By Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell

Some teachers have learned to be satisfied with their students simply reading accurately. This practice has led to pushing students up levels without evidence of their control of the competencies that enable them to think within, beyond, and about texts at each level. The goal of the guided reading lesson for students is not just to read “this book” or even to understand a single text. The goal of guided reading is to help students build their reading power—to build a network of strategic actions for processing texts. We have described 12 systems of strategic activities, all operating simultaneously in the reader’s head (see Figure 3).

Network of Processing Systems For Reading

Thinking Within the Text. The first six systems we categorize as “thinking within the text.” These activities are solving words, monitoring and correcting, searching for and using information, summarizing information in a way that the reader can remember it, adjusting reading for different purposes and genres, and sustaining fluency. All these actions work together as the reader moves through the text. It is essential to solve words; after all, reading must be accurate. It is just as important to engage the other systems. Readers constantly search for information in the print, in the pictures; they know when they are making errors, and if necessary, they correct them. They reconstruct the important information and use it to interpret the next part of the text. Kaye’s (2006) study of the word solving of proficient second-grade readers showed the following:

When students are efficiently processing text, they flexibly draw from a vast response repertoire. They use their expertise in language and their knowledge of print, stories, and the world to problem solve as they read. Supported by mostly correct responding, readers are able to momentarily direct their attention to the detail of letters and sounds as needed. When they need to problem solve words in greater detail, second graders can draw upon their orthographic and phonological knowledge with incredible flexibility and efficiency, usually using the larger subword units. Then they are free to get back to the message of the text. (p. 71)

Thinking Beyond the Text. The next four systems call for “thinking beyond the text.” They are inferring, synthesizing, making connections, and predicting. Reading is a transaction between the text and the reader (Rosenblatt, 1994); that is, the reader constructs unique meanings through integrating background knowledge, emotions, attitudes, and expectations with the meaning the writer expresses.
When several of us read the same text, we do try to understand the writer’s message and share much with each other. At the same time, each reader’s interpretation is unique. Readers infer what the writer means but does not say; they make connections with their personal experiences and other texts. They bring content knowledge to the text and synthesize new ideas. They make predictions before, during, and after reading.

Thinking About the Text. The last two systems represent how the proficient reader analyzes and critiques the text. Readers hold up the text as an object that they can look back at and analyze. They notice aspects of the writer’s craft—appreciate language, literary devices such as use of symbolism, how characters and their development are revealed, beginnings and endings. They critique texts: Are they accurate? Objective? Interesting? Well written?
A Complex Theory. Reading is far more than looking at individual words and saying them. Readers are in the fortunate position of encountering language that is created mostly by unknown individuals who may be distant in space and time. The systems of strategic actions take place simultaneously in the brain during the complex process of reading. The proficient reader develops a network like a computer, only thousands of times faster and more complex. The brain learns, making new connections constantly and expanding the system. Clay (1991) described the process:

This reading work clocks up more experience for the network with each of the features of print attended to. It allows the partially familiar to become familiar and the new to become familiar in an everchanging sequence. Meaning is checked against letter sequence or vice versa, phonological recoding is checked against speech vocabulary, new meanings are checked against the grammatical and semantic contexts of the sentence and the story, and so on. Because one route to a response confirms an approach from another direction this may allow the network to become a more effective network. However the generative process only operates when the reading is ‘good,’ that is, successful enough to free attention to pick up new information at the point of problem-solving. An interlocking network of appropriate strategies which include monitoring and evaluation of consonance or dissonance among messages that ought to agree is central to this model of a system which extends itself. (pp. 328–329)

The amazing thing is that all of this complex cognitive activity is accomplished simultaneously and at lightning speed; proficient readers are largely unconscious of it (Clay, 1991). We are writing here about the efficient, effective, fluent processing that allows readers to keep the greater part of attention on the meaning of the text. Teachers cannot see into the brains of effective readers, and the process breaks down the moment you make readers try to describe their processing (much like watching your fingers while playing the piano).

However, skillful teachers have a sharp observing eye, with the ability to notice and understand the evidence of processing shown in the behaviors of students—how they read and what they reveal through conversation about what they read. Understanding the reading behaviors that are evident in a student who is processing well helps the teacher detect inefficient or ineffective reading and take steps to offer support. You can also notice the way proficient readers change over time; sometimes progress is detectable every day!
When students engage in smooth, efficient processing of text with deep understanding, they can steadily increase their abilities. That means much more than just moving up levels; the goal is to build effective processing systems. It isn’t easy, but guided reading offers that opportunity.

By Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. Source: Fountas, I.C., & Pinnell, G.S. (2012/2013). Guided Reading: The Romance and the Reality, The Reading Teacher, 66(4), 268-284.