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Literacy Partners

Small Groups: Moving the Spotlight Onto Students

Maybe you have noticed that when you go around to confer with students, you end up teaching the same strategies over and over. This is so common! So what can we do when we look back at our conference notes and notice this has become a pattern?  Instead of feeling disappointed, consider small groups! When you start noticing that students have similar needs, you can give them even more support by grouping them together. 

You can think of small groups as the secret sauce for tailoring instruction and targeting students with specific needs. It gives you the opportunity to both differentiate and empower students in their learning. Picture this: you are currently in your narrative writing unit. You have a classroom full of students at different writing levels. You have a group of students struggling to add more details to their writing and another group who needs help finding the heart of the story. Maybe you already taught mini-lessons on these topics and you’re not sure what to do next…. This is a perfect opportunity to offer more support by pulling these students into small groups for targeted instruction. 

Why small groups… you may ask?

When you work with small groups you have the opportunity to:

  • strengthen relationships with your students. 
  • learn more about your students both academically and at a personal level. 
  • tailor instruction to your student’s individual needs
  • provide students with more feedback 

Old Structure vs. New Structure

How can we make sure that when we work with students in small groups, they are able to go off and do the same work on their own?  Often we are doing so much of the heavy lifting that they can’t do it without us sitting there. If the goal is independence, there needs to be a release to kids earlier so that they can get more practice and become more independent, even if they are still only approximating what we are working on. In the past, small groups have followed the structure of a minilesson. We start with a connection where we activate prior knowledge and name the teaching point. Then we model the strategy for the students and have them try it in the active engagement. We end our small group with a link where we invite students to try the strategy in their own writing. This type of teaching is highly scaffolded meaning that the teacher is doing the majority of the heavy lifting. This leads to the question, how can we as teachers provide less scaffolding and allow students to do more of the trying it themselves? The answer is in one of the newest small group structures: Rally, Try It #1, Try It #2, Link.

Rally, Try It #1, Try It #2, Link

This new small group structure provides students with the opportunity to practice a strategy with less scaffolding. You begin your small group with a rally where similar to the old structure, you activate prior knowledge and then name the goal of the small group. You can also complete a quick warm-up with students. Then instead of demonstrating in the TEACH and having kids try it in the active engagement, you can have kids try it twice. For example, try it #1 can involve a demonstration of the strategy, a group shared strategy, or partners working together, and try it #2 can involve partners working together or students trying the strategy in their own writing. Then it ends with a link where you remind students what they learned during your time together and you set them up to continue doing the work from the small group on their own. This is always a great place to leave students with an artifact as a quick reminder of the strategy to encourage them to try it on their own when working on their writing. 

When deciding how to structure your small group, you can think of it as a menu of choices. When choosing an option from each part, make sure to keep in mind what would best meet the needs of your students. 

In order to develop strong writers, the setup of small groups plays a pivotal role. Remember, the ultimate aim is not just to guide students, but to gradually release the scaffold, eventually allowing them to make informed decisions about their own writing.

Let’s return to our small group of students who are struggling to add more details to their small-moment stories. The following is an example of a small group plan using the new structure. 

I recently was able to try this new structure with a group of second graders. My first instinct was to model with my own writing, but my goal for this group was to give the students more opportunities to practice and help them become independent. With that in mind,  I quickly framed the purpose of the small group during the rally and then showed them the strategy with a mentor text. This allowed for students to move quickly to the try-it part of our small group where they spent the majority of the time practicing the strategy. 

This is just one example, but there are many different ways to plan a small group using this new structure. So next time you plan a small group, try it out.  After all…the magic happens when we see our students trying the things we have worked on with them completely independently. In order to do that, we need to provide them with a lot of opportunities to practice with our support.

Book Recommendations

Take your learning to the next level with these book recommendations.

Supporting All Writers: High-Leverage Small Groups and Conferences, K–2

Launching the Writing Workshop

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