Using corpus methods to identify teacher strategies in guided reading: what questions do teachers ask, and what works?

In previous blogs on the CASS guided reading project, we have introduced our investigation into one of the most prevalent techniques recommended to engage children in discussion: strategic questioning. We can now reveal our key findings, which focus on the effectiveness of wh-word questioning techniques on children’s responses.


Guidelines encourage teachers to ask ‘high challenge’ or ‘open-ended’ questions. However, these are often considered too vague for teachers to implement.

How did we examine teacher questions? One way to specify detail about the nature of the questions is to label questions by their typical syntactic forms. There are 2 main question categories:

  • Wh-word questions (high challenge) pose few answering constraints. e.g., ‘how’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘why’, ‘which’, ‘what’, ‘who’?
  • Confirmative questions (low challenge) presuppose more information so pose greater constraints. e.g.: ‘Does Mary prefer chocolate or fruit?’

Also, wh-word questions can be split into subcategories:

  • Wh-adverbs (high challenge: ‘how’, ‘why’)
  • Wh-determiners/pronouns (low challenge: ‘what’)

How did we measure children’s response quality? We used 3 indicators:

  • Grammatical complexity. We calculated the proportion of the content vs. function vs. words. Content words carry real meaning, and include nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. Function words do not carry real meaning and instead offer grammatical information (e.g., auxiliary ‘be’ verbs: ‘is’, ‘am’, ‘are’). A higher proportion of content words is an indicator of greater grammatical complexity.
  • MLU. Mean length of utterance in words is the most common indicator of syntactic complexity in children’s speech.
  • Causal language (e.g., ‘because’, ‘so’).

What questions did teachers ask? Teachers are paying attention to recommended guidelines to ask a lot of wh-word questions: these typically take up around 20% of the total questions being asked in normal adult conversation, but took up 40% of the total questions asked by teachers in our spoken classroom interactions.

How did questions influence children’s response quality?

We first demonstrated that wh-word questions typically increased response quality; whereas confirmative questions typically decreased response quality. However, in an examination of the subcategories of wh-word questions, we found that the positive influence of wh-word questions on children’s language was driven by wh-word adverbs (predominantly ‘why’ and ‘how’), and was not attributed to wh-word determiners and pronouns (predominantly ‘what’). These findings applied across the wide age and ability range of the study, indicating that even teachers of beginner readers target inferential-level skills through guided reading discussion.


Our findings are informative about what it means to ask ‘high quality’, ‘high challenge’, and/or ‘open-ended’ questions. Specifically, teachers and teacher trainers should be made aware of the effect of various syntactic forms of questions, particularly the nuances of wh-word questions: our findings indicate that ‘why’ and ‘how’ wh-word questions are most effective in fostering complex language production in children.

What’s next for Liam?

I am now working as a postdoctoral fellow at The University of Alberta, Canada! My new work examines children’s understanding of sentences containing pronouns. Children who take part in our study will wear glasses that monitor eye-movement patterns whilst they are narrated a picture book. It has been a pleasure to work on the CASS guided reading project and we are going to continue using the corpus for new investigations into classroom interactions!




CASS Guided Reading project presented to The Society for the Scientific Studies of Reading (SSSR)

In mid-July, it was my pleasure to represent CASS at the SSSR conference in Novia Scotia, Canada! Over 400 professionals attended, including language and literacy researchers, school teachers, and speech and language therapists.

My primary aim was to demonstrate how our CASS language development project is using corpus search methods to identify the effectiveness of teacher strategies that are being used in guided reading classroom interactions (also see part 1 & part 2 of my project introduction blogs). The best opportunity for this was during my poster presentation, which highlighted our first round of findings on the types of questions that teachers ask children.

We first demonstrated that teachers are paying attention to recommended guidelines to ask a lot of wh-questions (why, how, what, when etc): wh-questions typically take up around 20% of the total questions being asked in normal adult conversation, but took up 40% of the total questions asked by teachers in our spoken classroom interactions.

Second, the poster presents initial findings on our developmental question of whether teachers of older children ask more challenging question types than teachers of younger children. However, our chosen categories of question type (thus far) were used equivalently across year groups, so this prompts a follow up to examine whether finer categories of question type differ in their proportion of usage across year groups.

Third, the poster reported that teachers at schools in low socio-economic-status (SES) regions asked a higher proportion of wh-questions than teachers at schools in high SES regions. Most viewers of the poster agreed that this prompts us to look at children’s responses: the high proportion of wh-questions asked by teachers at schools in low SES regions might be shaped by less engaged answers from low SES children that require more follow up wh-questions relative to the typically more engaged answers provided by high SES children.

Although there were a number of other posters throughout the week that examined classroom interactions, none had taken advantage of the precise, fast and reliable search methods that we are using. Therefore, attendees were very impressed by how we have been able to interrogate our large corpus without being restricted by the amount of manual hand coding that can be achieved within a realistic time window.

Finally, a big thanks to CASS and SSSR for making this visit possible. As well as the incredible learning opportunities provided by the wide range of high quality presentations on reading research, I also had a good time meeting the fun and interesting conference attendees  – and local Canadians too! Novia Scotia is a beautiful place to visit, with a very friendly and youthful demographic.

Liam will be presenting a talk on this project at the Corpus Linguistics 2017 conference on Wednesday 26th July at 4pm in Lecture Theatre 117, Physics Building, University of Birmingham. For updates, watch this space and twitter @CorpusSocialSci @LiamBlything



Introducing the CASS Guided Reading Project (Part 2)

In the first blog entry, we noted that there is a substantial variability in our understanding of how guided reading is thought to foster specific literacy skills. Further, we explained how our use of corpus methods will enable us to identify a wide range of teacher strategies used in guided reading. That is a crucial first step in providing a more refined understanding of the range of teacher strategies that are used. A natural ‘next step’ is to determine which strategies are most effective: that is, which strategies result in positive outcomes. Again, corpus search tools provide an efficient and accurate method for achieving this.

Which language and literacy skills are targeted by guided reading?

Guided reading has the potential to develop a range of essential reading skills. These skills are numerous, so teachers may choose to target different skills according to the group’s reading ability. For example, 4-year-olds are only just beginning to develop their ability to read words on a page, so teachers are more likely to focus on ways of improving their accurate translation of print into word meanings (i.e., decoding skills and vocabulary). Conversely, older children are able to read words relatively well, so teachers are more likely to target improving an understanding of the language that has been accessed from the printed word (i.e., reading comprehension skills).

How can we measure potential outcomes from guided reading?

Compared to normal ‘control’ reading sessions, children who undertake a series of guided reading sessions typically display greater improvements in standardised assessments of reading skills (see Burkins & Croft, 2009; Ford, 2015).

However, such longitudinal assessments do not provide a measure of the effect that specific teacher strategies have on the quality of the responses by the child. Some recent studies of shared reading (which apply similar scaffolding strategies to guided reading, but involve the sharing of an enlarged book rather than providing a copy to each child) have attempted to investigate this by parsing through the children’s responses and coding for features of interest. For example, Justice and colleagues (2013) used this method to report that children responded to rich teacher input by providing more multi-clause utterances themselves (e.g., coordinated clauses: He read the book and watched TV; subordinated clauses: He read the book because he enjoys reading). However, as noted in the first blog, this means of coding is arduous and time consuming. Instead, we can use corpus search methods to uncover a wider range of language features more reliably and speedily. That enables us to analyse a larger number of child-teacher interactions and to study these interactions across a range of contexts and in relation to a number of different factors such as (i) age, (ii) reading ability, (iii) socio-economic status, (iv) gender, (v) reading motivation, and (vi) teacher experience. These will be discussed separately in a future blog.

Other research into shared reading has used some simple corpus search methods to measure the quality of response. Those studies measured whether the average length of an utterance is one word or multiword (e.g., Zucker and colleagues, 2010). However, such a measure is limited in richness of information, and only applies to very young children (up to around 5 years of age). Our work at CASS will draw on the work from shared reading and extend that knowledge base by providing more advanced corpus search queries that enable a fine-grained analysis of the quality of children’s responses. For example, we can analyse the quality of responses in terms of grammatical features, vocabulary diversity, and syntactic structure, rather than just on length of utterance.

In an upcoming blog, we will provide a closer insight into the specific corpus search measurements that we are using to identify teacher strategies (as introduced in the first blog), and their effectiveness on the quality of responses by children (as introduced in the current blog).

An update on data collection

The CASS guided reading project aims to create a large corpus made up of a total of 100 guided reading sessions that each last between 15-35 minutes. So far, we have recorded around 80% of our target number of sessions, and the corpus is projected to reach between 400,000 to 500,000 words!

All recordings have been at primary schools in the UK with children aged between 4 and 10 (Y1 to Y6). Recordings are made in a naturalistic manner such that they are non-invasive to the normal proceedings of a lesson. A voice recorder is set up, as well as a video camera so that we can identify individual speakers if the audio is unclear.

A big shout out to all the wonderful schools and teachers who have helped us so far: Ryelands CE, Mereside, Baines Endowed CE, Dolphinholme CE, Ellel St John’s CE, Halton St Wilfrid’s CE, Pilling St John’s CE, and Kirkland and Catterall Saint Helen’s CE. These schools have been so welcoming and their contribution to the research is invaluable! Also, a big thanks to our ‘Queen of transcription’, Ruth Avon, who has worked tirelessly to keep the transcribing of the recordings well on track for a complete analysis in early 2017.


Burkins, J. & Croft, M. M. (2010). Preventing misguided reading: new strategies for guided reading teachers. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin.

Ford, M. P. (2015). Guided Reading: What’s New, and What’s Next? North Mankato, MN: Capstone.

Justice, L. M., McGinty, A.S., Zucker, T., Cabell, S.Q., & Piasta, S.B. (2013). Bi-directional dynamics underlie the complexity of talk in teacher–child play-based conversations in classrooms serving at-risk pupils. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28, 496– 508.

Zucker, T.A., Justice, L.M., Piasta, S. B., Kaderavek, J. N. (2010). Preschool teachers’ literal and inferential questions and children’s responses during whole-class shared reading. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 25, 65–83.

Introducing the CASS Guided Reading Project (Part 1)

In collaboration with the Department of Psychology, CASS is investigating the critical features of guided reading that can benefit the language and literacy skills of typically developing children.

What is guided reading?

Guided reading is a technique used by teachers to support literacy development. The teacher works with a small group of children, typically not more than 6, who are grouped according to ability and who work together on the same text. This ability-grouping enables the teacher to focus on the specific needs of those children, and to provide opportunities for them to develop their understanding of what they read through discussion, as well as their reading fluency. In this project we are investigating the features of effective guided reading, with a particular emphasis on reading comprehension.

Features of guided reading

Teachers aim to bridge the gap between children’s current and potential ability. Research indicates that this is best achieved by using methods that facilitate interaction, rather than by providing explicit instruction alone (e.g., Pianta et al., 2007).

The strategies that teachers can use to support and develop understanding of the text are best described as lying on a continuum, from low challenge strategies – for example, asking children simple yes/no or closed-answer questions – to high challenge strategies, that might require children to explain a character’s motivation and evaluate the text. Low challenge strategies pose more limited constraints on possible answers: they may simply require children to repeat back part of the text or provide a one word response, such as a character’s name. High challenge strategies provide greater opportunity for children to express their own interpretation of the text.

Low challenge questions can be used by the teacher to assess children’s basic level of understanding and are also a good way to encourage children to participate in the session. High challenge questions assess a deeper understanding and more sophisticated comprehension skills. Skilled teachers will adapt questions and their challenge depending on the group and individual children’s level of understanding and responsiveness, with the intent of gradually increasing the responsibility for the children to take turns in leading the discussion. This technique is used to scaffold the discussion.

Our investigation: How is guided reading effective?

Previous studies observing guided reading highlight substantial variability in what teachers do and, therefore, in our understanding of how guided reading can be used to best foster language and literacy skills. A more fine-grained and detailed examination of teacher input and its relation to children’s responses is needed to determine the teacher strategies that are most effective in achieving specific positive outcomes (see Burkins & Croft, 2009; Ford, 2015).

Previous research on this topic has typically taken the form of observational studies, in which researchers have had to laboriously parse and hand-code transcriptions of the teacher-children interactions (a corpus) to identify teacher strategies of interest. Because this is a long and painstaking process, it limits the size of the corpus to one that can be coded within a realistic time window. In this project, we aim to maximise interpretation of these naturalistic classroom interactions using powerful corpus search tools. These enable precise computer-searches for a wide range of language features, and are much faster and more reliable compared to hand-coding. This enables us to create and explore a much larger corpus of guided reading sessions than in previous studies, making a fine-grained analysis possible. For an introduction to corpus search methods, check out this CASS document.

Future blogs will provide more detail about the specific corpus search measurements that CASS are using to identify what makes for effective guided reading. The next (upcoming) blog, however, will explain the motivation for using corpus methods to investigate the effective outcomes of guided reading.

Meet the Author of this blog: Liam Blything

Since July 2016, I have been working as a Senior Research Associate on the CASS guided reading project. My Psychology PhD focused on language acquisition and has been awarded by Lancaster University. It is a great privilege to be working on such an exciting project that answers psychological questions with all these exciting and advanced corpus linguistics methods. I look forward to providing future updates!



Burkins, J. & Croft, M. M. (2010). Preventing misguided reading: new strategies for guided reading teachers. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin.

Pianta, R. C., Belsky, J., Houts, R., Morrison, F., & the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network. (2007). Opportunities to learn in America’s elementary classrooms. Science, 315, 1795–1796.

Ford, M. P. (2015). Guided Reading: What’s New, and What’s Next? North Mankato, MN : Capstone.