“Make sure students are spending time engaged in small group learning.” 

“Differentiate instruction so all students are supported to meet grade level standards.”

When I started teaching, these were the loudest messages I heard in my training program and professional development sessions. These two practices, I learned, would be the key to ensuring that my first graders made significant progress, and ended the year meeting reading benchmarks. I was coached to use the guided reading model to ensure my students were reading leveled texts at their instructional level. So, I would plan guided reading lessons that included a thorough book introduction, time for my students to read the book, a sight word introduction and a few minutes of word work at the end. I spent a lot of time prompting my students to solve for words they struggled with. “What’s the first sound?” “What would make sense?” I was praised by administrators for implementing guided reading with fidelity, but I could not let go of a nagging truth playing out in my classroom. It seemed every year, the students who came to first grade reading on grade level made a lot of progress, ending the year far above the grade level standards. The students who came to my classroom needing the most help, though, continued to struggle.

The Limits of Guided Reading

As I reflected on the realities of the reading data in my classroom, I realized that all of the training and professional development about guided reading practices was not helping me plan and execute effective small group instruction for emerging readers. When planning instruction for my most emerging groups of readers, I spent time planning elaborate book introductions to “prepare” my readers to read the leveled readers I selected for them. This was necessary because I knew there were many words, probably one on every page, that my students did not know how to decode. The more I learned about the science of reading and Scarborough’s Reading Rope, the more I realized that my students were not making progress because my small group lessons were not providing them with the explicit instruction and practice they needed in phonemic awareness nor was it helping them make the connection between these skills and text reading. Small group instruction is only as effective as the instruction we are providing students, and relying on guided reading practices was missing the mark. I needed to rethink several key aspects of my small group literacy practice: how I was grouping my readers and what skills were modeled and reinforced during the lessons.

Beyond Leveled Groupings

First, instead of grouping my students based on their TRC score or “reading level,” I decided to expand my data analysis to understand my readers in a more holistic way. I paid more attention to subtests in reading fluency. I began to look more closely at their Phonemic Segmentation Fluency scores and realized that many of my readers needed explicit support in phonemic awareness, and that a lot of the errors I was seeing suggested my students needed support with phonological processing in order to decode words accurately when reading. In fact, many students I would have previously considered proficient readers were scoring far below benchmark on phonemic awareness tasks. As I listened to them read and noticed their reading behaviors, it became clear the old way of prompting students to look at a few clues and guess had become habits these readers were relying on.  Research has shown that students who struggle with decoding face the biggest reading challenges in upper elementary grades, when they need to be able to fluently decode multisyllabic words in order to complete reading comprehension tasks (Toste et al., 2016). Moreover, these struggling readers were often relying on single letters or partial syllables (Shefelbine & Calhoun, 1991, as cited in Toste et al., 2016). This is exactly what I saw happening in my classroom. My students weren’t going to be able to guess successfully forever.


This new lens for analyzing reading data helped me rethink the way I grouped students for instruction. By making small groups of students working on similar phonemic awareness skills, I was able to use small group instructional time for more than guided reading. I implemented a structured literacy approach. The structured literacy approach typically follows a sequential, systematic lesson plan, such as Duke and Mesmer’s Letter Lessons and First Words (2019) or The Reading League’s Six Step Lesson Plan.  Each lesson began with systemic, differentiated phonemic awareness practice. Then, we began to make connections between the sound and syllable work we did orally to print. We used  sound boxes, sound cards and other mapping tools to help students visualize the sound work we were practicing. Then, we would spend time applying these skills to texts. Instead of relying on leveled readers like I did when implementing a traditional guided reading lesson, I selected decodable texts that provided ample practice opportunities for students to use the sound skills they were developing to read.

Real Reading

Another major shift in my practice came when I planned how to respond to student errors while reading. When relying on traditional guided reading practices, I used the meaning-syntax-visual (MSV) cueing system, which often resulted in my students guessing at words. I could see the culmination of this type of instruction influencing the habits of my early readers. Often, when arriving at an unknown word, students with low phonemic proficiency would be guessing, seemingly calling out random words that maybe had a few letters in common with the one they were trying to read. This was not the work I wanted them to be doing because I wanted them to rely on the phoneme and syllable skills we were building to read. I needed to find ways to encourage them to read through the word using letters and sound clusters they knew. Using letter tiles and sound boxes helped students read each sound and blend together to successfully decode. Encouraging students to really read, though, turned out to take much longer than encouraging them to guess based on clues. Often, I had to stop and use multiple approaches to help students solve a word. Usually, I’d start by marking up the word within the texts, color coding or underlining sounds or syllables I thought the student might be able to break down and blend.

If that didn’t work, I’d write the word on a white board or build it with letter tiles. Sometimes, I’d have to write or build sound by sound to help students isolate and blend all the phonemes in a word. Prompting students with the science of reading in mind, I was learning, was an investment in the long game. It wasn’t the quickest way to get students through a text when they were at the small group table, but that wasn’t what was important. Prompting students to demonstrate phonemic proficiency and decode words accurately, instead of looking at clues and guessing, took a lot more work on the part of both student and teacher. But, students were engaged with real reading, practicing decoding skills that research shows are critical for reading proficiency (EAB, 2019, p. 26).



EAB. (2019). Narrowing the Third Grade Reading Gap: Embracing the Science of Reading. http://www2.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/index.html

Mesmer, H. A. E. (2019). Letter lessons and first words: Phonics foundations that work. Heinemann.

Toste, J. R., Williams, K. J., & Capin, P. (2016). Reading big words: Instructional practices to promote multisyllabic word reading fluency. Intervention in School and Clinic. Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/1053451216676797


Emily Glassman is a reading interventionist for kindergarteners and first graders in DC Public Schools. Prior to that, she taught first grade for eight years. She holds a master’s degree in educational leadership and policy from American University. She is currently reading The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah and Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.