K–5 Reading and Writing curriculum.

The Bookworms curriculum was tailor-built for differentiation based on foundational skills gaps, when that is what a child needs – or on wide reading practices, for students with strong foundational skills.

Bookworms arms teachers with simple formative assessments to monitor progress every three weeks, a very easy grouping protocol, and targeted lessons. Students are grouped into one of four groups based the on formative assessments. Groups targeting foundational skills have complete lesson materials, which teachers use to tackle the skill gap head-on. At the end of 3 weeks, progress-monitoring assessments help teachers know whether to reteach the lessons, move to the next set of lessons, or regroup their students.  The goal is to move students beyond their skill deficits as quickly as possible.

Essentially, students receive Tier 2 intervention right when they need it -- within the daily literacy block! Bookworms tees this up for teachers, who can truly crush differentiation for all of their students, every day.

Unsurprisingly, this targeted instructional approach accelerates foundational skill development for all students in a groundbreaking way.

Ditching faux differentiation in favor of targeted, diagnostically-driven instruction has been a game-changer for the districts using Bookworms. They’ve seen chart-topping gains in their PARCC, SBAC, and other state assessments.

While some teachers are guided reading superfans, I think this is because they haven’t had simple tools for skill-based differentiation. I expect that Bookworms will open many eyes to the power of this practice! Also, the student outcomes speak for themselves, and I’ve never met a teacher who doesn’t love seeing reading achievement soar in her classroom.

Also, the cute group names are still totally in-bounds.


Jessica Reid Sliwerski, CEO of Open Up Resources,  is a former elementary school teacher, literacy coach, and assistant principal. For more information about Bookworms K–5 Reading and Writing, please contact our team.