Showing posts with label within class grouping. Show all posts
Showing posts with label within class grouping. Show all posts

Monday, December 7, 2015

Do We Teach Decoding in Small Groups or Whole Class?

Teacher question:  You are confusing me. You have said that we should “never do in small group what could have been done as well as whole class,” but you also say that phonological awareness and phonics instruction are more effective when they are taught in small group. What should be taught in small group and what can be taught in whole class?

Shanahan's response: 
            I’m a strong believer that when readers point out my contradictions that it is time to lather on plenty of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was Emerson who famously said, “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”

            That quote sure makes me feel better—and if the questioner feels like skulking away at this point, who could blame him?

            Okay, that’s not fair. You deserve an explanation of the seeming contradiction.

            First, the small group/whole class distinction. Small group instruction tends to be more effective than whole class teaching. In small groups, its easier for kids to stay focused, for teachers to notice error or inattention, and there is more opportunity for interaction and individual response.

            Although small groups may be more effective than whole class, that isn’t the real choice facing teachers. Their decisions must teeter between lots of whole class teaching versus small intermittent doses of small group teaching punctuated by independent seatwork. The kids may be advantaged by the small group work, but its benefits are balanced by the time spent on their own.

            Frankly, I see too much done in small groups. Teachers often present the same information over and over. If she has four comprehension groups, she’ll explain how to predict or when to summarize four times. My preference would be for the teacher to explain the strategy or skill to the whole class and then guide the student practice later in small groups. Similarly, when a teacher has two groups reading the same selection, I’d combine them, though it would make them larger.

            Now what about my phonics and phonological awareness statement?
That one is a little trickier. I was explaining the findings of meta-analyses of several studies that were aimed at determining whether phonological awareness or phonics instruction provided any advantage. The studies were comparing phonics teaching with little or no phonics teaching. And, over and over again explicit decoding instruction led to better reading performance.

            Although these were not studies that compared whole class versus small group phonics, the variation in studies made it possible for the meta-analyses to evaluate this feature. In some of the elementary studies the decoding skills were taught in small groups, while in other studies they were taught whole class. The conclusion was that studies that had looked at small group phonics teaching had bigger outcomes. Phonics and PA teaching work either way, but the small group delivery really magnifies those outcomes (perhaps because it facilitates the children seeing the teacher’s mouth movements and hearing the sounds clearly). (With children in preschool and kindergarten, such a comparison is not possible. All of the studies at these levels examined the outcome of decoding instruction delivered in small groups or individually.)

            However, lets not take such a finding as the final word. A program I know of here in Chicago, Reading in Motion, teaches such basic skills through the performing arts, engaging kids in songs and chants and so on.

            They deliver their engaging lessons whole class, but then follow up in small groups as necessary. If kids are making good progress from the whole class lessons, they don’t get small group work. If they struggle, the lessons are retaught in smaller groups to intensify it. Overall, this means less small group work than in many classes, but with higher rates of success. One can be both efficient and effective.

Seattle WERA Presentation Complex Text

Monday, February 18, 2013

Differentiating for Text Difficulty under Common Core

Question: I have taught elementary and currently teach middle school language arts. One thing that has been bothersome since I began teaching middle school is a lack of differentiating instruction to students’ needs. I am trying to research best practices and lead an action plan for my school as I work towards my masters. I understand that students are now expected to read at a more difficult and complex text level with CCSS. I can’t imagine handing out a text of the same difficulty level to 30 students and expecting the same results. There still needs to be varying levels of text in a classroom. How would you suggest meeting the varying levels of students in your classroom? How should the lesson delivery look? I have been concluding that small group explicit instruction, with more complex text would be somewhere to start with students who are my least capable readers. It would be a goal to confer with these struggling readers daily if possible. Other research I have conducted states that one-to-one or homogeneous small group instruction garners the best results for teaching. I would provide more freedom with my more accomplished readers knowing they already have the skills and understanding of how to dissect a more complex text. Do you believe whole class direct instruction is a best practice for teaching our readers? I have been arguing that our classroom teachers need to homogeneously group students and target specific reading skills that they are lacking. There has been a lot of discussion about guided reading and CCSS, I believe what I have discussed adapts elements of guided reading to meet some of CCSS. Thank you for your response.

What a thoughtful set of questions.

I would say that while you can’t imagine handing out text of the same difficulty level to 30 students, you might want to give it a try. Ask yourself: If everyone has to learn to read this text, what supports are different students likely to need to read it? In other words, I think in reading we’re all in a bit of a rut when it comes to differentiation. You can vary more than the text itself. (If we were having kids practice for the 50 yard dash, we wouldn’t have some of them work on the 25 yard dash, but we might give them different supports and encouragements).

For example, let’s say that I have some lower students who are going to struggle to read this like text; that is they are going to struggle with word recognition and fluency. Perhaps you could have those students working on their fluency with that text, prior to the group lesson. Paired reading/partner reading, repeated reading, reading while listening, etc. could be a real help to them. It may also be helpful for you to parse the text for them, showing them where the pause boundaries are. That way when these students start to work on this text for comprehension sake, they will read it at a much higher (and closer to the others) level.

Then, when you do bring the group or class together to take on that text meaning, you will have to have various supports and scaffolds ready. How are you going to divide the text up to work through it? With an especially varied group, shorter segments are best. Which vocabulary are you going to preteach? Which sentences do you think the grammar will trip the kids up? Which cohesive links are hard to follow? Anything about the structure that you will need to draw to the students’ attention? Is the tone important? Subtle? What help could you provide with it—without telling kids what it means or how it works? Some students will, indeed, need more of these supports than others, but that is the kind of guidance that will be necessary.

Is it best to teach whole class or small group? They serve different purposes. Large group/class lessons allow me to cover a lot of information with everybody in an efficient manner, but it is difficult (though not impossible) to monitor success or to drill down and help individuals (again, there are important exceptions).

Small group is best for lots of interaction and response, you can maximize individual participation and really hold participants more accountable. No question about it; I would rather work with a small group of students  who are struggling with a hard text, than a large group of students, some of whom are struggling and some are not. At least when my goal is to maximize the support.

I don’t think there is a best way to teach when it comes to small group/large group. They serve a different purpose and we need to move between them with some frequency. I would say the same thing about dealing with challenging text: you don’t want all the text to be really hard or really easy; you want kids to have a range of reading experiences even within each day. Push them through something really difficult and challenging, and then ease off the pressure by having them read something relatively easy. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Dr. Shanahan,
      As supervisor of reading and language arts K-5, I've stressed the importance of small group instruction during the literacy block as a means to differentiate and to work explicitly with all students. Teachers recognize the importance of flexible grouping but many attempt have divided their class into 5-6 groups and as a result, meet very infrequently with the groups or for only 10-12 minutes at a time. The instructional block for grades 3-5 tends toward whole group instruction with little time for small group. I've suggested that teachers attempt no more than 3 groups so that students receive the appropriate amount of instruction and at the same time, teachers obtain a better understanding of student progress etc... We've also been transitioning away from rigid instructional levels and moving toward scaffolded instructional support using grade level text.
      Am I being unreasonable? Some teachers insist that we "show them the research." Could you point me toward specific research on small group instruction as well as time spent 'face to face' with the teacher?

Shanahan's Response:

This is a great question. I’ve observed this problem myself over the years: too many groups and too little teaching.

Let’s be extreme about it: We could maximize the amount of teacher time with kids and the amount of explicit instruction that everyone got by doing all school work in a whole group approach. The model classroom would be students at their desks facing the teacher who would stand at the front of the room. In fact, we could probably knock some walls down and have much larger classrooms… or maybe we could get one lesson delivered via television or the Internet to all third graders. We’d certainly get the maximum explicit instruction that way…

Or we could be extreme in the other direction. Grouping is a great idea, it will give kids more chance to respond and the teacher will get a closer look at the students without the distractions of whole class teaching; the kids will even get a chance to do some work on their own (when the teacher is working with other groups). If that is what is important in education, then let’s make every child his or her own small group (no competition for responding in that situation). If there are 30 students in class for 5 hours per day, then each child should get his or her 10 minutes of tutoring. It will be tight working in reading, math, science, social studies, and the arts into those 10 minutes, but when you can work closely with children you can get a lot done, and the assignments will be terrific.  

Teaching is really a balancing act.

Too much whole class instruction and you don’t get a chance to focus on the kids’ learning needs and they don’t get much of a chance to participate. Too much grouping and you reduce the amount of instructional time with a teacher which cuts their learning, too.

The research show us two things: the amount of explicit instruction is very important in student learning and that instruction requires lots of interaction between teachers and students. I want us much explicit instruction as I can get (including teacher explanation, modeling, questioning, guided practice, feedback)… but it is critical that students have opportunities to interact with the teacher and with each other, too (to use their language, to try to answer questions or respond when the teacher will actually be able to pay attention, etc.).

Kulik and Kulik (1992) have shown that within-class grouping can be beneficial, thought the benefits are small and uneven (with a bigger payoff for the better students—presumably because they get more out of working on their own, and with smaller payoffs for smaller classrooms; small groups tend to do better than more individualized plans, including with computer work). Similarly, we have lots of studies showing the importance of amounts of instruction, time on task, and the value of explicit or direct teaching (see Hattie, 2009 for partial summaries of this work). However, this is a very complicated issue and one that you can’t just point to particular research studies. For example, small group work can be beneficial… and yet, it usually requires students to engage in lots of independent seatwork, which is related to lower achievement, especially for the lower students. 

There is no study that coordinates all of these features and factors in one big study to provide us with any kind of picture of what may be optimum in terms of balancing size and number of groups.

When I see whole class instruction, I’m always asking myself, how could the teacher make this more interactive or involving? How could she monitor student success better? Things like think-pair-share and multiple-response cards can help a lot. Moving around the classroom, watching students carefully helps, too; as does getting a lot of written response.

But when I see a bunch of small groups, I ask:  Are these groups really that different? Could this teacher get away with fewer groups?  Often I find that the reading-level differences that teachers are grouping for are just too small and unreliable to make any learning difference at all. Too often I see several repetitive lessons with slightly different text levels… no one learns much in those kinds of classrooms, since there isn’t much productive work for the students. You’d be better off collapsing to fewer groups with the teacher providing more teaching.  

Of course, the worst situation is lots of small groups, small amounts of teaching, and minimum interaction, responsiveness, and participation… the worst of both worlds. That’s why small group work tends to be more effective when the teacher uses cooperative learning practices, or includes lots of explicit instruction.
I don’t have a hard and fast rule about numbers of groups, but like you, when the number creeps up over 3, I start to get suspicious. Of course, in a very large classroom with a very heterogeneous population, you might need more small groups. This is especially true if the classes are skewed towards having lots of very low achieving students. In such cases, the reason for more groups isn’t in response to more levels, but it is an effort to ensure that the low kids get sufficient teacher attention. If the classes are smaller (say 25 or less) and they are average in their distributions or are skewed towards higher achievement, then you can usually get away with fewer groups.

Finally, make sure the scheme being used to determine group assignment is a sound one. The teachers asked for research on fewer small groups, What evidence do that have that the way they are grouping provides a learning advantage? (With common core raising levels in grades 2-12, teachers are going to need to rethink how they are matching students to books anyway.)