Do We Teach Decoding in Small Groups or Whole Class?

  • 07 December, 2015

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 seemingcontradiction.
            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.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Harriett Apr 10, 2017 08:52 PM

This piece reminds me of another one you wrote which dissected the research that did indeed show that the gains of small group instruction are balanced by the losses from individual seat work. I have carried this clarification with me since then and keep it in mind at all times. I definitely see it play out with my second graders--all 29 of them. I do as much (fun) whole group teaching as I can and then do my best to make sure students are meaningfully occupied while I work with small groups. Thanks for reiterating this very important message.


Anonymous Apr 10, 2017 08:53 PM

I agree with what you said about teaching phonics/PA in a small group for students that are not transferring over the skill as a tool that they will use when they get to a word that they don't know. I want to know, if a students has been receiving quality phonics instruction in a whole and small group and are not transferring over the skill while reading should you switch to a whole language approach. I work with small groups of K-4 students at my school everyday. As part of my instruction we do a phonics lesson in K-2. I have found that some 3rd-8th grade students are not grasping the concept and these lessons are taking away from the time that they are reading. In third and fourth grade with students that have been receiving phonics instruction for three years and are not transferring over the skill. I have switched to a whole language approach and spend more time reading. I have found that their exposure to the words in text has been successful as they encounter the words again in a different context. What is your feeling on this approach?


Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:53 PM


I won't use the term "whole language" because it means different things to different people. I have two answers for you: First, make sure that you are teaching a lot more than phonics and PA to beginning readers. In my scheme, such teaching would never take up more than 1/4 of the time. The rest of the teaching would be distributed among reading fluency instruction, reading comprehension instruction, and writing instruction. That reduces the possibility of kids learning non-applicable phonics skills--and is especially true of the oral reading fluency work that should be taking place. Kids should be reading texts that have the elements and patterns that are being taught, and they should be reading these texts on a daily basis aloud and with repetition. (Fluency has a big impact on decoding ability).

Second, make sure that every phonics lesson includes some decoding and/or encoding practice. Don't just teach kids letters, spelling patterns, and sounds, but guide them to sound out or write words or nonsense words using the sounds and patterns. It is critical that this kind of application be part of the explicit teaching. If kids know the patterns so well that they can spell words properly from memory, you'll find much greater application


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Do We Teach Decoding in Small Groups or Whole Class?


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