What Should Small Group Reading Instruction Look Like?

  • small group instruction
  • 02 June, 2018

Teacher question:

I've been bringing my shared reading teaching into my small groups. The students read a text during shared reading and we spend time analyzing the text and really digging in—nuances of the language, comprehension of the text, vocabulary, and so on. From there we move into small groups where students answer standards-based questions about the text.  

My concern at this point is this: I find myself doing pretty much the same lesson in small groups for all the groups. Should I be doing this (answering standards-based questions) in the whole group instruction? Then what about small groups? What do they look like?

Part of the difficulty I experience is that I only have 90 minutes of reading instruction. This is supposed to be 30 minutes whole group instruction, in which I am to teach phonics, vocabulary, writing, grammar, comprehension, etc.; and 60 minutes of small group. As you can imagine, it is difficult to do all the teaching that needs to be done in 30 minutes prior to moving into small groups. 

I would greatly appreciate any suggestions/comments/insights.

Shanahan response:

I would never organize my instructional day around a grouping scheme or classroom management plan.

Changing the size of the group I’m going to teach is something that I do strategically. I teach individuals or smaller groups or the whole class based on what I’m trying to accomplish. If I can meet my teaching objective more certainly or more efficiently by grouping in a particular way, then that's what I try to do….


(A) Yesterday, I taught a lesson to my class and a half-dozen kids didn’t do well with it. I want to meet with the laggards again to reteach that lesson….

(B) I’m teaching PA and it is difficult to get the kids to see my mouth when I’m saying words, so I divide into smaller groups to intensify the teaching.

(C) I’ve been teaching my class using reciprocal teaching. I’ve been working with them as a whole class demonstrating how to use predicting, questioning, summarizing, and clarifying, and I’ve been gradually releasing control to them. Today I want to take another step in that direction, so I’ve divided my class into four groups and everyone has a particular responsibility for reading a shared text and taking part in the discussion (for instance, one child in each group is responsible for getting everyone to make a prediction and so on). Each group is working on this while I move from group-to-group as necessary.

I might decide that I’m going to need 10-15 minutes with a small group to reteach a lesson as shown in example A, but I will do this because I have a small group that needs reteaching to accomplish an objective—not because it’s “small-group time.”

If you look at these three examples, you’ll see that I’m using grouping for a variety of reasons. First, I used it to differentiate instruction. In example A, some kids need instruction that the others do not. I can do that most efficiently by splitting off a group for a brief period of time.

I’m also using grouping to allow intensification of the students’ learning experiences in a lesson and to better control attention. In example B, I wanted the kids to not just hear the words, but to see their articulation up close—in order to speed their progress in developing the ability to perceive the language sounds.

And, I use grouping to foster greater independence. In example C, the kids have to guide and help each other more, though I’m still hovering nearby. At some point, I’ll have them applying these strategies independently, but for now the groups create opportunities for the kids to explain the strategies to each other and to execute them with less teacher support.

We often think of small groups as being of a particular size or purpose... but even when you do something like paired-reading for fluency, you are grouping, though the groups in that case only have two kids in each. Which is my favorite configuration for fluency practice... I can circulate from pair to pair during a 30-minute lesson, and on average everyone gets 15 minutes of reading practice, substantially more oral reading experience than kids can get even in more traditional small groups.

If you find yourself repeating the same lesson over-and-over, as you describe, then I think you are wasting time. Try having kids respond to those same kinds of questions with the whole class, rather than in groups.

I’d use white boards or the kids’ notebooks for this… getting everyone to jot answers down prior to discussion. In other words, I’ll get individual responses before we open it up to the whole class discussion. That means everyone has to think about the questions, everyone has to try to answer. You can seat kids so as to allow you to monitor those written responses easily (I favor horseshoes and double horseshoe seating plans. That way, you'll know who's having trouble and can address those needs (immediately, or later, perhaps in small group).

Of course, you can use think-pair-share or turn-and-talk for this purpose as well (as you can see, there is not one way to skin a reading objective).

Experiment with all of this but approaching the problem this way should provide a more powerful teaching experience for the kids, and more satisfying professional experience for you.

You’ll have more time for a deeper discussion of each selection, every student will have an opportunity to respond to every query, and, if you hone your discussion-leader skills, you might not even lose any of the interactions that you are currently generating in the small group discussions.

Another possibility would be to ramp up text difficulty even more... working with texts that the kids struggle with--and staying with those texts until the kids can read them at an instructional level (which would mean by the end they would read that text fluently and with high comprehension).

With texts that difficult, the kids will need closer reading supervision. Small group teaching in such a circumstance very well might have the different groups reading the same texts and trying to answer the same questions. The grouping would not lead so much to different teaching, but to everyone getting sufficient support when trying to accomplish something they couldn't do without that much support.

If you were a plumber, we would not prescribe daily "wrench time" for your practice. That'd be silly, since a wrench is just a tool that a plumber uses to address various problems. You want him to use it as needed.

You may not be a plumber, but you are a teacher, and small-group teaching is nothing more than a tool. Use it to address real problems. Small group time is not how you spending a particular part of your day.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Kay Stahl Jun 02, 2018 08:00 PM

Tim, I typically agree with 99% of your blog content about 99% of the time. However, I disagree with many of your suggestions in this blog.

1. Many teachers do not have the experience, expertise, or planning time to do this type of small group lesson that varies content, structure, and student composition by day. I have a hard time imagining that any teachers with less than 5 years of teaching experience would be able to successfully pull off what you are proposing and still end up with a balanced program. In many schools, administrators would also be uncomfortable with your proposal.

2. Additionally, I think the prescription needs to vary by grade level.

a. In grades k-2, small group reading needs to be differentiated by instructional text level and constrained skill development. All kids do need daily shared reading/writing of grade level or community activities that address grade level texts and high level comprehension/vocabulary development (CCSS). In K-2, you probably need a 2 hour literacy block: 30 minutes devoted to a compelling shared text, 60 minutes for small differentiated groups by text level, 30 minutes explicit phonics instruction.

b. In grades 3-5, the small groups tend to be some kind of differentiated work but not by text level. It is related to the shared reading text, instructional theme, strategic processing or other comprehension work/close reading (including reciprocal teaching), deeper study of the shared reading text in small group, writing support of a common shared reading-driven project, or it might be book clubs or research project support. So this looks more like what you are describing, but there is still 30 minutes devoted to a community shared reading/writing that is the centrifuge of the small group work in close or more distant ways.

The productive independent stations are an important piece of this protocol and should be student reading or writing preparation for the teacher table, follow-up to shared reading, or differentiated skill work.

Finally, it is important for teachers to keep in mind that equitable is not equal. Above first grade, it is not possible to meet with all small groups every day.
K=10-15 min/grp; 1=15-20 min/grp; 2=20 min/grp and gr. 3 and beyond=20-30 min/grp depending on activity. Meet with higher performing readers less frequently than lower performing readers.

Balancing whole class and small group instruction is always a juggling act that requires patience and negotiation. Increased experience teaching does enable one to learn how to loosen the boundaries more flexibly to better meet students' needs.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 03, 2018 02:20 AM

Kay— the schedule should be driven by what you are trying to teach, not by grouping plans with no research support. Teachers are following these schemes mindlessly rather than trying to make kids proficient decoders, fluent readers, or good comprehenders. Teaching prospective teachers to spend certain amounts of time on non-correlated (to achievement) activities, rather than to accomplish certain goals is a huge mistake. My teachers in Chicago learned to do that effectively...yours could too.


Harriett Janetos Jun 03, 2018 07:42 PM

I'm reminded of the distinction you often make between teaching activities and learning outcomes. Without an explicit purpose, systematic grouping might simply reflect a teaching activity. By contrast, differentiating instruction by identifying skills and concepts to be taught (or retaught) in a small group focuses on a learning outcome.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 04, 2018 03:14 AM

Yeah, Harriet, thst’s How I see it. I:love Kay...as good a teacher as I know, but what she was suggesting seems even more complicated (and less outcome related) than what I proposed.


Jacob Williams Jun 04, 2018 04:49 PM

How do you explain the layout of reading curricullums on which you are an author? https://www.mheducation.com/prek-12/program/microsites/MKTSP-BGA04M0/products-wonders.html

MARGARET CONNOLLY Jun 04, 2018 06:03 PM

What do you say to Fountas and Pinnell? I have studied small group instruction- specifically guided reading as an oppotunity to teach needed reading behaviors. I group students based on the behaviors they need to employ on increasingly difficult texts so that I can model the behavior and then coach for it. Often times whole group instruction in a workshop is about texts and not behaviors. In my experience, the readers who lack the problem solving behaviors of more proficient readers, don't benefit much from whole group instruction only or if that's the mode most often.

Sam Bommarito Jun 05, 2018 12:33 AM

While I know (and respectfully disagree with) your views on workshop teaching, I think it is interesting to note that within the workshop structure teachers are are encouraged to form strategy groups (I call them ad hoc strategy groups) when they are needed. This happens when a group of students all seem to need help with the same problem AND when the rest of the class seems not to. The group may last for a couple of weeks (purposefully vague on this point). So it would seem that at least some of the time workshop teachers are doing something very similar to what you propose. Sam

Timothy Shanahan Jun 05, 2018 02:31 AM

Jacob— the commercial curricula that I’m an author on offer multiple options for how to work with whole class and small group teaching.


Timothy Shanahan Jun 05, 2018 02:35 AM

Margaret— I think there is a reason why now after nearly 20 years there is still no research supporting F&P’s approach...and I look at the studies that have found racial bias in learning outcomes with similar grouping for instruction approaches (Sorensen and Hallinan’s work).

Wendy Wirtz Jun 05, 2018 04:38 AM

Tim, I agree wholeheartedly with this blog. I repeatedly ask for freedom to do what I think is best for my particular group of students according to where we are at any given point toward reaching our standards, but over and over and over again I am told by 99% of each leader over me that I am wrong and that any problems with kids not reaching "benchmark" are because of the lack of fidelity to the structure. Surely my forehead is black and blue now from beating it against the wall repeatedly. Thanks for doing what you do and for being a sane voice to combat the one size fits all mentality that our education environment in the U.S. has become.

Tina L. Jul 16, 2018 06:12 AM

Hi Wendy, like you, I also agree with this blog. The "as needed" approach to small group is what I have had the most success with in my classroom. However, I (as well as my grade level team) too have been threatened by administrators who believe that the one size fits all 30 min whole/60+ min small group model is the ONLY way to teach reading. I'm sure we're not the only ones who have had our freedom stripped away in attempt to do what they think will boost scores. Some of my best teaching (most effective and enjoyable for both me and my kids) has been on days when I "sneak" and break away from our set schedule and just do what my kids need! Some days require more whole group to dig deeper into texts. I love doing this whole group, since my higher achieving students get to discuss with and model for my struggling students during this time...this is something that can rarely be achieved in only 30 minutes of WG followed by 20 min of SM with a small group of students who share similar struggles! I'm not, by any means, knocking small group instruction. However, I do agree that it should be used wisely, strategically even, in order to maximize achievement and efficiency. Teachers are held to such high standards for student achievement, but are not allowed the freedom to be flexible and use their own discretion. It just goes against all that we're taught about teaching and TRUE differentiation.

Robert Berretta Jul 25, 2018 02:14 PM


Administrator here. Love the blog and the discussion it invites. And I disagree here.

First, I think the plumbing analogy is off. It's not that a plumber would dedicate "wrench time." Rather, if a general contractor had multiple crews working on a house, s/he wouldn't have them all working on the same project. Instead, the crews would all be working on specific projects to tackle them more efficiently. That's what dedicated small group instruction time does.

Another way to think about it is in how fitness instructors approach circuit training classes. In one at my gym, the class is divided into small groups, and each is assigned a workout station. The groups rotate through the stations, and after 45 minutes they get a full-body workout. The rotations keep things exciting while enabling everyone to practice a variety of skills in a short amount of time.

The same can be true in reading class. We're always pressed for time, and a "small group approach" allows us to more efficiently utilize time to address all the necessary components of good literacy instruction.

I certainly don't advocate beating teachers into submission and forcing them to do mindless small group instruction where 10 kids are playing with blocks while the teacher reads a random book with a group at a table.

I think the author is sometimes offering solutions that are too complex and practical for real-world application. Back to the fitness analogy, would it be better if the instructor had 90 minutes to dedicate to each participant in the class, working on their specific deficits each day while the others independently practiced in their areas of strength? Of course. But that isn't practical nor is it the goal of a general fitness class. I'd argue the same is true of a literacy class. We should be focusing on using time in a way that most efficiently strengthens each student's literacy skills.

Marie Murphy-Schiller Nov 02, 2019 07:41 PM

Tim, I subscribe to your blog and appreciate how your research-based opinions create reflective thinking. In the vein of providing effective small group instruction, you mentioned that teachers need to structure small group support for a variety of purposes and needs not based on "small group time."

I'm a reading specialist in an elementary school and find myself reflecting on how our teachers provide reading instruction. Most of them structure small group support via guided reading in K-2. However, a fifth grade teacher in my school also reads your blog and aspires to put your ideas into practice. He feels it's important to provide materials that are challenging (above instructional level) for students based on your previous blogs. However, I feel this leaves the striving readers in his class needing additional support that he does not provide.

I'm open to learning about how small group sessions, "should be driven by what you are trying to teach, not by grouping plans with no research support" but I need a little more information about the "nitty-gritty" of implementing this structure. Can you suggest a resources on how to guide our staff to use the structures you mentioned above.

Thank you, Marie

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What Should Small Group Reading Instruction Look Like?


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