Wednesday / May 29

Secrets for Success with Small Groups

As we continue to navigate pandemic teaching, there is a clear need for small group instruction. With so many disruptions over the past two school years, students are reading at a wider variety of levels than we have seen in the past. Children want attention from their teachers. They need social connections with their classmates. Small group instruction provides time to differentiate instruction, build relationships, and meet the diverse needs of students every day.

What is the purpose of small group instruction?

Small group is a time to work closely with students, a time to get to know them and build upon their strengths and interests. It is a time to listen, learn, and develop relationships. By working with just a few kids at a time, you can establish a safe, trusting classroom environment—and this holds true whether you’re teaching in person, online, or a combination of the two.

Some tips for successful small groups include:

  • Use small group time to differentiate—provide instruction that matches your students and will help them accelerate –instead of having each small group work on the same thing you’ve taught in whole group (according to your district scope and sequence),.
  • When planning small group time, think less about standards and more about students and what they can Start where your kids are on the continuum of learning and help them progress. Groups of about three to five students usually work best. Try to make your groups small enough so that nobody can hide! It’s not necessary to make all groups the same size. Remember, groups are based on student needs, not numbers.
  • These groups should be fluid and change throughout the school year. Consider flexibly regrouping students among teachers at your grade level to meet students’ needs, especially if you have only one child with needs very different from the rest of your class.

How often should I meet with small groups?

Every week include every child in some type of small group instruction. It’s not necessary to meet with every small group every day (unless you have another adult in the room and you both work with several groups). Try to meet with two small groups in a row for literacy. Then schedule a whole group activity or brain break. If you want to meet with a third literacy group, have it after this short break. Be sure to plan different lessons for different groups, depending on their needs.

Meet with your youngest learners for short periods of time to keep interest and engagement high. Here’s a general guide for timing that works:

  • Kindergarten: 10 to 15 minutes
  • 1st & 2nd grades:20 minutes each
  • 3rd through 5th grades: 20 to 25 minutes

Meet with students who need more support more often. I like to create a schedule with sticky notes or a whiteboard for a week or two at a time. Post this schedule near your small group table where you can easily refer to and rearrange it as needed. The photos show an example of a paper schedule and a digital version.

How do I plan effectively for small groups?

To maximize planning for small groups, follow these steps.

  1. Form a group based on your data. Be sure to listen to every child read! Go beyond computer-generated data, especially with younger students. Consider students’ reading and Determine which children are emergent readers, early readers, transitional readers, and fluent readers.
  2. Choose a focus, or short-term goal, for multiple lessons. Choose a key reading behavior that will help students become a better reader or writer as they read this book and the next. For example, emergent readers may work on pointing to each word while reading (one-to-one print matching). Early readers may focus on using chunks to decode short words. Transitional readers might have the goal of reading in phrases, while a fluent reader’s goal may be to pay attention to figurative language. Different groups should have different focuses.
  3. Choose several texts that match the focus. Look in your classroom resources, school library, or book room. If you can’t find the kinds of books you need, ask administrators for help. Your school may need to purchase books that match your students. Or you may need to borrow from other grade levels. Be sure the text matches the focus. If students are focusing on reading CVC words, be sure the text contains words with that pattern. If the focus is reading with expression, use text with dialogue. Again, different groups will be reading different texts.
  4. Arrange the books you’ve selected in order from easiest to most challenging. This will give students opportunities to experience success. Start with a simpler text and have students practice with increasingly more difficult books using the same goal across multiple lessons. The more you use the resources you have, the more familiar you’ll become. You can use these books with different groups over time.
  5. Read the book, and then write a plan to go with it. Use the plan as you teach. Keep it on your small group table in front of you as a reference. You will need different plans for different groups.
  6. Adapt the plan to write another lesson using the next book, and so on. Follow the same format in your lessons to simplify planning. This also helps students know what to expect as they work together in small group.

All of these points are covered in much more detail in my book, Simply Small Groups: Differentiating Literacy Learning in Any Setting. You’ll also find in-depth guidance on how to plan and teach specific lessons at each developmental level as well as all the printable tools you need to get started.

Written by

Debbie Diller, a national consultant and author, has been an early childhood/elementary educator for over 40 years. Debbie uses her experience as a classroom teacher, Title I reading specialist, and literacy coach to teach others about sensible, realistic ways to meet the differentiated literacy needs of all students in the classroom. She is known for her groundbreaking work on independent learning, small group instruction, and classroom design and has authored many books, videos, and an online course that are widely used in classrooms and universities throughout North America. Debbie’s Corwin book series, Simply Stations, was inspired by her work in classrooms to answer the question, “How do I provide meaningful practice for the rest of the class when I’m meeting with a small group?” And her book Simply Small Groups answers the question, “How do I build from students’ strengths to help them grow as readers?”

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