Small Group Instruction: How to Group Students

As teachers, we spend so much time establishing rules and routines in our classroom. We practice and rehearse how to complete work and move around our classroom. At some point, it is time to move on and begin our guided instruction.

Guided instruction is an effective tool to provide concentrated support to students that target an area of need.  It allows teachers to be more responsive to students and learn more about the strengths and needs of our students. During guided instruction, the students are beginning to do things independent with less teacher assistance.  It is a great opportunity to collect formative assessment data and inform instruction.

With all that said, how do we group students in meaningful ways so that we can deliver this targeted instruction?

One of my concerns has always been that as a teacher the traditional way of grouping students goes back to basal readers. Reading books that were colour coded and referenced birds.  These books helped to determine your identity as a student; You were either smart or dumb based on what level book you were reading. Or alternatively, the only students that sat at the guided reading table were those that needed help. The stigma attached to getting this help was quite negative and prevented those that needed help from actually asking for it out of fear of the stigma and reaction of their peer group.

So then how do we combat this in a modern classroom?

We know that guided instruction is effective but that only happens if students actually participate and engage with the learning that happens within this small group. So the question that remains is how do we group our students effectively so that we reduce the negative feelings associated with coming to our guided reading table. Here are some of the many ways you can group students for guided instruction across curriculum strands.

Collect Data

The first task before grouping students is to understand the factors we may consider in grouping students together.

Collecting data is an essential way to ensure that your groupings are effective.  Ask yourself the following questions to determine how the students should be grouped.

  1. What is their level of academic proficiency?
  2. What are their interests, strengths, and needs related to this topic?
  3. Are there learning needs that may impact groupings?
  4. What are their attitudes and experiences about working with small groups?
  5. How can personalities be combined across groups?
  6. Why am I grouping them? What is the learning goal(s)?collect data, checklist, documentation, assessment

It is important to use a variety of data including standardized assessment tools, previous assessments.  Your own professional judgement is also a key factor here too.

Once you have your data your next step is to plot this out for each student.  Grab an index card for each student and write out this information about each student.  Include assessment data, notes on preferences.  Using cards will allow you to lay them out and adjust the groupings as necessary.

Once you have your cards completed decide on the factor you want to prioritize for your groups.  For example, you could group writing groups based on the interest, strength, and needs of the writer.  In this situation, you may want to pair students up with peers that have complementary skills.

Groupings: Academic Skill

class students hands up raised

This is one way you can choose to group students. For example, you could group all your students based on the grades they received on the last assessment you conducted.  If you use a standardized reading assessment then this could be used to determine guided reading groups.  All students within in a similar range of reading ability could be grouped together to form one group.

The benefits of this type of group are that you have similar abilities in each group which could help you with pulling and finding resources.  Generally, the assumption is that students working at a similar academic level would have the same skill deficits and that this could be addressed specifically with the teacher within this small group.

The downsides to this type of grouping also include the problems associated with the stigma that the lowest readers are in the low group.  If you have a group of students here that very clearly tie self-worth to academic performance or overvalue a narrow understanding of what smart means that this type of grouping may be problematic.  This is especially the case for those that benefit from small group instruction the most.

Groupings: Interest and Strengths

Another way to group students is to find common ground between students.  This involves surveying them and collecting data on a student’s interests and strengths within the topic of study.  Contrary to an academic skill which assesses the needs of students.  Groupings in this category focus on what the student can do well.

From here you can choose two pathways.  First, you can pair students with others that share the same strengths or you can choose to pair complementary strengths.  For example, you could pair a student who has a strong voice with writing narrative stories with an analytical student that prefers to write research reports.  Allowing these students an opportunity to learn from each other and teach others their strengths.

Overall this is my preferred way to group students.

Mixed Personality

Who says you actually need a plan to group students.

Why not group your students randomly (then adjust for personality conflicts)

Sometimes students need to work with a variety of individuals and there doesn’t really need to purpose or intention behind their groupings.

There are so many random ways to group students and sometimes the results are great and other times there are opportunities for students to learn to work better together and persevere through group challenges.

There is nothing wrong with grouping our students in ways that consume very little time.

Flexible Groupings

This is often the way people suggest that students be grouped for small group instruction however many skip on the practical ways in which this could happen.

First, flexible groupings are flexible.  This means that membership to one group or another is constantly changing.  It will change on need, opportunity, and learning goals that the teacher has set out.  It’s more like a non-group grouping.  It is preferable in theory because the groupings that are made for that short period of time are fluid and based primarily on formative assessment data collection.  However, the management of flexible groupings can be a daunting task if as a teacher you crave control and organization with a dash of consistency.

So practically flexible groupings can still be maintained, controlled, and organized if you look at them differently from a schedule of events that happen each day.

In my experience flexible groupings don’t happen on a schedule, in fact, they are often not preplanned with group members.

In a flexible grouping scenario, you have a few choices.

Each week regroup students based on the data you collected from the previous week.  Based on the tasks from the previous week you can give students a code: Re-teach, Review, Continue, Jump Ahead (colour codes are better than codes that resemble assessment categories).  With this assessment, you can identify what type of lesson each student needs based on the groupings from the previous week.

Another method is to not assign students to a group at all and have the students self identify (with perhaps some help) that they need more assistance.  Begin your week with your previous weeks learning goal.  Ask students to provide you with a self-assessment on how well they understood this concept.  Give students each a card and have them put their name attached to a level.  Use a stoplight visual to help students identify this for self-assessment.  Depending on each student’s classification (and your own data monitoring students can identify if they need more teaching or can move on) If this type of flexible groupings students will identify their own needs as learners and your small group instruction will be determined primarily with their own self-assessment.  In this scenario, students who identified themselves in red will meet first and more often than those who identify as green.

Grouping Multiple Ways

If you are looking for ways to group the same students in multiple ways such as grouping by ability and strength one effective strategy is to use colours, numbers, and letters.

If you have 25 students in your classroom you can put them in three different types of groups

  • Academic level
  • Mixed Personality
  • Interest and Strength Pairing

So to start, choose five colours and randomly assign students to one of these colour groups.  Have a look at the results and adjust if there are major issues with personality or ability.  Although these are random you don’t want there to be an unfair advantage in one group over another.  These random groups should still contain a nice cross-section of ability and mixed ability.

Next group your students by academic ability and assign these students each with a letter.  Throw them off a bit by choosing random letters of the alphabet not only A, B, C, D…

Finally, group students based on strength and need making sure that you have paired students with a partner and within a group where there is a friend that has a strength with their area of need.  Assign each of these groups with a number.

Now each of your students will have a colour, a letter, and a number.

When using groupings you can simply ask students to get into their _________ group.

This means that you are using flexible groupings across subject strands and these are preplanned ahead of time so that you do not have to constantly group and re-group students.

Which way is best?

There isn’t one way to group students and this list isn’t exhaustive.

Your own assessment of student need and your own needs as a teacher are the best determining factors in deciding how you will group your students into small group learning teams.

Your ability to group your students will be based on your experience and sound professional judgment.  When in doubt go with your gut and trust that you have a reason for your decision and that if it doesn’t work out you can always change it.

Good luck with your next groupings! Want to read more about small group learning in the classroom?  Read more here

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