If you sometimes struggle with keeping your readers focused, try this!

We have all experienced it. You are in a Guided Reading group, having a nice lesson on how to plant tomatoes, and all of a sudden this reminds a student of the day his pet worm died. As you begin asking questions such as, “What is Step 2 of planting a tomato?” the student raises his hand and launches into a discussion about his pet worm. Another student chimes in that his Dad’s friend’s cousin’s hamster died yesterday and they buried him in the back yard. You kindly remind students that we need to raise our hands before we speak and focus on our book about tomatoes. You finally get the students back on track with the answer to your question, but before you can even ask the next question, someone else raises her hand to say that hamsters are nocturnal.

It almost seems like the more you try to get them back on track, the more the kids' minds wander. Before you know it, 20 minutes is gone, and you are only on page 4. What do you do? If you start disciplining your students for sharing their thoughts, they begin to feel unvalued and less likely to participate. Hopefully, my story will help you keep control of your reading groups, and help your students feel validated and excited about coming to the reading group to learn.

It was a regular morning.

Everyone was at their Literacy Stations, and I had just pulled the first reading group back to the table. We were going to read a biography about Stevie Wonder. After playing parts of different Stevie Wonder songs, the students began to show recognition of the singer, and I thought we were well on our way. Then, in walked my principal, computer in hand, ready to do my long observation.

It shouldn’t have caused anxiety, but it did, especially when I’d noticed that this group had an extremely difficult time staying on task and focusing on their books. They were always throwing out comments that had nothing to do with the text! I knew if I didn’t nip it in the bud, their tangent conversations would envelop the entire reading group. Not only would it be a wasted reading group, but my evaluation would be reminiscent of a child herding cats.

I said a silent prayer that everyone would stay on task just this one time, but sure enough, as we turned to page 2, it started. The biography began with Stevie’s life as a child and how he had lived in Detroit, Michigan. Instantly, one student’s hand shot up, and she launched into a story about how she got new mittens over the weekend. What??? This has nothing to do with the story! One look at all of the other students’ eyes showed that they were thinking of their own mitten stories. It seemed my head would burst from the sound of my principal’s fingers, typing EVERYTHING that was happening!

Suddenly, an idea!

Luckily, I had a couple of friends from Michigan. Every time they tried to explain to someone where they were from, they whipped out their hand and pointed to it. Apparently, Michigan is in the shape of a mitten and all Michiganians point to the spot on their hand which corresponds to where their city is in Michigan.

Before anyone else had a chance to share their mitten story, I thanked the student for bringing up mittens and explained to the students that Michigan looks like a mitten. I told them about my friends from Michigan and the way they explained to me where they lived by using their hand like a mitten. I was pretty shocked when the student smiled, looking satisfied, and stopped talked about mittens. Everyone else seemed satisfied, too, and did not continue with any more mitten stories. I was pleasantly surprised and found that this tactic continued to work. Even my principal complimented my method!

The Result

Granted, this does not work EVERY time (but, does anything work every time?), and we definitely still needed to go over Guided Reading Procedures, such as raising your hand before you speak. Sometimes the students would continue trying to tell stories, but each time, I would try to find a way to connect it back to the text. It was a lot of thinking on my toes, and there is absolutely no way you can write that into a lesson plan. The more I did this, however, the easier it got and the LESS TIME I WASTED! I also noticed that after a while, the random stories started to diminish, and the stories became more focused on the text. We were finally making deeper connections and all without having to use much negative reinforcement.

If you sometimes struggle keeping guided readers attention, I highly encourage you to try this method. Not only does it value student thought, but it also shows them how much fun a discussion about a book can be when everyone is focused.

Good luck, and happy reading!

About the Author
Over the past 18 years, Stacie Ball has taught Kindergarten, first, second, and third grades. She now teaches second grade at Horace Mann Elementary School, a school that just re-opened this year, in Indiana. She is passionate about education because there are few professions where you can make such a large, positive impact in the lives of children. When Stacie's not teaching, she loves to sing, and was actually in a band for several years!