Teaching Reading in Small Groups: Organizing and Managing Small-Group Conferring

After reading the first seven chapters of Teaching Reading in Small Groups, by Jennifer Serravallo, I found myself thinking, "This all sounds fantastic, but how will I ever keep track of all these different groups!?"  Luckily, Chapter 8 answered all my questions about organizing and managing small groups.
Teaching Reading in Small Groups book study
Serravallo splits Chapter 8 into four sections full of helpful tips for how to keep all of the great strategies we learned in this book organized.  She explains reading workshop basics, what's going on in the room when you're conferring, keeping track of your conferring notes, and how to schedule all the great groups/conferences you'll be having!
reading workshop is instructional time
Serravallo refers to Reading Workshop throughout the book, and in this chapter provides a refresher on the basic structure of Reading Workshop.  (It's not essential to have a Reading Workshop up and running in your room, though!) Reading Workshop gives you a great opportunity to continue instruction during independent reading time, and I know that I, for one, can always use any extra instructional minutes I can squeeze in. 

There are four basic components of Reading Workshop:

  • The Minilesson is a quick ten minutes at the beginning of reading time.  The basic structure of the minilesson is connect, teach, active involvement, and link.  Serravallo goes further into depth on each of these sections in the chapter. 
  • Next is Independent Work Time when students get a chance to practice what they learned during the minilesson.  They take their book bins/bags (with books, a notebook, sticky notes, and a pencil) and read in their designated reading spot. Some days students will meet with a reading partner or club, or meet with the teacher at this time. 
  • The third component of Reading Workshop is Partnerships, Reading Clubs, and Book Clubs. This part was new(ish) to me, and definitely something I want to incorporate with my 5th graders more often.  These are valuable opportunities for students to talk about what they are reading, and practice their thinking, comprehension, and conversation skills. This will look different depending on what grade you teach, with partnerships being a stepping stone for working with groups/clubs.  Again, there's further description of each of these in the chapter. 
  • The last part is the Teaching Share. I feel that Serravallo sums this up best when she says, "The best teaching shares aren't simply opportunities for children to share something, but instead are opportunities to teach something, using a student as an example."  I like this way of thinking, because in the past, I've had students share, but haven't used it as a teaching opportunity.  
student engagement during reading
Now Serravallo digs into the part I was most curious about...how do I make this all work?  Earlier in the book, she suggests way to monitor and support students' engagement during independent reading.  Having students deeply engaged with their books is key for allowing you to have productive meetings with small groups.  If they are absorbed in their book, your attention can be focused on the students you're meeting with.  If you haven't read it yet, the post from Chapter 3 has lots of ideas related to student engagement.  

Your students also need to know what to do if they run into a problem during independent reading, and how to solve it without your help.  For years I've joked with my students that they could only interrupt me if their hair was on fire or there was a wild animal in the classroom.  You may have also seen various teacher posters on social media with several humorous examples for when students may interrupt a group.  (Ryan Reynolds walks into the classroom? Let me know immediately! :) ) Serravallo provides a fantastic three-page chart (Figure 8.2) for almost every scenario that might come up when students are reading and you're meeting with groups.  It would be incredibly valuable to go over these scenarios when you're introducing independent reading norms at the beginning of the year. 

It's also important to think about where your groups are going to happen.  I've always met with groups at my kidney table (or giant horseshoe table in my new classroom!) and I've had colleagues who prefer to meet with students on the floor in their group meeting area.  Serravallo mentions both of these as possibilities, along with the idea of impromptu group conferences where you may end up meeting with students at their own seats. 
Reading Conference notes
For the past few years, I've had a binder where I keep track of which students I've met with and when, but I filled this section of the chapter with sticky notes to mark all the new forms Serravallo has inspired me to make! There are so many chart/form examples in this section and I'm not going to try to describe them all, so I'll be referring to the figure/page numbers so you can refer back to your copy of the book to look at them. 

Serravallo highlights the importance of making sure that your notes allow you to keep track of individual students even when they are part of a small group.  You also need to be able to take notes quickly. 
  • Figure 8.3 on page 212 shows a sheet where the whole class is on one page.  That way you can jot a note for one student in a group, and then write "See Student ___" for the rest of the students in that group.  The benefit to this type of chart is that all your students are in one place, but it's harder to see growth over time. 
  • Another option is to have a sheet for every time a new group is started. (Figure 8.4, p.213) The group goal is at the top of the page, and you can jot down notes about each student every time the group meets, all on one page. 
  • You could also use a different sheet of paper for each student (Figure 8.5, p.214) This is what I've always had, where I have a tab in my binder for each student, with all their conferencing forms behind their tab.  But now Serravallo has given me the idea to put individual conferences and group conferences on the same page.  I think this would be a great way to see student progress over time.  
  • The last note-taking option she mentions is for if you have students who are grouped with a partner for club for a long period of time.  Figure 8.6 on p 215 shows how one teacher had preprinted pages with the group/partner names already filled in and a spot to jot "Research" and "Teach" notes about each group. 
So when do you fill out all these great forms? Serravallo says that taking notes as you confer can help you remember everything you want to write down instead of trying to recall what you wanted to write later.  You can also take a moment in between groups to record your notes.  Some types of groups will be easier for taking notes in the moment than others.  Serravallo suggests experimenting to see what works best for you. 

What should you be writing down? Whatever you find to be helpful.  Usually this should include what you taught and next steps for each of the students.  You can also write down the amount of support you had to provide for each student. 
Reading conference schedule
Last but not least, Serravallo gives us all sorts of suggestions for how to organize and schedule the different group options suggested throughout the book in a way that's balanced for the needs of your students.  She mentions that if you have a big class, you'll end up doing more group conferring, and man, do I wish I'd had that idea when I had 34 5th graders last year! This year with 26 students, it may be manageable for me to do more individual conferring.  Either way, Serravallo says you need to find the balance that works for you and your students. 

She says to attempt to have one individual conference with every student each week, which feels a little daunting to me, but would definitely be most beneficial for students.  It's also important to keep in mind the extra support your students may be receiving - special ed, ELL, etc.  You don't want to overload these students with too many teaching points to work on.  Figure 8.7 on p.218 is a great example of how you might arrange your conferring time.  Her chart is based on 40 minutes of conferring time a day, but you could easily use the example to come up with a schedule that works with the amount of time you have in your schedule.  

Flexibility is a big part of making these conferences successful.  First of all, Serravallo mentions the importance of allowing yourself some unscheduled conferring time each day so you can be responsive and have impromptu conferences.  It's also crucial to make sure your groups are flexible.  Some students may be able to be phased out of a group sooner than others, and you can also add students to groups as you see necessary.  Figure 4.6 from Chapter 4 shows how this can work. 

I loved reading this book over my summer break, and I feel like I'm headed into the new school year with some great ideas for how to revamp my reading groups to make them more beneficial for students.  I hope you've gotten some great ideas, too!  Leave a comment to share what from the book you're most excited to try! 

Kristin from Holmquist's Homeroom

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