4 Ways To Get Started With on the Fly Small Group Instruction in Writing

When I was a classroom teacher, I admit that I didn’t often use small group instruction with my writers. I knew it was an excellent way to go and would give me more bang for my buck but writing my mini-lessons daily felt like enough work. 

How could I possibly find more time to plan another thing for writing when I was already writing out every mini-lesson, with what I’d say to the kids, choosing mentor texts, creating samples, and trying to prepare for conferences? 

It just sounded like more work, and I couldn’t wrap my head around a way to do it that would be more organic or on the fly. I would have loved to find a way to do it without all the planning! If this is you, take a deep breath. It’s absolutely possible to run a great workshop without spending a lot of time planning for small groups. 

Here are four quick tips I’ve learned over the years that have helped not just me but all the teachers I support in schools:

  1. Walk the room and look for patterns. When I do this in classrooms, it’s usually easy for me to find things that several kids could work on. For example, I’ve walked around an upper-grade classroom many times, noticed kids starting their story with “One day” or “It was a sunny day,” and pointed out to teachers that we could quickly up their game in writing leads.

    I could then gather 3-4 kids who follow this pattern and show them a model or example of writing a more interesting lead. I might show them how to start with dialogue by using my writing and doing a little demonstration, or I might pull a favorite mentor text like Come on Rain! Then, I’d coach and support kids in trying this strategy out and remind them that this would make their writing infinitely better, not just today but every day.

Tip: Start by looking for predictable problems kids are having in that unit of study. For example: If it’s small moments or personal narrative writing, see if you can find a group of kids who have written a breakfast to bed story (one that begins with them eating breakfast and ends with them going to bed, thus it lacks focus) that needs to focus or zoom in on their moment. If it’s informational writing, find a group of kids who have put all the information onto one page rather than organizing it into sections or chapters. If it’s opinion writing, find a group of kids who have several similar reasons.

2. Start a conference, and once you’ve decided what to teach to that one writer, pull a few more kids who also need that support. Years ago, I attended an eye-opening workshop on small group instruction and learned this. Why hadn’t I thought of this? I was already moving around the room working with kids one-on-one, and noticed how I was teaching the same darn things over and over! How much easier would it be to start a conference and then once you’ve decided on the teaching point for that individual writer, look around the room or at your conference notes and find a few more kids (we suggest 2-3) and round them up before you start teaching.  

3. Choose a lens to study, then find a few kids who need more support. Sometimes it can be overwhelming to think about all we need to teach. When we move around the room, we can see so many things that it can feel daunting. Next time, try walking around with just one lens or focus (for example: focus, elaboration/detail, leads, endings, ending punctuation, spelling). Perhaps you’ve been working for a while on how to stretch out a small moment story and you want to see if kids are actually doing this work. You could walk the room looking over kids’ shoulders, checking to see who needs more support with this, then round them up for a quick, small group lesson.

4. Look at on-demand writing with a specific lens and create designated groups. I often notice that schools require teachers to have kids do an on-demand writing assessment before diving into a unit. We always suggest that this happens at the end of immersion. But once this on-demand writing assessment is done, we often neglect to use that information to plan instruction from it.

Isn’t that the whole point of asking kids to do the assessment? It reminds me of when I was teaching first grade. I was making sure I got to 4-5 conferences each day so that I could get through all of my kids in a week. If TCRWP said it was possible, I was going to do it! I learned how to make my conferences quick and efficient and even took good notes on each conference. What I neglected to do was even look at the notes. Week after week, I’d drop my clipboard full of notes as I headed out the door for the weekend. If only I would have realized that those notes were gold, and looking at them for 5 minutes could have helped me plan a small group for each day of the following week.

It’s the same with on-demand writing. If you’re analyzing it and noticing patterns, use that information to help plan your small groups. If you’re just collecting the writing and doing nothing more, invest 10 minutes reading through them and finding commonalities in the work your writers need. I promise you’ll find plenty of ideas for your small groups!

Additional Resources:

  1. Small group Instruction: Writing Workshop Fundamentals
  2. 5 Tips for Making Small Groups Work Online
  3. Small group instruction regardless of platforms
  4. Tools to have on hand for small group instruction
  5. Student Led Small Groups: Beyond the Fundamentals of Writing Workshop


If you’re interested in going deeper and learning more about different methods of instruction for small groups, we highly recommend Teaching Writing In Small Groups, by Jen Serravallo. Here’s a video of Jen talking about her book.


Read more on our blog about writing workshop:

Join us!
Literacy Partners Teacher Membership
Reading Workshop For Bricks & Clicks
Writing Workshop with Bricks and Clicks
Literacy Partners Teacher Membership
Reading Workshop For Bricks & Clicks
Writing Workshop with Bricks and Clicks