Teaching with Guided Readings

by Andrea Barton, Department of English


From my perspective, a guided reading exercise is any reading assignment that is teacher-annotated. In other words, this is a reading assignment that contains either brief or developed comments, questions, brief explanations, or other such teacher-input that students should encounter while they read. This input functions much like a second level of assignment instructions — not just what I want the student to read, but how I want the student to read it.

In addition to fostering student understanding, guided readings also

  • help students comprehend the reading in both literal and analytic terms
  • provide significant context — i.e., historic/disciplinary/social or another context that the student likely won’t have when they go into the reading
  • lead students to make connections between this reading and both the goals of the course and other course concepts or material


Online Classes

In the online classroom environment, students usually aren’t provided much in terms of a traditional in-class lecture. They might complete a reading assignment and then be tested on it without ever knowing what they should take away from it.

I don’t want my students to leave the readings with a “so what?” impression, so in my online British literature course, for example, I’ll introduce each text, noting anything I think is important, and then in a reader response assignment, I try to ask questions that return students to specific places in the reading, like “Why do you think the poet chose this specific word rather than another? How do you think that relates to the poet’s goal?”

Traditional Classes

In the regular classroom, I ask what I call “thinking questions” for homework, which students should answer as they read the assignments. For instance, I might students to identify and explain the literary style used in a particular passage of text.

Similarly, I might break students into small groups and ask them to look for evidence of a different specific literary device in the text. The students can then compare their examples to see how multiple devices exist in the same text.

Sample Assignments

Creating these assignments can be time-consuming, and it’s sometimes difficult to find the line between guiding and telling — i.e., how to tell students enough to point them in the right direction but not spoon-feed them the conclusions you want them to draw from the material.

For this reason, my guided readings are often in the form of discussion posts, writing prompts, or questions for the students that refer to specific elements or parts of the text. Here are two examples from my online British literature course discussion thread:

Sample 1: Along with descriptions of the heavy soot in the atmosphere and the river that smelled foul with runoff from the factories, Charles Dickens describes in “Coketown” the buildings and streets as all looking the same — he repeats this idea several times throughout the short excerpt. The churches looked the same as the hospitals; the jails looked the same as the stores, etc. What point do you think he is making? Consider this especially in connection to the descriptions of industrial activity and pollution. What might Dickens be revealing about his attitude toward society’s changes in the Victorian Period?

Sample 2: In reading Seamus Heaney’s Punishment, it’s very important to read the detailed footnote connected to the poem’s title, or you’re likely to miss much of the meaning. It’s also important to read Heaney’s biographical section to understand what these “bog poems” are about — the bodies that are discovered in peat pits, perfectly preserved, sometimes thousands of years after death. You know from the footnote that the narrator is describing the body of a young girl, maybe 14 years old, who was put to death for adultery some 2,000 years ago. He expresses outrage at how she was killed, and yet, the narrator says if he had been there those 2,000 years ago, he “would have cast, I know, / the stones of silence.” (lines 30-31) In other words, he would have done nothing to protect her. Why does he say this? To what modern events is he comparing her punishment? What do you think he feels at this moment when he says he would have done nothing?

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