Why Small Group Instruction Can Not Be Ignored

The Situation

Student one transferred into Lincoln Park Elementary in October from Texas. She is in fifth grade and English is her second language. Her reading level is late third and comprehension is a challenge.

Student two has attended Lincoln Park Elementary since kindergarten. He has always struggled with reading. He struggles with spelling and writing. His reading lacks fluency, and decoding unfamiliar words is challenging.

Student three has also attended Lincoln Park Elementary since kindergarten. She is on grade level, has passed state assessments with a score slightly above the cut score. She struggles with attention at times and is being treated for ADHD. She's very inquisitive, and with some modifications in class, she's kept on task. Comprehension can be impacted when the environment is distracting.

The final student joined Lincoln Park Elementary in second grade. He was identified for the talented and gifted program in third grade. He is an avid reader with a rich vocabulary. He's a quiet child, never complains, and keeps busy with independent reading when other work is complete.

What do these students have in common?

The answer:  All four of these students learn best working in small groups. 

Research shows that readers benefit most from being taught explicit skills during intensive small group instruction. The small-group, differentiated reading model enables teachers to:
  • focus on specific skills needed by varied groups of children (Tyner, 2003)
  • match instruction to the needs of learners (Kosanovich, Ladinsky, Nelson, & Torgesen, 2007). 
  • keep students engaged by active discussion
  • motivate students with hands-on activities such as word work, reading leveled texts, and skill practice
  • promote inquiry and critical thinking (Williams, Phillips-Birdsong, Hufnagel, Hungler, & Lundstrom, 2009).
  • scaffold instruction with a gradual release of responsibility.
When I think about the ELA block, the scheduling of small groups, planning for instruction, and the management of everyone else present the biggest challenges, so let's break it down to manageable points.

The Schedule:

At my school, following a workshop model seems to work best. In a workshop model, you begin the block with a mini lesson that will be the focus for all. Using a mentor text works very well for mini lessons, but teachers can also use powerpoint presentations, passages, or interactive lessons as the mini lesson. The key is to target one skill in the lesson (cause and effect or visualizing for example), and follow that, with small group rotations where that skills is further developed with text that is at or slightly above the students' instructional level. In our school, we use literacy work stations to practice previously taught material that address fluency, word work, writing, and comprehension. Some teachers also enjoy working in literature circles or novel studies during the station time as well. Rotations run about 25 minutes depending on the number of groups the teacher is able to see in a day, and the same format can be used with the writing block too. (Mini lesson focused on the writing stages followed by writing time where students can be pulled for conferencing.) 

The Plan:

When planning for small group, I typically carry the objective from the mini lesson on to the small group time, so the materials I use are easily gathered and organized. If the standard is for fictional texts, it's important to make sure that each group is working in a fictional selection. The work stations can be used for the assessment piece if needed, or the teacher can use a simple exit ticket if an assessment is required. 

During the small group time, my focus with the plan is to observe my kids work so that I can correct any confusions and to observe other reading behaviors (decoding skills, fluency rate, accuracy, and expression, and level of understanding). It's all about practicing at this point of the lesson.

Managing the "Others":

During small group time, students know I am off limits. They do NOT come to me unless: They're burning, bleeding, or barfing. For the bathroom, they give the signal, but for all other questions, they are allowed to quietly ask the designated students. This way, the focus stays on the task at hand with the small group.

What do the others do? Well, to begin, most teacher start introducing one routine at a time and limit the amount of movement and materials. Having materials in work tubs makes distribution easy, but also makes clean up easy too. For my needs, moving the tubs has been the easiest way to manage things, but you can also preassign stations using the smartboard or a pocket chart for scheduling if kids will work in a certain table, library area, or on the carpet. The key is to limit the transition time and increase time on task. 

The options for the others can vary as I mentioned. If you are new to small group instruction, you will want to focus most of your time on planning for the small group. You can begin by using independent or partner reading, journaling, listening stations, or word work during the time you're meeting with your groups and work into more meaningful stations as you get the routine established and feel more comfortable. Most importantly though,  you can't meet with small groups at all unless you jump in and work to make yourself feel comfortable with the routine.

So if you aren't meeting in small groups, I hope you'll push forward and give it a try. You will be very happy with the growth you see in your students. Is it painful at first? Well, maybe a little bit, but give it time. It will all work out.

Pin for Later:

Are you meeting in small groups each day for reading and writing or does the thought make you nervous? Check out this post for small group routine and suggestions.


  1. Oh so true! Small group instruction is the heart of the reading block. Kids learn so much more when they have more attention on what is important. Thank you for the reminders for so many of our teachers!

    This Literacy Life

    1. You are very welcome! :-) It takes practice to manage all of the moving "parts" of the ELA block, but once you have the routine running, you have an amazing reading machine. LOL!

  2. I love small group time in my classroom too! I think that time is so valuable both for student AND teacher learning. I learn so much more from my kiddos in those small groups that I might not catch about them in a large group. Thanks!


    1. It's so helpful in guiding future lessons. When we have that time, we can really hone in on the individual needs and make instruction more meaningful to them.