Is It Time To Hop Off The Reading Carousel?

Reading time: 3
Girl Riding On a Carousel Horse

Nick Burton

Since qualifying as a Primary Teacher, Nick has held a number of teaching positions in the UK. He recently moved to Scotland and is currently working in Midlothian. He loves finding new ways to deliver lessons and use educational spaces in ways that best suit...
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Why do we still use reading carousels?

To me, the benefits of utilising rotations or carousels are a mystery. In fact, I believe carousels might just be having a negative impact, especially in reading.

The carousel has crept into British primary classrooms over the last decade yet there doesn’t seem to be a single piece of research hailing its benefits. Last year, I added it to the growing pile of accepted, and popular, teaching approaches I would be abandoning.

What is the carousel approach?

Firstly, the approach involves grouping children but not necessarily by ability. Each group rotates around a number of activities throughout a lesson or number of lessons. While carousels within single lessons can be effective, many schools expect some subjects to be taught using a weekly carousel.

Let’s say a teacher uses the carousel for reading. More often than not, the class is divided into five reading groups, organised by ability. The teacher then plans one teacher led activity and four independent activities.

It is important to note that the independent activities should be easy enough for a child to complete without asking for help and without teacher input. I find this difficult to support as we should be pushing our children, not just providing activities that keep them quiet.

Over the course of a week, every activity is completed. There is an example below:

Dahl Group –

  • Monday – Independent reading
  • Tuesday – Pre-read the teacher text
  • Wednesday – Reading with the teacher
  • Thursday – Design a book cover for your favourite book
  • Friday – Comprehension task

Benefits of rotations

  1. Teachers who use this approach believe it is easier to differentiate activities to each level of ability. The theory is that by grouping and teaching in this way, a teacher can challenge each group appropriately.
  2. Planning time is significantly less if each resource is reused five times. Once a teacher has prepared for Monday, they have prepared for the whole week.
  3. It masks the glaring problems with primary classrooms created by increasing class sizes and decreasing adult to pupil ratio. Most primary classes in the UK now have limited or no access to learning assistants.
  4. The carousel approach limits spontaneity. Consequently, children with Additional Support Needs (ASN) may feel more included as they are able to see exactly what they will be doing throughout the week.

Why we should get off the carousel

  1. Using daily rotations, teachers struggle manage the rest of the class. More often than not, the teacher has limited scope to keep groups other than the teaching group on task. This is disruptive and learning time is wasted.
  2. By choosing to deliver lessons in this way, the teacher is limiting instruction to once a week per child. This could be having a serious and lasting effect on attainment.
  3. Rotations make it impossible to check for misconceptions or mistakes among the majority of learners at the crucial time – during the lesson. It is only after the learning has taken place that a teacher can identify misconceptions. By this time, it is too late. Oral feedback and live marking, as well as reducing workload for teachers, are proven to be more effective than traditional written feedback.
  4. Rotations require teachers to repeat identical or similar lesson deliveries daily. This takes all spontaneity out of teaching and turns instruction into a soulless, robotic, arguably less passionate dialogue.
  5. When asked to deliver my lessons in the carousel format, I have been told to plan ‘easy’ independent tasks so that the children do not have to ask for support. But if a child finds four fifths of the week’s learning easy, are they being challenged enough?

What do you think?

I have found it difficult to justify delivering my lessons using this approach. Instead I usually prefer high frequency whole class instruction. However, you might have found a way to make rotations work for you and your children. If so, let me know how it works using the comment section below.

4 thoughts on “Is It Time To Hop Off The Reading Carousel?

  1. I stopped doing the reading carousel last year for the very reasons you list. I started whole class reading and I wouldn’t go back. I now love teaching reading and the children love our reading lessons. They are all engaged in a high quality challenging text that the lower ability would never have been given access too and it really pushes them on and makes them truly included. We’ve had “consultants” visit who criticise this approach because they are not up to date with current educational research (or lack of it) and don’t make the effort to understand whole class teaching. Many primary schools still do guided reading carousels and it baffles me as to why now!

  2. I disagree with your history. The carousel approach first became popular in English primaries in 1997 with the introduction of the original National Literacy Strategy. Though it was not mandated, it was used as an exemplar in the planning section, and a weekly template plan including a carousel of group activities was included. This format was very hard to plan for, as the five group activities in the carousel had to be designed to be met in any order by each group, regardless of the whole class input.

    1. Hi Mark,

      I have not been able to pinpoint exactly when it started to occur in primary classrooms, so thank you for putting me right. Whenever its introduction, I have found next to nothing in terms of research backing up this ‘exemplary’ practice. Have you found a way in which the carousel approach can be implemented without the problems I cited in this article?

      On another note, I moved to Scotland last year, and the carousel is even more deeply entrenched in Primary Classrooms up here. Not only is reading taught using rotations, I have taught in a school where it is encouraged to teach carousels in Literacy and in Numeracy. As a parent, I would be furious to find out my child only received input for the core subjects once a week.

      1. I agree with all the points in your article, but especially point 1. I used to spend the first half of the autumn term training my class to work independently for 20 minutes, so that I could start to work with a group at a time.

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