The following post is from a colleague who is special education advocate, a trained mediator, and past President of the Illinois Chapter of the International Dyslexia Association. She has a great deal of expertise and experience in the area of reading methodologies and knowledge of needed remediations for reading-based disabilities. She has written this post on the subject of guided reading, at my request, since many schools [mis]represent that Guided Reading is appropriate to teach students struggling with a reading disability. I will post a second part tomorrow relating to research-based methods that are appropriate to address the issues that students with reading disabilities face in the classroom.
If you were an observer in a classroom using Guided Reading strategies, you would see small groups of students reading similar books that are "leveled" for the child's reading ability. The teacher would initiate a pre-reading discussion focused on establishing the purpose for reading. She might discuss predicting (talking about what might happen next in the story), or pre-teach some vocabulary the child might encounter. Perhaps she'll talk about something in the book that the children have no knowledge of or experience with.
During the reading process, the teacher observes the readers in their small group and when necessary, may intervene with a strategy that encourages a reader to use the context of the passage to help decode a word. After reading, she leads a post-reading activity to ensure that the children comprehend the passage.
This works relatively well (though not terrifically) for the 80% of the population that are traditional learners. But what of the 20% that have difficulty decoding, making sense of the printed word, or flat out can't read? Their needs are not being met. What is not occurring during Guided Reading, yet is essential, is instruction in decoding: the ability to read words automatically the way good readers do.
For a child with a language-based learning disability, like dyslexia, decoding strategies in guided reading encourage a guessing habit which is difficult to overcome. When a child encounters an unfamiliar word, he or she is encouraged to look at the first letter, and/or look at the picture, and consider what word "might make sense" in the sentence. Another strategy is called "chunking" and it encourages children to find smaller words within the larger word. The words "moth" and "the" can be seen in the word "mother," but will not facilitate proper pronunciation of the word. Providing decoding strategies when an unfamiliar word is encountered in a passage is considered implicit phonics instruction - these strategies are inefficient at best.
Evidence-based research shows that by teaching language patterns explicitly, students become better decoders, which leads to more automaticity, which in turn fosters comprehension. If a child's eyes pause to recognize each word, reading for meaning is difficult, and fluency will be painfully slow. Comprehension will be poor because the brain receives information in small bits. With explicit phonics instruction the rewards are cumulative: language makes sense, the reading process is no longer so frustrating and exhausting, and children choose to read, expanding their world through books.