We often say that the greatest benefit of blended learning is that teachers are able to work with students in small groups rather than with the whole class at the same time. There is an assumed benefit when teachers work with small groups of students at different times rather than with the whole class at the same time, but the truth is that teachers must use their small-group time very strategically in order to ensure it actually has a positive impact on their students.
When Carrie Trusler (third-grade teacher at Central Catholic school) implemented a blended-learning model in her classroom this year, she was unsure of how to use this small-group time for her students. "I felt like I was just repeating the same lesson three times," Carrie told me. "My small-group lessons were not very different from my whole-group lessons, and I could see that the small groups weren't really meeting the needs of my students."
I give Carrie so much credit for taking it upon herself to revamp her small-group lessons and figure out how to make the best use of her time in this new model. Because Central Catholic serves a large number of students who do not speak English at home and third grade is a critical point in a child's reading instruction, Carrie decided to focus on her English language arts class and use a guided reading model in her blended classroom.
Guided reading is a specific method by which teachers help students learn to use reading strategies (such as context clues, letter and sound knowledge, and syntax or word structure) as they read a text or book that is unfamiliar to them. In this model, the teacher provides very targeted support for small groups in order to build the students up to reading independently. Perhaps most importantly, students read texts at their skill level and teachers constantly assess students' progress to determine whether or not they should move forward. Because guided reading relies on the teacher having opportunities to hear each student read aloud, it is critical for teachers to work with groups of students small enough that they can find this time to address each student.
To make this model a reality in her class of 23 students, Carrie knew that she would need four groups of about six students each rather than the three groups of about eight students each that she was using before. "I was very nervous about adding a fourth group because I knew that would require me to plan a fourth station, or another independent learning activity. I knew it would ultimately be a good thing, though, because the students would be able to work on phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension - usually all in the same day!"
No surprise to me, Carrie completely underestimated her ability to successfully manage four groups of third-grade students working on different tasks. I visited Carrie's classroom less than a month after she launched guided reading in her blended classroom and was quickly blown away by the purposeful, active learning students were doing across the room. I saw one group of students working independently on their Chromebooks, another responding to reading comprehension questions, and still another playing a phonics game together.
But as the introduction to this post might suggest, I was most impressed by the way Carrie was using her time with the small group of students at her table. For the 15 minutes these students sat with her, they silently read a short book that was at the right level for them. Carrie was able to call on each student to quietly read aloud to her while the others continued reading silently to themselves. This strategy allowed Carrie to assess each student's fluency without interrupting the other students' purposeful work. When students completed the text and Carrie had heard them read aloud multiple times, they were able to begin written responses to comprehension questions.
There are so many positive things happening in Carrie's classroom, but I want to highlight a few:
- Students are receiving feedback on their reading skills in real time from multiple sources. When Carrie listens to her students read aloud, she is able to provide immediate feedback on their fluency. At the same time, other students are receiving immediate feedback from adaptive software programs as they master skills at their own pace. Formative assessment is critical to students' learning, and this model significantly increases the amount of meaningful assessment and feedback that takes place in the classroom.
- Students are learning to respond to questions and justify their answers in writing. We know that writing is a critical skill for students, and that responding to questions in writing includes a host of benefits for the students, including deeper thinking. Increasing the amount of writing students do in your classroom is a great way to increase the rigor of their learning and prepare them to be great writers and analytical thinkers in the future.
- Students are not always working alone. Blended and personalized learning models are sometimes criticized for being too individualized and including too much time for students to work independently. But we know that it is important for students to learn in community, and I was excited to see students in Carrie's classroom working with partners, in small groups, and independently throughout her ELA block.
So, should every blended ELA class use a guided reading model? Not necessarily. Guided reading is an extremely effective model but it is not the only way to ensure that teachers use their time strategically in a blended model.
And should every guided reading classroom implement blended learning? Depends who you ask - Just kidding! Of course it is possible to do guided reading without a blended learning model, but Carrie's classroom is just one example of how a blended learning and guided reading can combine to create a model that has the power to truly transform student learning.