Does Guided Reading Need to be Fairground?

This post has been written by Classroom Secrets

In recent years, I have seen a huge shift of teachers moving away from a traditional guided reading carousel, and instead moving towards a whole class approach. Both approaches can be underpinned by a specific scheme, but can also be planned using teachers’ own initiative and creativity.

After discussions with a variety of teachers, it appears that many are strong advocates of whole class guided reading. Is there any place for a carousel approach? That’s a question I keep asking myself, and am keen to explore in this blog.

The pros and cons of two approaches: Carousel

How does it work?

I personally view a carousel as the traditional approach: 5 groups of children, organised by ability. Usually, 15/20 minute sessions are delivered daily, and children move around the carousel during the week. Each day provides a different reading activity: one teacher-led session, followed by four independent activities.

Why does it work?

If delivered correctly, this method builds independent, confident and driven readers. There are huge positives to well planned, scaffolded independent activities. It gives the children a sense of ownership over their reading, and schemes such as Reciprocal Reading have merit in promoting leadership skills.

Depending on the approach used and the year group taught, a carousel can expose children to a huge variety of texts. Shorter texts are often used, as they are easier to read and complete in a small timeframe. Excerpts of high-quality texts are also recommended as children move through school, which should result in children reading widely during one term or one year.

A well-established carousel provides a good routine for the children, and we all know that children thrive on clear routines. The sessions tend to be shorter than a whole class lesson, and some argue that it is easier to fit into the school day as a result.

It is clear to see the benefits of using a carousel in Key Stage 1, where there tends to be a wider difference in children’s reading fluency and decoding skills. As children prepare for their Phonics Screening test, and even after, you may have large proportions of the class unable to decode independently. This is where the carousel comes in, allowing each group to read a completely different text that is matched closely to their individual learning needs.

This differentiated approach is well targeted, and children will benefit from the small teacher-led group session. It also provides a vital opportunity to hear children read on a 1:1 basis. However, this results in children only getting 15 minutes of ‘you’ a week. And it forces me to wonder, what are they actually learning during the other four sessions in each cycle?

What’s the catch?

A main element to the carousel approach is the sheer time and effort that goes in to the complexity of organising the carousel activities for each group, each day. It involves high-prep time, which does little to reduce teachers’ workload.

For all the thought and effort put into the planning stage, does each activity have a high pay-off to make the complex preparation worthwhile? A main concern amongst teachers surrounds the independent elements of the carousel. In some classes, such sessions become ‘holding’ activities: something to keep children quiet whilst you work with another group. This leads to the next question: are children being challenged during these independent tasks? Not always, or maybe even not at all. It is also important to bear in mind that the large number of independent tasks may leave mistakes and misconceptions unaddressed.

Behaviour management is another worry that comes into play here. It is sometimes impossible to keep the children focused and engaged in a task when you are not there to enforce the expectations. One teacher recalled her carousel sessions as a ‘behaviour minefield’, explaining that she spent most of each session dealing with negative behaviour from the independent groups, resulting in no time with her focus group at all.

Some carousels rely on the use of a teaching assistant to combat the issues surrounding behaviour and unfocused groups. This can definitely be a positive if the teaching assistant is brilliant (as mine was!) and in class every day (which mine wasn’t!). Unfortunately, reliance on a teaching assistant can throw the balance off completely. The moment a teaching assistant is taken out of the classroom, the whole carousel begins to crumble. Children are thrown off their routine, and you desperately find ways to tie up the loose ends from the group who needed that extra adult support.

A final thought to consider is the text types used during these sessions. As mentioned earlier, using high-quality texts can have a huge impact on the children’s progress. However, some schools are often tied down to using book bands, depending on the scheme used. If this is the case, are children always exposed to the highest quality texts? Banded books often have huge limitations. A mix of banded books, excerpts, novels and different text types such as leaflets are recommended so that the children’s exposure is as broad and deep as possible.


The pros and cons of two approaches: Whole Class

How does it work?

The premise of a whole class session involves bringing the class together as a collective. Teachers timetable these sessions in different ways, but most aim to deliver such lessons for 25-30 mins daily. Hugely different to a carousel, it is differentiated through mixed ability pairs. A range of reading styles are brought into this approach, including partner work, reading to each other, reading silently and listening to the teacher read. Differentiation is also incorporated through the use of targeted and open-ended questions, to promote in-depth discussion and expose all children to vocabulary they may not usually have access to. Don’t be fooled into thinking this approach is easier: it still requires planning and quality follow up activities.

Why does it work?

A main advantage is the reduction in workload and preparation time to set up each lesson. Targeted questioning removes the need to differentiate and prepare resources in five different ways. Not only this, but the mixed-ability pairings mean that the weaker readers are constantly learning from the strongest.

It almost feels like whole class reading provides an opportunity for teachers to go on a journey with their children. All children being engaged in one text and the teacher reading alongside them certainly builds a reading culture, which every child can get involved in. The benefits of hearing the teacher read aloud are undeniable: this method allows for pace, intonation and expression to be practised. It gives the children a chance to hear someone ‘reading like a reader’, which is critical for children who may not hear reading at home.

Every child uses the same text, meaning it is easier to track children against age related expectations. This is also excellent preparation for year groups such as 2 and 6, where SATs are looming. The journey such longer texts provide also ensures that children are exposed to high quality texts and may provide exposure to a broader range of genres than that of a carousel.

It is important to mention that this approach can still happen without a teaching assistant. If an additional member of staff is removed, it doesn’t have as huge an impact on the lesson as it would if you were operating a carousel system. Teaching assistants may be used to challenge the strongest readers or support the weakest, yet it is still possible to achieve this through the mixed ability pairings, questioning and discussion.


What’s the catch?

This style of differentiation may be less effective depending on the needs and abilities of your cohort. It is difficult to cater lessons to children who are reading at a substantially lower level than others in your class, especially if the range between the strongest and weakest readers is vast. How do you ensure that all learning needs are catered for? One could argue that this is where your interventions come in, as a potential solution to ensure that all readers are challenged.

Following on from this, it could also be argued that whole class sessions are difficult to implement in classes such as Year 1 and Year 2. As mentioned in the carousel, the same text for every child may not be effective when children’s decoding skills are still being taught and developed.

As the lessons are delivered to large groups, the children may not get as much personalised ‘teacher’ time that smaller group sessions can offer. The reading styles adopted during these sessions also require thought during their implementation. A ‘round robin’ approach may result in the children having little chance to read aloud. Partner reading or choral reading are fantastic alternatives, allowing for the children to have as much oral reading as possible.

This style also has funding implications. It requires whole class or half class sets of each text covered. For longer novels, the costs can quickly add up. Carousel texts normally come in packs of 6, which may be easier to afford and incorporate into the school’s budget. This leaves me asking, is whole class a cost effective method? There are obvious work arounds, such as borrowing from local libraries or even enquiring with the nearest high school.

The timings of whole class sessions may also come with a warning. The use of in-depth discussion, higher level thinking and open-ended questioning is very time consuming. There is a risk of lessons overrunning, and teachers being less willing to stop a lesson mid-discussion on these occasions. Although it appears to have no immediate consequences at the time, how would it affect your timetable if lessons were running over three times a week?



It is important to remember that the positives of both approaches are only subject to each method being planned and delivered in an effective way. Unfortunately, there isn’t one ‘quick fix’ when it comes to reading lessons. Both styles can prove effective, but each has so many elements to consider. The timetabling commitments of your school may allow for a particular method to be delivered.

When considering both approaches, it is crucial to put your children at the centre. The academic ability, attainment, learning behaviours and attitudes will all have a huge part to play when choosing an approach to best suit your class. You know your children, and the cohort may respond best to a particular style of teaching. For example, children who cannot sit for sustained periods of time may prefer a carousel approach, whereas a cohort of children with challenging behaviours may struggle during the independent tasks a carousel provides.

Whichever you choose, 1:1 reading is needed to underpin the teaching of reading. This is especially important in Key Stage 1, where children are only just beginning to develop their decoding and fluency. Regardless of method, it is vital that reading lessons surround the teaching of reading skills. This practice will equip children with the skills they need to decode, comprehend and enjoy any text, creating the ‘lifelong readers’ that each teacher aims for.

What are your experiences in teaching guided reading? Let us know in the comments below.

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Katie Cockroft is a proofreader at Classroom Secrets and a member of both the blog and Year 1 team. She has 4 years teaching experience, 3 of which being English Lead. An avid music fan, she spends most evenings over-using her Spotify account or following the latest updates from her favourite musician, Paul McCartney. She enjoys travelling and showering affection over her 2-year old British Shorthair cat, Winnie.