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4 Tips for Gathering Small Groups in Reading

When I remember back to my experiences in elementary and middle school with small group work in reading, what sticks out in my mind is that the groups were always organized by level. We followed a tracking process, so each reading group had a name and a text they were working on. Everyone read the same text, and we mostly always did round-robin reading — taking turns reading aloud. 

We know now that tracking doesn’t support kids’ growth and that round-robin essentially teaches the kids in the group to rehearse their part in their mind so that they can perform it aloud rather than pay attention to the entirety of the text. 

For more on this, and if you’re still using round-robin reading, look at the book Goodbye Round Robin. 

In the round-robin model, groups aren’t flexible, so kids stay with the same group all the time. It was easy to spot the lower reading groups. I was in one of the lowest ones, and it was terribly embarrassing for me. In addition, the small group work we had was always the same.

I’ve learned a lot about small groups in my almost 25 years of teaching and leading professional development. They can be flexible, and they don’t have to track kids. You can meet with kids together who are at different levels but have a similar need as readers. And they can serve as a wonderful way to give kids an extra boost or support with any reading strategy you want them to practice.

Here are 4 tips for gathering small groups in reading:

1. Use your data.
We collect so much data during a school year. Perhaps you’re collecting running records to find out your students’ independent reading levels. Maybe you also do quick observations of students’ reading behaviors as you scan the room during independent reading time. You may even ask kids to record reading responses on sticky notes or in a reading response notebook. All of these give you valuable data that can help you find patterns. What things do you see several students needing more work on? These can be the small groups you create to teach during independent reading time.  

Remember, the whole point of collecting this data is to be more responsive to our kids. So many of us gather this data and use it for just one purpose. We can use it for so much more! Once you’ve collected the data, create groups based on patterns, reading levels, strategies kids need, or even reading behaviors you observe. 

2. Decide your small group instruction method.
The method you choose to use for the small group instruction is important. Choosing which method to use means thinking about how familiar this group is with what you’re teaching and how much scaffolding you imagine they’ll need.

If you want a high level of structure and support, try using shared reading or interactive read-aloud. For a moderate amount of support, you can use guided reading or series/book introductions. For the least amount of support, try strategy lessons and coach kids as they try on the work you want them to do.

It’s also possible to do a hybrid. For example, suppose I want to teach first graders how to make inferences about characters’ feelings by paying attention to the pictures to study their faces and body movements. In that case, I could model it first using a read-aloud text. I could then have them try it out in that read-aloud book (since they’re already very familiar with the characters), and then I could coach them to try it out in their own books (and each student would take out a book from their book baggie at their reading level to practice with).

3. Prioritize what to teach first.
Once you start looking at data, you’ll realize that there are a million things you could teach each of your readers — where do you even start? I recommend starting with most emerging readers and getting them into groups once or twice a week for shared and/or guided reading (with instructional level texts).

This will help them move up reading levels and get more practice with texts at their instructional level. Next, look for patterns across your class and find different ones you can work on. Finally, decide if your strongest readers could form a group or if you should address them individually. In terms of prioritizing strategies, it’s helpful to work first on reading engagement and habits and then move to print work, fluency, and comprehension.

4. Try just one small group a day and leave time for kids who need one-on-one support.
A 3-2-1 model can be helpful here. Each reading workshop time, aim to work with 3 kids in a strategy group, then 2 kids in a partnership conference, and 1 student in a one-on-one conference. If you follow this model, you’d be reaching 6 kids every day, making it more likely to see all of your class in one week and see kids more often.

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