Does Assigning Kids to Classes on the Basis of Ability Help to Improve Literacy?

  • 05 April, 2013

I received a letter this week from a teacher wanting to know about ability grouping. Her principal wants to reduce the heterogeneity in reading achievement, so teachers will not have to make adjustments. She wanted to know what I thought of this arrangement.

  I see a lot of these schemes these days in urban schools. Often the school will have three second-grade classrooms or three third-grade classrooms, and all the low kids end up in one room, and all the high ones in another room. The research says that these arrangements slightly advantage the top kids, but that they suppress the achievement gains of the rest of the kids (much more downside than upside).

  Within class adjustments, the teacher having different kids spending part of their day working in different materials is not as problematic. Such arrangements can have a downside, but the improved appropriateness of instruction tends to be a bigger advantage.

  I think part of the problem with tracking kids into different classrooms is that it just gets a lot harder to teach a class with all of the problem learners (these kids aren’t just lower, learning for them is more difficult, so concentrating those difficulties can overwhelm the teacher). Also, kids learn a lot from models. They see what other, abler, kids do and mimic it; in segregated classrooms, such models aren’t available so learning slows down. Also, this kind of placement often fools teachers (no matter what level of kids that they have) into thinking that they don’t need to adjust difficulty levels. They figure everyone must be at the right level, so teaching devolves to whole class teaching with little adjustment or opportunity to read things closer to one’s reading level. Finally, in mixed race/ethnicity schools, guess which kids get dumped in the low class?

  The research is clear: heterogeneous assignment to classrooms is the best way to go during the elementary grades.


See what others have to say about this topic.

BCDavies Jun 19, 2017 11:17 PM


How about middle/high school students? My district is creating more and more classes that are targeting students that are below grade level in their reading and writing skills and then putting them in super-inclusion classes in science and social studies. For Language Arts, they are creating "Language Arts with a reading focus" classes. I understand the classes that identify this sub-group in order to provide a systematic, research-based intervention and remediation; however, what about the classes that the content is modified for the below grade level readers in an effort to provide support in attaining these skills? Does this work? Or does it end up doing more harm than good in tracking these students? Is this preparing them for college and career?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 19, 2017 11:17 PM



This is a tough question... no one is really sure what to do with the students you write about. There are definitely interventions that work (e.g., the experimental group outperforms the control group)... and yet there is no evidence that such programs provide kids with enough support to make any real difference in their performance. Studies with high school students suggest that a class in reading intervention has a very small impact on reading achievement (too small to matter in getting kids ready for college and career). I'm not against having such a period, but if kids are that far behind, they also need afterschool programs, and summer programs, and an effort to ensure that they are writing and reading throughout their regular coursework, too.

Kay Jul 02, 2017 02:14 AM


Tim, I have had the same question come up but in regard to middle/high school students. Do you know what the research says about this group of students and tracking?

Mandy Apr 25, 2020 04:01 PM

Hi Tim,
Any updated response for this topic? Or classroom placement in general? This is the time of year where admin is making placement decisions for next year. I always wonder what the best option is. Some factor controlling our placement decisions are English language learner status, literacy, SpEd, behavior, etc.
Thanks for any insight.

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Does Assigning Kids to Classes on the Basis of Ability Help to Improve Literacy?


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