Running a reading programme when you have a large range of abilities

Running a reading programme with a large range of ability levels

I apologise for such a wordy title, but I struggled to shorten it! As the title says, this blog post is a variety of suggestions for how to run a reading programme when you have a large range of ability levels. These are ideas that have worked for me and are presented to you as just that – possible ideas you could try in your class. Take what you like and leave what you don’t! Also, please note: The context for these answers is year 3-year 8 classrooms. 

It is not always easy to fit your students neatly into 3 or 4 nice neat reading groups. The widest range in a class I have had was non-reading ESOL students through to students reading at a 12+ reading age… and you can’t have 20 groups! The ideas below are all different and one may suit you. For all of the ideas below, have some home reading book boxes at an independent level available.

1. Guided reading with support

Have a guided reading programme with self-managing group activities (a task board, must do/can do) and withdraw three or four groups. Use a text slightly higher than the middle of the group.  The Connected and Story Journals are excellent for this as they have a variety of levels and are high-interest topics. For example, a group from L19-L24 (purple, gold, silver) could use a L22 gold text, a Level 2 journal, a Level 2 Connected, or a Story Journal. When guided reading, have those who can read the text easily (or with just a bit of challenge) read it to themselves and search for some evidence about a set question e.g. What was the main character thinking on this page? Those who need more support can read it aloud with you. Bring the whole group back together to discuss the evidence, teach your goal, and repeat. The discussion can still take place, the teaching purpose can be met and the lower students get the support they need. Any follow-up activities can be differentiated if necessary. This is probably the most important part if it is a really broad group, to ensure all children are learning at their level.

2a) Try out self-managing group work options

I’ve previously created blog posts highlighting the benefits of both reciprocal reading and literature circles. Once students have had the approaches modeled and are confident with the systems involved, these can become self-managing groups that free you up to work with other students.

  • Run reciprocal reading groups with a text slightly above the middle ability of the group for a reasonable challenge. With practice, children can support each other to understand the text and do critical thinking. Our follow-up activities are easy to differentiate for a very wide group to give the advanced students a challenge while providing some activities for lower learners to complete. Sit with the group at the end of a session periodically to discuss their learning.
  • Set an individual contract for the week on a text at their level, or run a literature circle where students read a chapter or section of a novel. You could also set a critical thinking activity and meet together once a week to discuss the text critically. Our novel studies work well for this. We also have a free set of literature circle scaffolds to help provide structure in your literature circles.

  • Assign a text to a group and set them the task of using technology to respond to the text either as a group or with a buddy. This motivates them to help each other read and understand the text. They have an authentic audience for their reading and stay meaningfully self-managing so you can teach others.

  • Teach the rest of the class in guided reading broad-leveled groups as normal.

2b) While others are self-managing, focus on students who need extra support

In a reasonably settled class, try the whole class self-managing and focus on working with the lower students who need more support. I have used this approach when I had a group of older practically non-readers/writer ‘monkeys’ who needed a lot of supervision. They all took turns running around the field to get the wriggles out – you’ll know the kids I mean!

Every session the whole class left the mat one group at a time, after discussing their activities with me. I then worked most of the time with my high-needs group on language experience activities and shared reading. We read the text together, talked, did practical things, talked, taped the talking, co-wrote on the jellybean whiteboard, or did a response activity like grammar together. If they managed to stay on task and finish, the motivation was making a video of their experience and publishing it on SeeSaw for their parents.

This group had at least one session a week of silent, individual, computer-based activities or an art-based activity. This was so I could catch up with the rest of the class. I also did at least two whole-class shared reading sessions to ensure we covered the essential learning goals.

3. Whole class shared reading programme

In another class, my main reading instruction was whole class shared reading. I used a topic/genre-based approach using a text such as a Connected journal or School Journal on our topic. We sat in a circle, with one journal each, or I projected a story onto the whiteboard. We all read the story aloud together slowly and stopped regularly to discuss. This was also a chance for me to teach any big concepts and highlight the main teaching focus. This shared reading was followed up with one of these options:

  • A differentiated follow-up activity like our School Journal follow-up activities. Early finishers completed our Early Finishers Task Cards.

  • Mixed groups completed a cooperative follow-up activity (like our reading comprehension puzzles). These puzzles feature a range of activities so in a group setting, there is something appropriate for everyone.

  • Students made and published a response to the text using technology in groups, pairs, or as individuals. Examples included activities like reading onto SeeSaw, making a video for a Google Slide, making a podcast with a QR code, videoing a play, creating a book review, using PuppetPals (an iPad app)… there are lots of options! You can find a range of reading response activities in our free Show What You Know resource (see more below).

  • While these activities were taking place, I worked on a follow-up activity with those students who needed more support, or we did some extra reading or writing.


In summary, it’s great if you can train your class to be as self-managing as possible. Keep your group levels broad, do whole class shared reading, and make small group teaching a mix of shared/guided reading where you support the lower readers. Those students with behaviour problems normally enjoy practical activities so finding some of that type of ‘reading and doing’ activities can keep the whole class settled. For example, most students enjoy making videos for SeeSaw or Google Classroom for their parents.

I hope this is helpful, especially with a class of children where you have a wide range of ages and reading levels.

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Show What You Know Choice Board

Our Show What You Know activities are a great way for students to work independently, demonstrating what they learned from a particular text they have read. You can find this resource in our freebie library. Sign up here to gain access.

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