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Teaching reading by dividing

In Laura Blauvelt's fifth-grade class at Southern Oak Elementary School, some students read at a first-grade level. Others read like high school seniors.

If Blauvelt taught her whole class a single book, at a skill level somewhere in the middle, she'd risk frustrating struggling readers and boring advanced ones. So, she divides the class by skill level, working with small groups on lessons that are accessible but challenging.

An increasing number of Pinellas elementary teachers are following Blauvelt's example, abandoning what some call the "spray and pray" method of teaching students of varying skills the same book and hoping for the best.

"You're really giving the kids who have special needs what they need," said Blauvelt, who frequently welcomes visitors to her Largo classroom who want to watch her reading instruction. "You're learning so much about them."

"Guided reading," as the approach is known, is not new. For years, it has been the teaching strategy for students in kindergarten, first and second grade.

In the past few years, Pinellas language arts officials have made it a priority to train the intermediate elementary school grades: third, fourth and fifth. Many teachers in those grades have used small group instruction before, but without the best training, best testing or the most appropriate materials.

The district hopes to train all intermediate teachers in the next couple of years.

"The students are more engaged, and when they're engaged, they're learning," said Eyvonne Ryan, one of the district's guided reading trainers. "Pulling students into a small group allows them to be more risk takers. In a small group, everyone participates. You just feel like you can do it safely."

For the students and teachers, guided reading is more challenging than large group instruction.

Guided reading requires constantly assessing students to make sure they are in the right group. It requires a teacher to prepare lessons for several skill levels and materials. For schools without enough money to buy an array of materials, teachers have to go in search of those that are appropriate.

"It's not something you could plan a semester at a time," Ryan said. "You're going to pretty much plan book to book as their needs change. You're not going to have fixed groups either."

But the biggest challenge is occupying the rest of the class while focusing on a small group.

"It's really important that teachers have plans in place to keep kids in literacy activities when you're working in small groups," said Blauvelt, whose students are required to write her a letter each week describing what they have read. "I think sometimes there might be a problem with mindless activities just to keep them busy."

As Blauvelt works with a group reading fables, the rest of the class works silently. Some read, and some write. In the group, she asks each student to silently read a chapter. She circles the table, tapping one student at a time to whisper the passage. She wants to make sure they are really reading and figuring out the right words.

"I'm glad you were brave enough to say, "I don't know,' " Blauvelt says, praising a student who doesn't know the meaning of "perspiration." "That's the sign of a good reader."

When the silent reading is over, the group discusses vocabulary and the story's theme. Though choreographing guided reading lessons is a challenge for her, Blauvelt relishes the chance to tailor her lessons to her students and frequently praises them for work well done.

"It's just the best way to go," she said.

From the beginning of the school year, Pam Evans' second-grade students at Seminole Elementary know the ground rules. When she works with a group, they are to work on reading activities quietly or with a partner.

Even though they know what to do, her eyes scan the room as she meets with three students reading a book called Something New. Periodically, she reminds the rest of the class to stay on task.

Most of her attention is on the story, on the students who forget to point to the words to follow along, on the difficulty of pronouncing "porcupine."

"There's very little chance of them falling through the cracks," said Evans, who has used guided reading for years. "They have to perform. I'm right there."