When You Need Small Groups for Reading Instruction

Posted by Brainspring on 14th Jan 2015

Hi everyone,

Does this situation sound familiar?

Small Group of StudentsThe whole class is at the carpet going through the Three Part Drill, or beginning any sort of reading program.  A quarter of the class is on top of things, excited and shouting out answers before other students have had the chance to think.   Half of the class is sitting there, silently, looking at the teacher but lost.  The last quarter of the class seems unaware that there is even a lesson going on, disrupting their neighbor, crawling around or taking off their shoes.  The teacher says, “Those are my ones who just can’t sit still.  I have a wide range of abilities in this class.” 

Like or comment on this post if you’ve been in a similar situation.


Small Groups Address the Needs of More Students

I frequently encounter situations like this when I visit classrooms to coach teachers and help them implement strategies to make their reading instruction more effective.  As educators we know that all classrooms have diverse learners with diverse abilities and needs.  We do the best we can do differentiate, but we focus on what level the majority of students are at for our whole class instruction.

What about those students who aren’t in the majority though?

Those students on the carpet looking lost?

Or the ones taking off their shoes?

What about the teacher?

Lessons or reading experiences like that are frustrating for the students and the teacher.  More than just being frustrating however, they are counterproductive to learning for the majority of students.  By incorporating small-group instruction, teachers can make more productive use of instructional time and address the needs of a wider range of students.

I know small group time can be challenging to fit into hectic classroom schedules, but it is ESSENTIAL.

“In effective schools, over 60 minutes was devoted to small-group work- significantly more time than in moderately or least effective schools (Taylor, Pearson, Clark and Walpole 1999).”



Small Groups Make Whole Class Instruction More Beneficial

Let’s imagine what the situation could become when small group time is incorporated.

The whole class is at the carpet beginning the Phonics First lesson.  The majority of the students are paying attention and responding quickly and correctly.  A handful of students are paying attention but not responding as quickly, sometimes they just listen while the other students answer.  There is only one student completely off task and taking off his shoes.

You’ll notice this is still a description of the whole class.  How did small groups help?  Imagine that the teacher had created small groups based on the students’ phonics progress.  She meets with the “high” group once a week to give them the opportunity to practice at a faster pace than the whole-group goes at.  She explained that in whole-group time, they should be polite and wait for her cue so that everyone has a chance to think and respond.  They agree to this because they get to show off their skills in the small group.

She also has a group or two of students who just need that extra push to stay on track with the whole class instruction.  She meets with each of these groups twice a week.   They work with the same skills that are used in the whole class instruction, but this small group time gives students the extra practice and additional application they need to stay on target and master the skills.  Now, these students are able to actively participate during the whole class lesson.

Finally, the struggling students meet in a small group with the teacher several times a week.  During this time, the skills are targeted to the level the students are at, which is behind where the whole class is at.  The teacher works intensively on helping the students master each skill before they move on.  The small group allows her to closely monitor the students’ progress and adjust the pace and thoroughness of the lessons appropriately.  Although these students are still not on the same level as the whole class, they can at least follow along during the whole class lesson and will benefit from watching the teacher and hearing the other students.


Struggling Students Need Small Group Instruction at Their Skill Level

Not only will adding in small-group time help students learn more, it will probably also remedy some of the behavior issues.  Students often act out when they feel lost and unsuccessful in the classroom.  Small-group instruction at their level will help them feel successful.

Struggling students especially need small group time.  Their instruction should be targeted to the level they are at.  For example, in Kindergarten the whole-class may be doing Layer 1 Lesson 22, while the small group of struggling students are still working on phonological awareness and alphabet skills.  For struggling readers, small group instruction should not be more of the same.  Research concludes,

Small Group Instruction Should be Targeted for Struggling readers“Small group instruction should be targeted to better meet the needs of the students in a manner that isn’t possible in large-group settings (Ford and Opitz 2008).


What challenges prevent you from getting small group time?  

Or please share your ideas for managing small group time!



Picking the Right Tasks for Small Group Instruction

Does all Phonics First or reading instruction need to be done in small groups?  No!  But there are some components that are better suited for small groups.

Depending on the situation, I often suggest something like this:

Go ahead and do most of your lesson whole group.  The Three Part Drill, New Sound Introduction and Red Words work well for the whole class.

Try and save Dictation and Oral Reading for small groups.  It’s important to be able to closely monitor students during these parts of the lesson and to make the tasks appropriate for each group.

Dictation is even more beneficial in small groups because the teacher can more easily keep an eye on all the students in the group and give them the attention they need.  Doing dictation in small groups also allows the teacher to modify the words or sentences to be more appropriate or more challenging for each particular group.  Instead of struggling to get the whole class correctly spelling the same dictation words, even though one group may be bored and ready for more whole another group is still struggling with segmenting the sounds, teachers will find they can get through double the words in half the time with a fraction of the frustration when working with small groups.


Do you use small groups?  What are the benefits and what are the challenges?

What parts of Phonics First or your reading program do you find work best in small groups?


Check in next week for Three Fresh Grouping Ideas!


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