Wednesday / July 24

3 Ways to Re-imagine Small-Group Reading Experiences

Often, we combat time constraints by teaching more to the whole class, while interacting less through small groups or one-to-one. Yet doing so creates more teaching-to-the-middle and less individualization.

So how do we move toward more individualized learning opportunities within our time constraints? Small-group reading experiences! Small-group reading allows us to harness proximity to design instruction around students’ curiosities, passions, habits, and needs.

For example, in Kristen Bright’s 5th grade class, a few students were reluctant to choose longer chapter books, but were excited about reading some of the graphic novels and magazine articles that had been added to the classroom library. Astute kidwatching helped Kristen plan small-group reading experiences around these high-interest texts, leading to an increased amount of time with eyes on text during reading workshop—which also increased student motivation, engagement, choice, and reading volume.

What Are You Grouping For? How to Guide Small Groups Based on the Reader–Not the Book (Corwin, 2018) re-imagines small-group reading experiences by offering a number of practical tools, classroom examples, and actionable steps essential for launching and sustaining small groups. Here are three action steps that can jump-start your work with small-group reading experiences:

Tip #1: Get to Know Your Students

(Find out about students’ curiosities, passions, habits, and needs so you can plan instruction tailored just for them.)

Kidwatching is one of the purest forms of assessment. It requires us to slow down and take stock of what is happening in the right-here and right-now. When we kidwatch, we watch and listen carefully so that we can learn students’ curiosities, passions, habits, and needs in order to plan instruction tailored just for them.

When we kidwatch, we orient ourselves to what’s going on across the classroom. We notice and record what we see or hear, both academically and socially. We take stock by capturing evidence that shows students are knee deep in the opportunities for learning. Finally, we note inquiries about our students and their learning. This Kidwatching 2.0 protocol provides a structure for capturing your thinking:

Tip #2: Launch Small Group Reading Instruction Now

(Don’t wait until next quarter or next year because now is a perfect time to get small groups up and going.)

Often, I hear teachers explain that once they get assessments finished they will begin small-group work. Or, once students learn more routines and procedures, they will get small groups up and running. Or, once they get some beginning of the year content taught, then they can focus on small group reading. There is no such thing as the perfect day or perfect time to step into small groups. Since proximity, or getting up close to students’ reading, writing, talking, creating, and doing, is where we create theories about their literacy strengths and areas needing a lift, right now is the perfect time to get small groups up and going. Here’s a short list of ideas to launch into small groups, and you can find many more in What Are You Grouping For?:

  • Reflect / discuss reading habits
  • Share book stacks
  • Discuss reading / interest surveys
  • Talk about how to organize thinking in Reader’s Notebooks (look at examples + practice)

Tip #3: Keep Small Groups Flexible

(Think dynamic, not static.)

One size does not fit all when it comes to reading instruction because students are ever-changing individuals with unique interests, passions, habits, and needs. It’s no surprise then that students need us to switch up their groups regularly and with intention so that we honor their dynamic ways of thinking and learning. There are a lot of reasons for pivoting in and out of small groups, such as these:

  • You get new books for your classroom library, and you want to get the literature in students’ hands. You create groups so that kids can get up close to the new resources to decide to take them and read.
  • You notice a few kids are stuck on content vocabulary while reading nonfiction texts. You invite students to join a small group so that you can help them focus on building background knowledge and explore new words as they read.
  • Students are spending a lot of time talking about a significant local, national, or world event. This signals you to jump-start some small groups to read about and discuss this event.

These groups might meet once or several times. It’s even possible that a small group turns into a long-term opportunity for students to explore a series of texts about a particular topic, author, or idea. The most important part is to disband a small group when the students signal that they need or want something different. Doing so honors students’ interests and needs, and values their time.

When we kidwatch we can use that intel to get small groups up and going. Launching small groups now gives you and your students more time to wrestle with the work of reading—more time for dynamic, individualized learning. Switching groups up regularly gives student more chances to learn with and from others, growing their knowledge, skills, and understandings together.


Written by

Julie Wright is a teacher, instructional coach, and educational consultant with over twenty-five years of experience in rural, suburban, and urban education settings.  She holds National Board Certification as well as a B.S. in education, a master’s in language arts and reading, a reading endorsement, and extensive school leadership post-graduate work, including a pre-K through grade 9 principal license from The Ohio State University. She has served as an adjunct faculty member at Ashland University and University of Wisconsin, teaching graduate courses focused on curriculum, instruction, and assessment and instructional coaching respectively.  Julie gets her inspiration from her husband, David, and their three children, Sydney, Noah, and Max.

Latest comment

  • Thanks for urging us to start organizing small reading groups *now*. I especially appreciate the example chart for observing readers and reflecting on what might help them.

leave a comment