Teaching Reading in Small Groups: Improving Partnerships and Clubs

If you’re just joining the summer Book Study, we’re up to Chapter Five in our book, “Teaching Reading in Small Groups.” Jennifer Serravallo’s text shares strategies for differentiating instruction through the use of small groups. In Chapter Five, Jennifer shares how small group instruction can be used to improve students’ work during reading partnerships and clubs.

Supporting Book Clubs and Partnerships

Just like anything else, book clubs and partnerships are most successful when procedures and strategies are modeled for students. Small group instruction time is the perfect place to do that. Rather than relying solely on whole group modeling, working with small groups allows you to teach a specific comprehension or conversational strategy to just those students who need it.

The bulk of the chapter details four main ways that teachers can support students while they work in partnerships and groups. Some are best for modeling procedures before students start a new book while others focus on providing support after students start independent clubs. The support strategies she details are:
  • Differentiated Partnership Work
  • Read Aloud Book Clubs
  • Book and Chapter Introductions
  • Teach Into Talk
Before conducting any type of support, teachers must first decide what to teach using these two steps:
  • Research. Spend time watching and studying the group you will work with to determine what they do well and where they need help.
  • Determine Goals. Based on your research, determine what students need in order to further their group work.

Differentiated Partnership Work: Kindergarten to Second Grade

Students as young as Kindergarten can learn how to successfully read in partnerships. One way to differentiate support for students reading in partnerships is to provide them with choice menus. Similar to a restaurant, students make choices from a menu of tasks they’ve practiced before to determine what they will work on during reading time.

To introduce new menu choices, the teacher models how to complete the new task, such as “push the belly” to practice inferring skills during a small group lesson. Once modeled and practiced inside the group, the new activity is added to students’ menus. Each student ends up with a menu containing tasks specific to their needs.

The menu allows students choice in how they spend their time while the limited number of options previously taught ensures success in completing them.

Read-Aloud Book Clubs: First Grade and Up

In Read-Aloud Book Club groupings, students receive support in two main ways - having the book read aloud to them and receiving coaching while discussing their book in a small group. In this section, Serravallo discusses two structures that support this type of club.

Interactive Read-Aloud
Rather than simply listening to a text read to them, students interact by responding to prompts at pre-planned stops. Students can interact in multiple ways:
  • Stop and jot
  • Stop and sketch
  • Stop and act
  • Turn and talk
  • Think aloud
At each planned stop, the teacher decides which method of interaction would best deliver the intended results.

Whole-Class Conversations
After listening to a book read aloud, students conduct a conversation about the book. One student begins the discussion and others continue the talk by piggybacking on their peers’ ideas. The teacher steps in when a conversation lulls or when students need help focusing on one idea.

Read-Aloud Clubs
Serravallo suggests first beginning with Read-Aloud Clubs before starting independent book clubs. Students have the same type of interactions as described above but share in small groups rather than with the entire class. While the teacher monitors each group, students practice maintaining meaningful conversations before being asked to do so independently.

Chapter Introductions for Clubs: Second Grade and Up

Providing book or chapter introductions for students before they begin reading can not only help their understanding of the book as a whole but also help strengthen a specific reading skill.

After noticing students’ inability to move past surface-level observations, Serravallo used chapter introductions to encourage deeper thinking. She provided basic information about main characters and encouraged students to note their thoughts about each. For students reading a historical fiction text, Serravallo used a book introduction to front-load their understanding of the time period, cultural practices, and even sensitive subjects such as children living in the foster care system.

Pre-loading information about a chapter or text provides a foundational understanding upon which students can build.

Teaching During Partnership and Club Talk

Deciding What to Teach
Serravallo talked more about the decisions guiding what to teach in these types of lessons in Chapter Two. It can be research completed with a group before a lesson, how students perform during whole class discussions, or from in the moment observations while listening to group discussion.

Deciding on a Method
Once the specific skill is chosen, teachers decide which teaching method to use. Four examples were provided:
  1. Example and explanation
  2. Demonstration. (Examples for both one and two can be found in Chapter Four.)
  3. Ghost partner. While students meet in groups, the teacher visits each to listen in and provide support through whispering. Prompts are whispered into the ear of a student to encourage critical thinking, redirect the conversation, or to remind of the task at hand.
  4. Proficient partner. The teacher joins the group and participates as a member. While participating in the group conversation, she only makes comments aligned with the teaching strategy. After a few minutes, she stops the discussion to review what she shared and encourage students to attempt the strategy on their own.
Structure of a Conference to Teach into Talk
These types of conferences last about five minutes so that instruction is hyper-focused and the teacher can meet with multiple groups during one period. Serravallo’s steps in structuring this type of conference are similar to one-on-one conferences:
  • Research the club. Find evidence of conversational and comprehension skills.
  • Decide on a strategy to teach. Choose a comprehension or conversational skill and then select a teaching method from the four above.
  • Follow the structure of other conferences (compliment and teach, engage, and link).


One of the things I appreciate most about this text are Serravallo’s “The Last Word” sections at the end of each chapter. This one, in particular, was helpful in summarizing the point of Chapter Five:

“I wrote about the value of using what I know from students’ conversations, and my work with them in independent and other group conferences, to conduct small-group lessons to support their social groupings - partnerships and clubs - before and while they are in the groups.”

As an educator who truly values conferences and book clubs, I appreciated how this chapter provided a different perspective on how best to utilize small group instruction time. While this is often a time to remediate, reteach, and extend whole group lessons, it’s also the perfect opportunity for modeling best practices that strengthen students’ work while working with peers.

If you’re an upper elementary teacher in search of content to support you in the classroom, you can find more on my website, everythingjustso.org, on Instagram, and Pinterest.

If you’re looking for direct links to other posts in this series, you can find them here:

Chapter 1: Beyond Reading Groups, Beyond Guided Reading
Chapter 2: Forming Groups-Making the Invisible Visible with Assessment
Chapter 3: Engagement
Chapter 4: Guided Practice Toward Independence

See you next week!

Jennifer Martinez


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