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In my home district, we’ve moved past the initial flurry of back-to-school assessment activity. Now the focus shifts to making plans for how we might effectively meet the many diverse needs of our students. One tool we rely on is small group work.

Walk down the halls of any elementary school and it’s likely you’ll see dozens of teachers who’ve set up camp at kidney-shaped tables, surrounded by white boards, magnetic letters and leveled texts, creating a home-base for their small group work throughout the year.

Why so much emphasis on small group instruction?  Because it is a potentially powerful tool for differentiation. While whole group instruction is efficient, we know it is far from adequate when it comes to meeting the needs of all learners. Conferring, is unparalleled when it comes to individualization, yet, in most cases there simply isn’t enough time to meet all of the needs in this way.  Small groups help us bridge the gap between conferring and whole group instruction. It allows us to:

  • Gather students with similar needs and goals.
  • Provide scaffolding, feedback and guided practice.

But, before we start wearing a path in the carpet to our small group spaces, let’s step back and remember some simple but powerful principles that can move our small group work from good to great this year.

  • Begin with the end in mind. If we believe the compelling research that shows children learn to read by spending LOTS of time reading, then we’ll design structures to allow children to spend most of their time doing just that – READING.  Instead of asking ourselves, “What can the other children do while I work with small groups?”  we will ask ourselves, “How can small groups help all students become engaged independent readers?”  When we flip the question, it becomes clear what the other children will be doing; they’ll be building reading lives by reading and responding to reading in meaningful ways.  It also becomes clear what we’ll be doing during small group instruction; we’ll be helping them develop strategies, agency, and joy on the path to independence.
  • Small means small. The effectiveness of small group work is diminished with every extra student we add.  So, it’s essential to keep small groups small. Groups of 3-4 are ideal. Groups of 5-6 can work beautifully if the needs are very similar.  Groups of more than 6 are NOT small groups.
  • Shorter might be better. Shorter more frequent and focused interactions are often better than lengthy guided reading sessions. It can be tempting, especially when working with struggling readers, to tackle a laundry list of needs while you have the students gathered in front of you. But, as Joan Moser (The Daily Five) reminds us, student ability to focus on teacher instruction is usually about one minute of per year of life (5 minutes for 5 year-olds, 8 minutes for 8 year-olds, etc.). Long lessons clutter the student’s brain with too much teacher language and are unlikely to result in transfer.
  • Schedule for EQUITY not EQUALITY. When it comes to small group frequency and length – one size definitely does not fit all. We need to let go of the notion that meeting with every child every day for an equal amount of time is some kind of sign of a being a super teacher.  Equality  – making sure everyone gets an equal amount of teacher time – IS NOT the goal of small group work.  Equity – working to give everyone what they need – IS the goal.  Everyone doesn’t need the same.  Some kids NEED MORE teacher support and some kids need LESS.  For example, our most at-risk students may need shorter more frequent bursts of small group instruction, even multiple times per day, while readers who are reading at grade level may not need a daily small group. If they are carrying on with a great deal of engagement and joy, do we really want to keep interrupting that?  Remember, independent reading is the ultimate goal .  . . not minutes with the teacher!
  • Push yourself beyond the level.  Knowing instructional reading levels is important, but is simply not enough to plan for meaningful instruction. If readers are to make steady and significant progress, we must do more than scoop them up in groups of similar reading levels. Children are not levels.  They are readers. Reading levels are descriptors, clues really, about the types of texts that will be best to use during instruction. Knowing the level is just one piece of the planning puzzle. The more clear we become on the questions below, the more sensible and strategic our instructional plans will be.
  • Regroup. Keeping your groups flexible and fluid means that group make-up and purpose will change frequently throughout the year, sometimes even from day-to-day.  Clearly defined student goals can help us realize when it’s time to regroup. If ever you’re feeling the urge to name small groups (Vikings, Rattlesnakes, etc.), please resist.  The naming process creates a mindset that this is a fixed group that will  be together for the long haul. Flexibility is a cornerstone of responsive teaching.
  • Narrow your focus. All students have many needs. All texts present many possible teaching points. But in order for small group work to be most effective, try to focus on ONE teaching point/strategy at a time. One. Clean. Clear. Focused. To help yourself narrow the list of many many possibilities to one that really matters, start by asking yourselves questions like the following:
    • Can I name the specific strategy I will teach?
    • Do I see clear evidence that this strategy is within reach for these students?
    • Is this strategy directly related to a specific need/goal I’ve identified?
    • Can this strategy support readers any time they are reading and with any book?
  •  Ban Round Robin Reading. We MUST let go of the practice of round robin reading in small groups. Not only is it ineffective, but it can actually be harmful to readers (Hilden and Jones, 2012). A list of harmful effects of round-robin reading includes such things as:
    • Creating stress and stigmatization for struggling readers
    • Interfering with comprehension
    • Forcing all students to listen to poor models of fluency
    If we keep our small group lessons short and focused we’ll have time for students to read independently in the group while we to move from one to the next listening in, supporting strategic actions, engaging in comprehension conversations, and taking notes or mini-running records.  In this way, we can replace round robin reading with short one-to-one conferences within the small group setting. In this way we can provide another layer of differentiation within the small group.
  • Keep refining your small group practices. We all come to the small group table with different levels of experience and expertise. What matters most is that we keep reflecting on this powerful practice and growing alongside our students – one small but meaningful step at a time.
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To learn more about smart and purposeful small group instruction within a reader-centered instructional framework, check out my book, Simple Starts: Making the Move to a Reader Centered Classroom.