Whole Group Reading Done Right

Whole Group Reading is an integral part to my reading block in my first grade classroom - just like it was an integral part of my reading block in my third grade and sixth grade classrooms.

And it should be a part of yours too.

What is Whole Group Reading?

Whole group reading is a teacher read aloud that provides students an opportunity to develop, simultaneously, their listening comprehension skills along with the comprehension strategies and oral language development in a guided format with their teacher.

Much like during guided reading in your teacher center where students are working with you in a guided way on their decoding skills, students in whole group reading are working with you in a guided way to develop their comprehension skills.

 What is not Whole Group Reading?
  • Not a teacher read aloud that is passive for the students as a time for relaxation.
  • Text is not in hand for students.
  • Text is not at reading ability.

Now that we've defined what Whole Group Reading is, let's discuss why you should devote 20 minutes to whole group reading within your precious reading block.

"Decoding is not comprehension."

Whole Group Reading is working on the listening comprehension skills of the learner. Listening comprehension is the bedrock of reading. Even students who decode well can have difficulties with comprehension of their own reading if their listening comprehension skills are low. (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover & Gough, 1990). Many times we hear a student decoding well and assume they are comprehending. However research shows that these students are often caught around the fourth grade when it becomes more difficult to address reading deficiencies. But let's be very clear: decoding is NOT comprehension.

"Listening comprehension usually outpaces reading ability by two to three years."

Early reading comprehension is limited by decoding so text choice for early readers is far below typical listening and oral language comprehension. Listening comprehension usually outpaces reading ability by 2-3 years (Carlisle & Rice, 2002). It evens out at about eighth grade where listening comprehension and reading ability begin to match up. (Which is why we should be incorporating whole group reading up through middle school!) (Catts, Hogan, and Adlof, 2006)

"Comprehension is an integration of schema and the properties of the text."

Comprehension requires students to for a mental model that integrates a story's properties and one's schema into one cohesive piece. (Klintsch & Klintsch, 2005). Reading comprehension adds in the mental load of decoding the text on top of the formation of the mental model required of comprehension. Without the mental load of decoding during Whole Group Reading, students can practice the comprehension skills before applying them to texts they are decoding independently.

"Applying the comprehension skills while learning to decode is difficult."

When students are learning to decode, applying the comprehension skills is difficult as the mental load of decoding takes the forefront. Allowing students to practice comprehension without the load of decoding gives them the opportunity to learn and focus on applying the comprehension strategies to text through the guidance of their teacher when done correctly.

"Through listening to rich and varied texts, students are exposed to a greater level of vocabulary than they would be through everyday conversation."

Whole group Reading has a positive impact on vocabulary acquisition as well. Weak vocabulary impedes comprehension. Some have implemented targeted, isolated vocabulary instruction, but this type of instruction has only shown to have an impact on children with reading difficulties - usually those students who have a documented weak oral language base (not students that have difficulties with decoding). More important is the ability to have flexibility of word knowledge and an understanding of how context plays a part of the understanding (Perfetti 2007). Through listening to rich and varied texts, students are exposed to a greater level of vocabulary than they would be through everyday conversation (Hogan, Adlof, Alonzo, 2015).

"Background knowledge is the basis for comprehension."

Vocabulary acquisition actually takes second place to students' background knowledge. One can know all of the words, but without experience to understand the context of the words and apply the knowledge in order to infer, comprehension will still be low. This is especially evident in students who come from low income families who do not have the equitable access to experiences and activities that naturally develop this schema.  Research has struggled to show ways to effectively teach background knowledge in the school setting, but teaching thematically can help lay some groundwork along these lines.

"Strong texts, standards-based questioning, and student & teacher discussion"

Now that we've read about the importance of Whole Group Reading, what do we need to do to implement it correctly so that it is not a passive teacher read aloud?

We need to make sure we have strong texts, standards-based questioning, and student & teacher discussion.

Strong Text

Based on the above research, selected texts should be at a level two to three years above what the majority of the students could approach independently or instructionally.

Text needs to have
  • Rich content
  • Strong organization
  • Variation & richness in word choice and sentence structure
Rich Content: Select text that is rich in ideas or information. Fiction text needs to be engaging where the characters are presented with dilemmas and challenges that are relevant to your students.  (This means you may change up the texts you read from year to year, depending on your class dynamics.) Informational text should connect to both what interests students and what standards you are required to teach (this allows for integration of science and social studies into the reading block).

Strong Organization: Texts that are well organized allow for greater comprehension over texts that are poorly organized. Look for texts that make sense as you read it to yourself prior to reading it to your students. Award winning texts from reputable book award lists are often a safe bet.

Variation & Richness in Word Choice and Sentence Structure: As noted above, early readers are limited by the types of texts they can decode independently. But growth in language acquisition and comprehension call for texts that are beyond these early texts. This is why Whole Group Reading is not a time for "text in hand" as so many administrators call for. Especially in the early years, but not exclusively, the text should be beyond the ability for the student for them to be exposed to rich language and grammatical constructs. Many times the basal readers supplied in schools are not effective to meet this standard for a Whole Group Reading text. Use both the school and public library to find texts for free (again relying on the annual book lists from ) that are rich in vocabulary and will expose students to language structures that are often not found in daily conversational language (Shanahan, et al. Improving reading comprehension in kindergarten through third grade. 2010).

Standards-based Questioning
Any text that is selected needs to meet the purpose of your lesson. Many times a text can be re-read for a variety of purposes. (Re-reading also increases comprehension.) The purpose of the lesson needs to be grounded in the state or national standards you follow, and therefore so do the questions you ask. The questions should be "higher order" questions that prompt students to think deeply about the text. The questions should be open-ended enough that allow students to respond with a variety of responses that can be evidenced through the text and allow you as the teacher the opportunity to ask follow up questions that help guide student thinking and help you probe for depth of understanding.

Discussion can be evidenced in several ways (this list is not meant to be all inclusive) and is listed in order of least effective to most effective, with all ways being important to the whole group reading block.
  • Strategic Teacher Talk: In my whole group lesson, I often start a comprehension strategy with voicing the thoughts I have inside my head as I am reading. Revealing these thoughts allow students to witness what should be occurring while they are reading. As a caveat, teacher talk should be limited & strategic. It is a strategy of discussion to help guide students early on while learning a comprehension strategy; helping them recognize the metacognition that should be occurring while they read.
  • Teacher to Student Talk: This is a back & forth between the students and teachers. This includes the students clarifying for meaning and the teacher asking questions, but more effectively is a true exchange ideas between you and the students regarding the text that show a level of comprehension that students have gained. (As a note, when students ask to clarify for meaning, I almost always return to the text and ask others to help identify what the text said. The only time I will specifically answer a student's question is when the response needs background knowledge outside of the text at hand.)
  •  Student Talk: Depending on how you structure your classroom, student discussion can have the biggest impact on comprehension of the text as they are creating and expressing meaning outside of you. Simple strategies like posing a question and having students "turn & talk" and then respond and/or having students connect their responses to each other in a response chain ("I'd like to add on to what Jen said...", "I disagree with what Jen said because..."). Selected texts should be compelling enough that they can spark spontaneous student discussion.

Whole Group reading should not be the entirety of the reading block - opportunity to decode and implement the learned comprehension strategies both independently and while decoding text is extremely necessary, but it absolutely plays a huge role in developing their comprehension as readers. The skills gained through listening comprehension are integral to the ability of students to comprehend as readers and provide a guided opportunity for them to apply comprehension strategies to text without struggling to decode as well.

Do you implement whole group reading into your reading block? What does your reading block look like? How do you select texts? How do you engage students with the text? What latitude do you have in selecting texts?


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