Thursday, January 29, 2015

Not a Minute to Lose

Marsha Levering
Primary Literacy Collaborative Trainer

Recently I’ve been reminded of how important it is to make the most of every minute! I began to think about this from a personal standpoint when I suddenly found myself on bed rest with a serious back injury, dealing with pain and probable surgery. Important routines and urgent plans came to a quick halt, and my future health was uncertain. Medical professionals became my lifeline as we worked to manage the situation and determine a course of action.   

During those long weeks, I had plenty of time to evaluate my life and think about the people and events that surround me. I thought about my family, friends, colleagues, and about the work I do in literacy learning. Unasked questions hovered in my mind—what if, at the end of this situation, I can’t do what I’ve always done? What will those limitations be, and how will they affect the course of my life? Will I be able to shift my thinking and actions and adjust to living a bit differently in this world? The “unknown” was not a comfortable place to be.  

Then a physical therapist said to me, “It’s about what you CAN do, not what you can’t do.” And somewhere in my head, although I have heard that said many times, I realized the truth of it in a new way. Since then I’ve had plenty of revelations in my personal life about this statement, but I especially want to use this blog to touch on a place in our teaching where we have many opportunities to do what we can do, and where there really is ‘not a minute to lose.’  

I am talking about Guided Reading. During some of my wait time, I reviewed several Guided Reading videos and was struck by the variance in how that time is utilized by teachers. All of the lessons were effective, yet some seemed to include more explicit teaching, more student application, and more purposeful moves that support each individual student. There was no “downtime”, and those teachers intentionally tuned their eyes and ears to each child, keeping them on track and giving specific support. By sharing examples of what I observed, I hope you will consider your own teaching decisions within that sacred (approximately) 20 minutes, and begin to plan intentionally for your students. The following bullets show how teachers invest small amounts of time in a consistent manner to make the most of guided reading lessons.  

Before Reading:

  • Arrange comfortable seating that is conducive to conversation.
  • Plan your lesson ahead of time.
  • Have materials ready. 
  • Engage students in the book introduction by discussing book characters, story line, and text structure. This avoids students’ comments and stories that take you away from the text.

Fountas and Pinnell (2006, p. 374) remind us to “explain a few concepts or vocabulary, build interest, activate background knowledge, invite wonderings, explain organization of the text, point out unusual language structures, show how to break apart 2-3 new words, and begin thinking about qualities of the writer’s craft.” This first exposure to a book creates engagement in students!

During Reading:

  • Bring your highest level of attention and energy to the students in the group.
  • Be “aware” of what is happening with every child and be ready to briefly intervene. We really can expand our powers of awareness!
  • Students read silently and independently. Silent reading of new texts begins at levels H or I.
  • Teach students that they will be reading continually, either familiar books or a new book. At the end of the lesson you might also guide them to do some writing about reading, or help them engage in conversation about the text with their peers.
  • Use quick and timely prompts to keep all students reading: “Why did you stop?”  “Are you right? How do you know?”  “Put it together quickly.”  “You said, ‘now’. Does that look right and make sense?” “Cover the ending and see if that helps.”
    Don’t wait too long to prompt; students need to keep going!
  • Move in and out of the students’ reading arenas. Lean towards them; make the most of opportunities to teach, prompt, or reinforce; make eye contact when talking about the book.
  • Stay actively engaged, and attend to students with high energy.

Lyons (2003, p. 31) states that “Children who have negative experiences while trying to problem-solve during reading because the task is too difficult or they have not learned a repertoire of ways to resolve their conflict may quit trying. There is no reward in repeated failure.”  We cannot afford to let teaching opportunities pass us by!  

After the Reading:

  • Briefly discuss the text. Build open conversations to help clarify, generate new wonderings, and deepen understanding. 
  • Protect 1-2 minutes at the end of the lesson for letter/word work. Example: Demonstrate how to use the inflectional ending “ing” by writing ‘look’ on a white board, and discussing what happens when “ing” is added, and what it means. Encourage students to write it as well, and try it with other words: go, fly, see. 

According to Pinnell and Fountas (2011, p. 248) it is important to “Discuss the meaning of a text after reading the whole text or a part of it and think about the evidence of understanding students show. Make teaching points that help students learn something they can use when reading other texts.”  


There is no more worthwhile goal than to teach students to be reflective and analytic as they read. Every day we are given the opportunity to expand the skills and understandings of our students. We cannot get back misspent time.  We must guard against weariness, distractions, and our own inattention, and instead act with urgency and purpose as we enter into guided reading lessons with students. 


Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G.S. (2006). Teaching for comprehending and fluency: Thinking, talking,

        and writing about reading, K-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Lyons, C. (2003). Teaching struggling readers: How to use brain-based research to maximize

        learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Pinnell, G.S. & Fountas, I.C. (2011). The continuum of literacy learning: Grades preK-8.  
          Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


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