Opinion
Reading & Literacy Commentary

Where Have All The Reading Groups Gone?

By J. Elizabeth Gladden — May 14, 2003 4 min read
My daughter's 1st grade was not the one I remembered. My question is this: Where have all the reading groups gone?

First grade is a time of learning and growth in children, the foundation for the years to follow. So naturally I was excited to see my daughter begin 1st grade. My two older sons were long past that milestone, both now in middle school and “too cool for mom to eat lunch with them.” It was nice to be back in the elementary school.

I took my daughter in to meet the teacher before school began, and after talking with her for a little while, I learned to my surprise that reading groups were no longer the norm in 1st grade. Instead, all the students would be taught at the same pace, learning a variety of strategies to help them along the way. Each student would meet once a week for a short session with the teacher.

Before my daughter had even begun, I was apprehensive about the school year. I had nothing against whole-group instruction. In fact, I’d even asked for it years earlier, when I taught 5th grade. But these students didn’t yet know how to read. It sounded like an impossible feat, but the school district was moving away from ability grouping in the 1st grade and opting to go with a literacy approach.

I had worked with my daughter and she was already reading easy books at home, so I decided to go with the flow and see how whole-group instruction went. For the most part, I felt that I was the only one listening to my daughter read an entire story on a daily basis.

I’d observed in class and knew the teacher called on the kids to read, either from their journals, from the board, or from a book. But if the student called on was having difficulty reading, the standard approach was for the other students to jump in and help, thereby “modeling” good reading. The only problem I could see with this approach was that the good readers were constantly modeling, while those students having difficulty grasping the process to begin with were falling behind, even struggling to keep up with the pace set for the class.

Halfway through the school year, I began to see that maybe reading groups should be reinstated in the school—and for several reasons. The teacher sent home a Developmental Reading Assessment, which said that my daughter was reading independently at the beginning of 2nd grade, and that her instructional and frustrational levels were right in this area as well. Confused by this, I called a friend who taught in a lower grade and had her send me an Individual Reading Assessment, or IRA, for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades.

The problem I could see with the 'modeling' approach to learning was that the good readers were constantly modeling, while those students having difficulty grasping the process to begin with were falling behind.

My daughter sailed through the 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-level IRAs, self-correcting twice on level 3, but answering the corresponding questions perfectly. I realized after giving the test that I should have let her read the stories silently to herself before having her read them to me aloud, but nevertheless, I was impressed with her ability. I knew several of her classmates were not having the same success, and they were being referred to the reading specialist.

I should have been thrilled with my daughter’s success, and I was. But I quickly realized that there were no reading specialists to help students who were above grade level. The school was only concerned with students who were falling behind, and I think there were quite a few of them. By now I felt that my daughter’s educational needs were not being met.

My older son had also been reading above grade level in the 1st grade, and the school he went to had referred him to the specialist for instructional-level teaching. But my daughter would not have this same benefit, as we had moved to another state.

If there were reading groups in the class, would she be better served? Would those students who were struggling to keep up also be better served? I can only say resoundingly that yes, I feel they would be better served. The importance of the reading group in the 1st grade classroom is so great that it is something our children cannot do without.

Many students do not have an adult who is able to work with them every day, listening to them read aloud. If the teacher is also not meeting with them daily in a reading group, what option do these students have? What can they do? Do we allow them to grow frustrated, maybe even embarrassed as they struggle while reading aloud to their peers?

There may be problems with ability grouping, but teaching a classroom full of 6-year-olds to read at the same level, all at the same time, is not the answer.

These children are not going to bring attention to themselves if they are having difficulty. But if they are called on to read aloud when they are having difficulty, how will they feel? As their peers constantly jump in to model good reading, will they feel like successful readers themselves? How long can other students “model” good reading?

My question is this: Where have all the reading groups gone, and when will they be brought back into the elementary classroom? I know there are schools that still have reading groups, but the educational authorities in this district have assured me all schools will be moving toward whole-language instruction, and that ability grouping is on the way out. I think these educational authorities need to hit some classrooms before many more children are left wondering who is going to model good reading when they’re “stuck.”

Reading groups have been around for a long time, and although there may be problems with ability grouping, teaching a classroom full of 6-year-olds to read at the same level, all at the same time, is not the answer. Please, show me the reading groups!

J. Elizabeth Gladden, a former teacher, is the mother of four children, three of whom currently attend public schools. She lives in Columbia, S.C.

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