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July 1, 2019
Vol. 61
No. 7

Turn Small Reading Groups into Big Wins

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Instructional Strategies
Of the key methods for supporting early literacy (K–3), researchers recommend that children receive a mix of not only whole-group but also small-group and individual literacy instruction. However, small-group literacy instruction is complex and can be applied inconsistently or in ways that mute the intended benefits. Researcher, author, and University of Michigan professor Nell K. Duke is an expert on early literacy development, particularly among children living in poverty. Her extensive knowledge of research on how children learn to read provides guidance for small-group literacy in the early grades.


In K–3 classrooms, teachers should devote a good chunk of every day to seeing children in small reading groups [so that] every child is being seen in a group at least two to three times a week. Students who have greater instructional needs may need to be seen more often. Research suggests that children living in communities with high rates of poverty, struggling students, and English language learners are particularly well served by small group instruction.
If we want students from these populations to achieve in and outside of school, we must make sure small-group instruction is not just "something we do on Mondays" or something we cut every time there's an assembly. It should be a mainstay of our literacy education that we provide regularly. Here are some research-based tips for small-group literacy success. (See for a deeper dive on these topics, plus free learning modules and classroom videos of these practices in action.)

Tip 1: Small-Group Time Should Include Instruction

Teachers decide what their small literacy groups focus on based on three factors: the education standards, where each child is in relation to those standards, and which research-supported instructional practices will help children progress. Those factors, together, drive the group formation and the focus of instruction. Different curricula and materials can guide teachers on the lessons and configurations they use in small group. For example, the well-researched software A2i uses a computer-based algorithm to inform teachers' decisions about groupings of students and instructional foci for their lessons.
Kids reading with the teacher coaching or supporting them is definitely a good use of time in small group; however, research draws into question only spending time in small group with the children reading and the teacher coaching. Other kinds of instruction, such as explicit phonics and comprehension strategy instruction, can be effective in small group, too.

Tip 2: Provide a Balance of Instruction and Application

Small-group instruction should include both instruction and application. Often, schools err too far on one side or the other: Either teachers spend all of the small group time on instruction and students don't get to apply what's being taught to the actual reading or writing of texts, or students spend all of the time reading or writing and don't get the focused instruction that will help them progress. We're really looking for both of those elements in any given small-group activity.

Tip 3: Build World Knowledge

In the United States, especially in high-poverty settings, we are teaching very little science and social studies in K–3. Accountability frameworks focus on math and literacy. Often, the message to teachers is that's where they need to focus their efforts and attention. In the long term, this is problematic. When students move to upper elementary and beyond, authors and texts assume they know certain academic concepts and vocabulary. We want to make sure children are experiencing rich content, including science and social studies texts, that provides the context for the instruction they receive. Good long-term reading and writing development requires world knowledge, beginning early in schooling.

Tip 4: Use Multiple Grouping Strategies

Reading levels are approximate. We know that students can read at a higher level when they have high interest or background knowledge related to a topic. We can't just say, "This child is always a level G or a level 14." Reading success depends on the text and how the child responds to teacher support. For those reasons, we can't be dogmatic about reading levels and should consider many factors and be flexible when grouping children.
Several grouping strategies are effective. In dyad or partner grouping, for example, children go through a specific protocol to read with one other peer. Another research-supported strategy is needs-based grouping, in which students are grouped based on having similar instructional needs (which doesn't necessarily mean the same reading level). Interest-based grouping, in which students are grouped because they share a common interest, has also shown promise. For example, in science, kids might select which type of habitat they are interested in reading about in a small-group context.

Tip 5: Know the Weight of Teacher Expectations

I do think there's a relationship between the decisions we make on grouping and our expectations of children. Grouping flexibly and using a variety of grouping strategies can help teachers to see children more multidimensionally. Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, known for the A–Z leveling system, don't want children to know or be defined by their levels. Levels are a tool for teachers to use when making instructional decisions.
It's really unfortunate when children know what their levels are, know what their friends' levels are, and see reading as a process of trying to get to a higher level rather than a powerful tool to accomplish their purposes—whether that's to be entertained, to learn something about the world, or to experience something through someone else's eyes.

Tip 6: Fine-Tune Time Management

To build time for more regular small-group reading, do a time analysis—a minute-by-minute accounting of how time is used during the school day. Transitions might take longer than they should. Students going to the bathroom in a group, as opposed to when they need to, may add time. Or kids may be spending time on activities with no research base—such as morning worksheets.
Next, manage small-group time so that students working with the teacher get focused instruction. That means the rest of the room is running smoothly and students not working with the teacher are engaging in productive, meaningful activities. Research supports activities such as partner reading, handwriting practice, brief communicative writing, and listening and reading along to recorded text. Once these routines are in place, teachers typically can see more small groups more efficiently in a day.

Tip 7: Make Research-Informed Decisions About Technology

Use research as your guide to make choices about the software or programs children engage with and for how long while the teacher is with a small group. If 10 minutes a day on a particular program had benefits for fluency, let's not put students on that program for 40 minutes a day—or two minutes a day, for that matter.
Educators can search for research-supported programs in the What Works Clearinghouse or by typing the name of the program in quotation marks into Google Scholar. If there haven't been any studies, and educators have the more tedious process of looking at whether materials are aligned with research, check out the recommendations in the What Works Clearinghouse "Practice Guides" or "Essential Instructional Practices in Early Literacy" on If a program aligns with the research-based best practices outlined in these documents, that's a good sign.

Small Groups, Big Job

K–3 literacy instruction is complex. Teachers have a lot to accomplish in small groups—instructionally and in terms of the content students read and write. Teachers want to develop world knowledge, vocabulary, knowledge and skills for decoding, comprehension strategies, fluency, genre knowledge, and areas of learning that largely weren't on the K–3 radar until recently, such as morphology (the study of meaningful word parts). When I was growing up, morphology instruction was considered the purview of secondary English teachers. Now, there's growing evidence that teaching morphology, even in the early elementary grades, supports children's vocabulary and comprehension development.
Or how about "graphophonological–semantic cognitive flexibility"? That has to do with developing the brain's ability to look at words in terms of sound-letter relationship (so that one can decode the word), while also thinking about the meaning of the word. For emerging areas of research like these, we now understand much better than we did even 15 years ago how important developing that ability is. K–3 reading teachers are really on the front lines of putting this new knowledge to work to improve the lives of every student.

Nell K. Duke is a professor in Literacy, Language, and Culture, and in the Combined Program in Education and Psychology, at the University of Michigan. Her work focuses on early literacy development, particularly among children living in poverty.

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