Small Group Phonics in the Classroom – Good Idea or Not?

  • speech-to-print phonics small group instruction
  • 17 February, 2024

Teacher Question 1:

Our district adopted a systematic phonics program and instruction is delivered whole class for each grade level for about 30 minutes per day. We have a wide range of learners in each class, so my question is, is whole class instruction an effective use of instructional time since some students are being exposed to phonics instruction beyond their level? For example, a second grader who still hasn’t mastered CVC words, but is focused on whole class instruction focused on CVCe words. Is there any research to substantiate that exposure to explicit phonics instruction beyond their current level of mastery is going to be valuable for that student?

RELATED: Should we grade students on the individual reading standards?

Teacher Question 2:

Do you know of any research that supports the notion that all students must receive tier 1 instruction in Phonics at their grade level even though they are significantly below in their decoding skills? I know that it is important that all students receive tier 1 instruction with grade level materials such as complex text and vocabulary, however I always get asked the question if it makes sense in phonics. I work with many teachers and often hear that some of their students still do not know letters, sounds or cannot yet decode simple CVC words yet they are receiving tier 1 instruction in more advanced phonics concepts. Is there any merit to this? 

Shanahan replies:

Glad you asked. I’ve been thinking about this problem recently. I’ve come across claims that teachers must differentiate phonics instruction, as well as ads claiming the superiority of certain products because of their instructional delivery to multiple small groups in a classroom.

Those assertions puzzle me because they fly in the face of the research that I knew and failed to cite any supporting evidence.

These kinds of questions don’t always match well with the research.

I wish that I could identify a bunch of studies comparing within-class small group instruction addressing varied content with whole-class instruction with no content adjustment.

Half these imaginary studies would equalize the amounts of instruction; the whole classes would get 30 minutes a day and so would each small group, though this would necessitate a lot of seatwork for groups not with the teacher.

The other half of the studies would limit the overall time devoted to phonics in the classroom – staying to a total of 30 minutes for both the whole class and the multiple small group versions. The amounts of time devoted to the small groups would have to share the 30 minutes, 2 groups would get 15 minutes each, 3 groups would get 10 minutes, and so on.

With those kinds of data, I could provide you a solid research-based answer.

Instead, I must reason from existing research, that is not a perfect fit for these questions.  

Existing research has studied the effectiveness of phonics delivered through both whole class and small group instruction, though group size was not the point of those studies. The necessary comparison comes from a meta-analysis of 38 studies (National Reading Panel, 2000, (NRP)).

The problem with this kind of question in a meta-analysis is that the feature being evaluated was not manipulated by the researchers. It is only a correlation.

Unfortunately, for this question, you are mainly comparing phonics instruction in the whole classes (in the original studies whole classes received or did not receive phonics) with phonics instruction delivered to small groups (these studies compared small groups with or without phonics).

The meta-analysis looked to see if there were different effect sizes for the whole group and small group studies. Any difference of this analysis could be due to group size – in small groups teachers can tailor instruction to individual needs, more easily intensify instruction, better monitor children’s progress, and be more responsive. But any differences could also be due to the Tier 1 versus Tier 2 aspects of the context – perhaps classroom kids are more responsive to instruction, for instance. In other words, the research here will give us the best prediction of how experimental comparisons might come out, but they don’t study the benefits of differentiation directly, so there is a lot of room for error.

What did NRP find?

Basically, NRP reported no significant differences between small group and whole class phonics instruction. They appear to be equally effective, despite the idea that the small group instruction would be better matched to the students’ levels.

I quote:

“Inspection of effect sizes for individual studies… reveals that some whole class programs produced effect sizes as large, and sometimes larger, than those produced by small groups or tutoring. Given the enormous expense and impracticality of delivering instruction in small groups or individually—except for children who have serious reading difficulties— research is needed to determine what makes whole class phonics instruction effective” (National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 2-121).

I think part of the problem here is that teachers may be thinking about phonics in the same way that they think about (and should think about) math curriculum. It would not be possible to teach kids long division before they had some degree of mastery of subtraction, since it is entailed in division problems.

But a phonics curriculum is not like that. Few skills need to be taught before other skills can be learned. The sequence of phonics is largely arbitrary.

We advise teaching the skills that are more frequently used before less usable ones, but it is not necessary to know the t /t/ sound before the w /w/ sound. The same can be said about the CVC and CVCe patterns. One of these may help unlock more words than the other, but they are both useful.

You may think that if some kids haven’t yet mastered the CVC, they won’t benefit from  lessons on the CVCe. That isn’t the case. Students may reap a greater payoff from the CVC pattern in terms of how many words it might help decode, but the lack of the earlier skill should not be an impediment to learning the others – nor would it vitiate the value of learning the CVCe.

I would certainly like to give everyone the biggest payoff with every lesson. The cost of that isn’t worth it in this case.

Dividing a class into groups means someone will get less instruction. The kinds of gaps mentioned in these letters would best be addressed in a Tier 2 pullout, or afterschool or summer program (not instead of the classroom teaching, but in addition to it).

I would keep everyone moving forward with their phonics program whole class because that allows maximum teaching time for each element and pattern. It allows students to develop the ability to visually and phonemically recognize the elements in a variety of word contexts, as well as sufficient time for spelling and reading such words, and for practice with decodable text.

This same instruction in small groups either must be less thorough or more hurried. Not good choices if our goal is mastery.

The other alternative is to allow phonics to devour reading instruction – ignoring the needs to build language, fluency, comprehension, and writing. Again, not a good idea, and certainly not an idea in accord with the science of reading.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Mark Feb 17, 2024 12:20 PM

1. For the kids who already know and can spell the pattern in the whole class lesson, would you suggest they do something else or join in on the whole class lesson?

2. Would you recommend targeted (tier 2) small group time, in addition to the whole class lesson, for the students who are below grade level as identified by your diagnostic assessments?

Timothy Shanahan Feb 17, 2024 03:16 PM

That's a good point, Munro. You're not wrong about that. But remember Carol's small phonics groups were established, not by trying to fill in gaps in skills that the students had missed out on, but by sending off those kids whose phonics skills were already adequate -- in other words, one group received phonics and the other worked on reading/language activities more independently. Also, I have no doubt that small group instruction can be more effective than whole class instruction in pretty much anything -- but that benefit tends to be lost by the severe reduction in amount of instruction that those students suffer.


elana gordon Feb 17, 2024 02:54 PM

The scenario you presented in your response for small group indicated children would have time without the teacher which can be unproductive. What if the grade level used a walk to read model where kids were split into small groups but there were enough teachers to teach to their skill set, but then they rejoined larger groups for building knowledge, language and vocabulary. Would you recommend small groups in that scenario, at least until children started to accelerate their progress?

Ann Christensen Feb 17, 2024 02:58 PM

I am seeing phonics ‘devour reading instruction’ in many classrooms. Teachers can easily assess which phonics skills a child lacks and then reteach those skills in small group after 30 minutes of whole group instruction. This, they have been convinced, is what SOR is all about. Once children have mastered the phonics skills, they will magically transfer that understanding to decode and encode text. Only children who have mastered skills get to read books in small group. So for many children, it’s like swimming lessons without water.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 17, 2024 03:09 PM

You can do that, but there are two possibilities with that... either the number of children who need that will be small, in which case the shift will be more of a Tier 2 intervention or the numbers of such children will be large in which case, they will be taught in rather large configurations (like whole class instruction who work at a different point in the curriculum).


Munro Richardson Feb 17, 2024 03:10 PM

Tim, what about Carol Connor's work? She published multiple peer-reviewed studies that examined the effects of small group vs whole group code-and meaning-focused instruction. Her empirical work found greater impact for small group instruction. These studies were published after the 2000 NRP report.

Two examples:

"Overall, the effect size for student-level, code-focused instruction (small group) was about 10 times greater than was its classroom-level (whole-class) counterpart."

Connor, C. M., Morrison, F. J., & Slominski, L. (2006). Preschool instruction and children's emergent literacy growth. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(4), 665.

"However, TMMF [Teacher-Managed Meaning-Focused Instruction] and TMCF [Teacher-Managed Code-Focused Instruction] are about four times more effective when provided in small groups."

Connor C. (2014). Individualizing teaching in beginning reading. Better: Evidence-based Education. 6(3): 4-7

Timothy Shanahan Feb 17, 2024 03:19 PM

As Munro points out above, there is evidence that allowing those students who have already mastered those skills to skip the phonics lessons and work on other reading and language activities instead (being retaught the already mastered skills is a waste of their time -- and typically those kids are able to work more independently with benefit). I would definitely provide those students with the gaps with additional phonics through a Tier 2 mechanism.


Elizabeth Robins, Ed.D Feb 17, 2024 03:42 PM

"I would keep everyone moving forward with their phonics program whole class because that allows maximum teaching time for each element and pattern. It allows students to develop the ability to visually and phonemically recognize the elements in a variety of word contexts, as well as sufficient time for spelling and reading such words, and for practice with decodable text."

Totally agree! In the time of Whole Language, including its feint into Balanced Reading, teaching first and later second graders, I found they came to me with a confused knowledge of the basic 42/44 sounds, and limited ability to use the little phonics they had. I initiated whole class, brisk daily introduction and review, with lively repetition, of these sounds (Jolly Phonics) accompanied by how to apply these in decoding text and encoding for spelling. Small group sessions gave me further knowledge of the targeted review and practice that individuals needed.

Linda Diamond Feb 17, 2024 03:46 PM

Actually there are studies that showed strength for small group decoding instruction. These studies came from Project Follow Through and DI, the more recent meta analysis of DI done by Dr. Jean Stockard, and there have been studies done on Success for all,SIPPS, and more recently Bookworms. What these had in common was a walk to read approach. This was supported in studies done by Sharon Vaughn particularly for struggling students but confirmed for students without learning difficulties by Lou et al. Hoover and Tunmer address this as well in their 2020 book. As Dr. Shanahan rightfully points out, time within class is an issue but the walk to reading model can remove that issue. Mastery approaches to phonics instruction tend to be the ones that use the small group approach. Big DI, little di, Success for All, Bookworms. They do require a school wide approach but the evidence particularly from Vaughn is quite compelling (Vaughn et al. 2001). Multiple studies also concluded that small group instruction afforded students more engaged time and opportunities to respond with the ability to "Hear" each student and provide targeted corrective feedback. At the same time small groups enabled advan ed students to move forward.

Lauren Feb 17, 2024 04:30 PM

I think that all primary students, including the struggling readers, need to be reading appropriately leveled texts. When students read, they are synthesizing and practicing phonics concepts to find meaning. I have also seen the over emphasis on isolated phonics instruction devour reading programs. The struggling readers end up with c-a-t over and over again without ever reading a story about a cat. I agree with Dr. Shanahan that all students should receive direct instruction in phonics by the classroom teacher. Struggling readers should receive Tier 2 instruction in phonics integrating decodable and leveled reading in addition to their classroom instruction. These students often need the same phonics skills repeated over and over several times with different instructional strategies to reach mastery. They definitely need to use the skills by reading books to retain the mastery.

Angelique Wynkoop Feb 17, 2024 04:31 PM

Small group instruction certainly does incur a cost. I am wondering to what extent teachers or schools may opt for small group instruction because they have seen evidence that off task behavior (inattention, distractibility, etc) is easier to quash in small groups than in whole group? ????????

Pat Doran Feb 17, 2024 05:44 PM

When I was a young girl in 1st grade in 1942, my young teacher taught whole-class explicit, systematic instruction in phonics to the 60 students in our class! All but two passed to the 2nd grade. She retained two students who had not mastered the 1st-grade skills, as was the wise policy in those days. The rest of the students were my classmates for the next seven years. Throughout those years, we had round-robin reading daily in our various classes requiring textbooks. While the academic abilities of the students varied, as would be expected, 100% of us were very capable readers.

Bruce Howlett Feb 17, 2024 07:58 PM

With all due respect - shouldn't any discussion about teaching phonics include post-NRP research showing that isolating code instruction from morphological awareness and semantics produces the type of limited results that were evident in Reading First data - small gains in decoding coupled to no gains in comprehension?

Kelly Cartwright and others' research on what she calls 'word callers' clearly shows that ~30% of readers with high degrees of accuracy and fluency are weak comprehenders. Freddy Hiebert and others are using data from NAEP that shows that 94% of students below the proficient level read accurately.

There is consensus findings that tying phonemic, orthographic and morphological (POM) instruction together in an integrated manner forms the foundation for reading. POM is called:
• ‘triple word form’ by Virginia Berninger and colleagues
• ‘connection between orthographic, phonological and semantic sequences’ by Mark Seidenberg
• ‘the bonding of pronunciation, spelling and meaning’ by Linnea Ehri
• ‘letter, sound and meaning flexibility’ by Nell Duke and Kelly Cartwright
• “POSSuM: Phonology, Orthography, Semantics, Syntax, Morphology’ by Maryanne Wolf and friends
In addition, Berninger "demanded" that the NRP reconvene to correct the error of leaving out morphology from the report. I concur.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 17, 2024 08:16 PM

I know of 2 studies that show teaching morphology in addition to phonics has a positive impact on students' decoding skills and I have written about that. In both of those cases, morphology was an add on, not an integrated part of it. I'm happy that a lot of smart people think morphology should be integrated with phonics and I'm eagerly awaiting the research studies in which that is tried out and found to have even better results. Until then, I'm going to wait for the research to catch up to the theory. In medicine, they theorize, they test the theory, and if the theory holds up then they try to implement on scale. In education, people like to theorize and then go right for implementation (we're so smart we don't need to evaluate our ideas, just promote them).


Holly Lane Feb 17, 2024 08:36 PM

We've seen enormous success with whole-class phonics instruction that is followed with brief (2-10 minutes) sessions of small-group supplemental support for the kids who need more practice opportunities. In this scenario, new small groups are formed each week based on assessment data that are used to determine specific needs: (a) who needs extra practice, (b) what concept(s) they need practice with, and (c) how much extra practice they need. This keeps all students progressing forward together, rather than slowing down progress for some children and ensuring that gaps widen. There will always be some students who need intervention on top of this, but implementing whole group with fidelity and providing targeted, supplemental small group for those who need it can reduce this number significantly.

Barb Mead Feb 17, 2024 09:56 PM

We embarked on explicit systematic phonics instruction several years ago and have recently extended this to explicit spelling instruction with the inclusion of age level appropriate morphology and etymology for our upper levels. For context, I’m head of primary in an online school. We have a high turnover of students, with many students not starting with us until Year 4 or 5. Frequently our late enrolees have missed significant schooling and struggle with literacy.
My solution has been to develop an approach where we do whole class year level phonics / spelling instruction at level for 20-30 minutes; then break into groups for at level instruction and practice.
The first section is delivered to the whole cohort by one teacher (all classes within the year level combined). The second 30 minute lesson segment is streamed instruction within the year level. All teachers and aides take a small group for targeted instruction and practice at level.
My aim is to provide all students with both year level and at level instruction and support. To date I’ve only been able to find research about one or the other (whole cohort OR small group).
As our results have been very positive, I’m wondering if you are aware of and studies that consider a blended approach.
Please note, students are not given the option of independent work - in this model, they work with an instructor 100% of the time.
Interested in your thought.

Sarah Feb 17, 2024 11:52 PM

At our school, we keep whole group instruction moving with UFLI (2 new concepts a week), reteach the prior week’s concepts in small groups (based on 5th day assessment data), and while students are getting that reteaching, intervention teachers pull students with the largest gaps as identified by the Quick Phonics Screener and work with them on those skill deficits using UFLI. Just wanting to check our practice and make sure it’s aligned to what’s been proven to be effective. Is this what you refer to in the 5th, 6th, and 7th paragraph, where you say no studies have looked at this yet? Thanks so much, I want to make sure I understand this!

Timothy Shanahan Feb 17, 2024 11:54 PM

That makes sense to me. Be as efficient with your teaching as possible and everyone has a chance of success. Whole group is efficient, keeping some kids longer to make sure they get it is prudent, and it minimizes the down time for the rest of the class.


Fiona Dickson Feb 18, 2024 01:22 PM

At the level of CVC and CVCe, I agree. But in classes now we have refugees who struggle with basic consonants and vocab. In these cases, I would argue that small group work is needed with guided practice.

William Feerick Feb 18, 2024 01:28 PM


I'm curious about your thoughts regarding Linda's comment and the "walk to small group" intervention model. And, thank you so much for sharing your analysis in this blog.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 18, 2024 03:19 PM

That can reduce the time reduction problem of small group teaching – it also does away with small groups to some extent since I assume you would still have the same number of teachers available. I know of no research on the Joplin Plan with phonics but see nothing in the model that would undercut the usual effectiveness of phonics.


Dawn Bittle Feb 18, 2024 03:46 PM

I use a program called Heggerty for phonics. It is an all audio program that takes 10 min/day. I think Heggerty is great for Kindergarten whole group instruction. For 1st and 2nd grade there should only be a few students remaining who need explicit small group phonics instruction. It those grades it would be easy to pull a small group for 10 min/day to support the few students who need it. In my opinion, thirty minutes of phonics instruction per day is overkill.

In my Reading and Literacy added credential program, I learned that most students only require 20 hours total to be able to understand and apply the skills. This would require only 120 days for 10 min/day of Tier 1 whole group phonics instruction in Kindergarten for most students. By the end of 2nd grade there should only be 5% of students who require Tier 2 instruction. Those students will likely end up requiring an IEP for Intensive Intervention Program (Tier 3) in a Mild/Mod SpEd program.

Ann Christensen Feb 18, 2024 04:48 PM

Whole language was, in part, an effort to bring meaning, language comprehension, and child motivation into a rote basal curriculum. Teachers were held to account for a basal system that NAEP data and teacher response found ineffective for many children. Whole language over emphasized Language Comprehension and thus Decoding was neglected to the detriment of developing readers. Although the SOR clearly delineates both Language Comprehension and Decoding, current practice leaves little or no time to develop Language Comprehension. Without both components of SOR, there will, again, be minimal success. To me, a teacher since the 70s, the argument continues to be, which is more important the vinegar or the baking soda. Neither, no matter the amount, will cause a fizz!

Mary Baker-Hendy Feb 19, 2024 12:47 AM

Dr. Shanahan, Thanks for this rich discussion on instructional groupings.
Aside from the groupings, make no mistake when you are teaching foundational skills (PA, Phonics, Syllables, Morphology, Syntax and Semantics) it must be sequential and cumulative for the learner. A student who has not yet mapped simple cvc words is not going to gain much from learning complex vowel patterns. The patterns will be weakly mapped and need to be repeated. Students need time to integrate new phoneme/grapheme patterns, by seeing, speaking, writing and then reading them in text. This is how orthographic mapping takes place.
Having said that, if you stay within a similar phonetic pattern, you can look for ways to build more advanced words. Anita Archer’s Phonics for Reading introduces two syllable cvc words, such as “mis-hap” early in the program’s instructional sequence and it works, but that is because it is building on a similar phonetic pattern, concept. Oh my, look at the morphology you can integrate and the interesting sentences students can write!
It was great to see and read Linda Diamond and Holly Lane’s comments.

Harriett Janetos Feb 19, 2024 01:44 AM

"To the student a CVC and CVCe lesson are no different -- no matter what they know about either of those concepts. It is just a tool the teacher is trying to impart."

This is such an important point. When I was trained in Phono-Graphix many years ago, I was struck by the following analogy: If a kindergartener can recognize a triangle and a square separately as well as a triangle on top of a square (a house), then that same kindergartener can recognize 'o' and 'w' separately and 'ow' together. In my reading intervention groups, my first graders are reading decodable books to a 'print partner' at home that corresponds to the phonics patterns in the sequence that they haven't mastered yet (there are ten decodable books with several stories in each book), but as a group I am guiding all of the students through the first grade sequence so they have exposure to and practice with all of the phonics patterns introduced in first grade.

Tim, I often quote you: "If low-performing fourth-graders are to be taught from second grade books, when do they catch up?"

Kate Rowntree Feb 19, 2024 01:04 AM

Very helpful discussion, thanks. We're finding similarities, and obviously a well taught (differentiated?) whole class lesson will be more efficient (and according to the research as likely to be impactful). But, I'm unclear as to the extent the whole class lesson needs to cater for the needs of the lower progress (tier 2 students) who are also in the class lesson. Their experiences of success are possibly threatened due to their handwriting, conceptual, spelling skills not being up to speed compared to the rest of the class. I was very interested in your comments that someone learning CVC can learn VCe etc. I'd love to hear your thoughts (and I understand the dearth of research) on how you'd manage/enable tier 2 students within the classroom when a phonics lesson is taking place that they are not 'up to' in their own phonics learning. Thanks, Dr Kate Rowntree, RT:Lit, Napier, NZ

Timothy Shanahan Feb 19, 2024 01:10 AM

Such a lesson is no different than it would be for the other kids (though the teacher might watch more closely knowing this student is making slow progress -- might seat him/her more closely, etc.). To the student a CVC and CVCe lesson are no different -- no matter what they know about either of those concepts. It is just a tool the teacher is trying to impart.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 19, 2024 01:15 AM


It needs to be sequential -- there has to be an order to it. It is just that for the most part it is an arbitrary sequence with no evidence that one is any better than another.


Neena Saha Feb 19, 2024 04:34 PM

Hi Dr. Shanahan! Perhaps there is no research for students in gen ed on the use of classroom time for whole vs small groups, but would you agree there is for students with RD/LD? I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this meta-analysis: Grouping Practices and Reading Outcomes for Students with Disabilities "...Results indicated positive effects for alternative grouping formats compared to whole class instruction; support for the efficacy of student pairing was particularly strong." And this article: Instructional Grouping for Reading for Students with LD: Implications for Practice "Teachers' grouping practices during reading instruction can serve as a critical component in facilitating effective implementation of reading instruction and inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classes"

Jenn Clinger Feb 19, 2024 08:17 PM

On the flip side of this questions, what does research suggest for students who are participating in phonics instruction, but have already mastered the skills taught? For example if you have a second grade student who is reading fluently and with comprehension, evident per assessments administered and through informal reading conferences, what should be happening during their phonics time? Several people mentioned the amount of time in whole group phonics instruction is increasing with the Science of Reading mentality. How does this affect readers? What recommendations can you make for these students?

Mary Baker-Hendy Feb 19, 2024 09:08 PM

Hi Dr. Shanahan, I wholeheartedly agree that program sequences vary and that one is not superior over the other. Lord, I stopped counting the sequences I have used in my career! Some with greater success than others, but none because of sequence.
My concern is for teachers new to teaching foundational skills in whole group. I hope they understand that when a student at a lower level is briefly exposed to advanced patterns in whole group, they won't necessarily learn that pattern. Even if they do, the foundation is weak. It's learning in sequence, cumulatively, that helps most students make sense of a very complex written language system, English.
Thanks for your reply, Mary BH

Timothy Shanahan Feb 19, 2024 10:25 PM


What matters is hat the children learn about decoding the words in text... the sequence of teaching has nothing to do with. The order that we teach things in phonics is arbitrary (the students can learn one element or spelling pattern without any knowledge of any other). The notion that some kids struggle because they aren't being taught the wrong phonics skills makes no sense and is not consistent with the research. And, the studies show that kids learn no more phonics in the small group than the whole class. You have your beliefs, but the data don't match with them.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 19, 2024 10:31 PM


As one someone else reminded me in these comments of the work of Carol Connor. Carol found that young children who already knew the phonics were benefited more from independent reading and writing work away from the group. She also found that those children who had already mastered the decoding skills were usually able to work profitably away from the teacher. I would not only use assessments to identify kids who needed more phonics than I could provide in the classroom, but those kids who would benefit from a different routine.


Timothy Shanahan Feb 19, 2024 11:33 PM


Hi, I just cited your work today!
No, I would not agree with that. Not because I don't believe that small group instruction will usually be more powerful than whole class instruction for all of the reasons noted above. However, the studies you cite fail to account for the time differences in instruction. It's one thing to assign low readers to a pullout intervention that provides powerful small group instruction in addition to what is provided in the classroom. But in a classroom, the time tradeoff overpowers the benefit -- kids get better teaching, but less teaching. Those studies make the wrong comparison -- they show how small group compares to whole class, but not how it plays out with the time differences.


Jill Feb 19, 2024 11:55 PM

Hi Dr. Shanahan,
Thank you so much for this blog topic! I am curious about the kids who have already mastered the phonics skills when reading. Would it make sense to assess their knowledge in both reading and spelling before concluding they should do alternative learning activities during phonics time? Maybe use some type of spelling inventory to make sure they they can read and spell the words or is being able to read enough?

Timothy Shanahan Feb 19, 2024 11:59 PM


That is very reasonable. At one time, I would have recommended that if the students could read at 2nd or 3rd grade level, teachers didn't need to worry about decoding scores. More recent research has changed my mind on that. Your suggestion will help make sure that students really do have the skills that would allow them to skip those lessons.


Neena Saha Feb 20, 2024 12:06 AM

Tim- Thanks for the response!! I feel honored you cited my work! I hope it was in a good way, lol, and not "..per the major flaws in Saha et al." :) Also, how random that it was on the day I reached out to comment! Ok, onto the topic at hand: I appreciate your comments! Having gone to Vanderbilt I have the Fuchs body of work on PALS fresh in my mind. Surely (but maybe not "surely") there would have been some initial studies that showed it was more beneficial to use instructional time via a peer-assisted method than whole class w/ one instructor? This will prob send me down the rabbit hole. Small groups (and variations like it) are so popular, it will be big news (at least to me!) if there really is no research to back it up!!

Timothy Shanahan Feb 20, 2024 01:48 AM

Positively -- I promise. The work that you want to look at are the meta-analyses of Robert Slavin and if you are interested in some of the baggage carried by within classroom grouping schemes (as far as the lowest readers are concerned) -- look for Sorenson & Hallinan. It is very reasonable to set up Tier 2 small groups, to split off the kids who already know their phonics so you can be more intensive with those who don't, and to use small groups in targeted ways (like reteaching a lesson you don't think the whole class got), and small groups make sense when you have multiple teachers available. Otherwise, you are putting quality against quantity and it doesn't come out the way you would hope.


Ed Jones Feb 20, 2024 11:54 AM

Dawn, I believe that Heggerty (you seem to describe the older version) would be called a Phonemic Awareness (PA) program. More recent data says that that approach starts to lose effectiveness after only ten hours of instruction. You can move on after that--with perhaps a brief refresher on blending and segmenting at the start of first grade.
If that occupies your first ~60 days of kindergarten, you can then move to some phonics, which many schools will mostly accomplish in first.
The phonics instruction will ~cover the remaining 9 skills here:

This program is free, has a large community for support, and is well researched:

Peter Dewitz Feb 20, 2024 02:20 PM

I would like to strengthen the point made by Munro who cited the work of Carol Connor and her colleagues. Before we get to Connor’s work consider that Barbara Taylor (2000) and her colleagues found that effective first grade teachers (as measured by students’ growth in word recognition and fluency) spent twice as much of their classroom time in small group instruction (37 versus 60 minutes) than less effective teachers. Juel and Minden-Cupp (2000) also found that their effective teachers differentiated through small group instruction changing the amount of time and the focus of phonics instruction as the students’ needs changed. The ineffective teachers did not adjust their groups or the focus of instruction.

The Connor’s studies follow students from first through third grade and she found strong evidence for child X instruction interactions. Some kids need a lot of teacher directed phonics instruction and others do not. The kids who easily crack the code can work independently reading and writing, while the teacher devotes more time to explicit phonics instruction for the students who need it. This might be considered Tier 2 instruction, but it is taking place in the classroom with classroom teacher delivering the instruction. The point of Connor’s work was not to equate times to provide a proper tests of small versus whole class instruction, but to differentiate time because some students need more. In a number of replications Connor provided data differentiating time, tasks and the explicitness of instruction enable 94% of the students to read at or above grade level by the end of third grade. This can’t be done by teaching just to the whole group which is what the newest crop of basal readers are preaching.

Connor, C. M., Morrison, F. J., Fishman, B., Crowe, E. C., Al Otaiba, S., & Schatschneider, C. (2013). A longitudinal cluster-randomized controlled study on the accumulating effects of individualized literacy instruction on students’ reading from first through third grade. Psychological Science, 24(8), 1408-1419.

Juel, C., & Minden?Cupp, C. (2000). Learning to read words: Linguistic units and instructional strategies. Reading research quarterly, 35(4), 458-492.

Taylor, B. M., Pearson, P. D., Clark, K., & Walpole, S. (2000). Effective schools and accomplished teachers: Lessons about primary-grade reading instruction in low-income schools. The elementary school journal, 101(2), 121-165.

Peter Dewitz Feb 20, 2024 02:27 PM

One more thought. As to "sending off those kids whose phonics skills were already adequate" I quote George B. Shaw. "The only time my education was interrupted was when I was forced to attend school."

Brigette Dunn Feb 21, 2024 09:54 PM

I teach high school students who have been identified as having characteristics of dyslexia and must follow a specific OG-based curriculum. I’m glad to read your thoughts on how phonics doesn't have to be taught in a specific order like math. I have students who get identified for my class during the first semester but don’t join us until the second semester starts. I’m always worried how I am supposed to “cram” all of the lessons from first semester to the new students who were just put in the class. After reading this article I think you’re saying it’s ok for these new students to just pick up and go forward from the place where we are and fill in as time allows. Your words on this issue are reassuring. Please correct me if I’ve misunderstood. Thank you!

Timothy Shanahan Feb 22, 2024 08:22 PM




Katie Feb 22, 2024 10:25 AM

WIN time!! (What I need) It allows for 30 minutes within the day for an entire grade level to go to designated rooms for small group instruction. Data is closely analyzed to determine each child’s needs. We have 5 groups right now. No kid misses classroom instruction and they are getting both tier 1 curriculum and 30 min everyday of small group. The growth we are seeing is amazing.

What Are your thoughts?

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Small Group Phonics in the Classroom – Good Idea or Not?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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