Harnessing the Power of Small Group Instruction

Harnessing the Power of Small Group Instruction

Odette Falone

As teachers, there’s nothing better than watching when something “clicks” in a student’s mind.  The student’s eyebrows go up, their smile grows, and their eyes seem to say, “I get it!,” all at once.  It’s a clear representation of the student’s productive struggle paying off, and this is a large part of the reason why we teach.  Good teaching and best practices are undeniable super powers that lead to student success, but small group instruction, when harnessed effectively, can unleash another level of almost audible “clicks” as students reach understanding in ways that they are unlikely to forget.

So what exactly is small group instruction, and what makes it so spectacular?  

Illustration of student in a classroom

The What and the Why of Small Group Instruction

During small group instruction, students are assigned groups of between two and six, depending on the class size and lesson purposes, and provided with direct instruction.  Using data as a guide, small group instruction can be used to address areas of need for students at any learning level.  While small group instruction is commonly used to fine tune students’ literacy skills, it can be used to address students’ needs in any content area.  This type of instruction is flexible and differentiated, and the benefits are endless.  Here are a few examples of why it is so effective:

  • Small group instruction provides opportunities for more individualized support, which directly aligns with academic success for students.
  • Students are more likely to participate and ask specific questions in a small group setting.
  • Teachers are able to closely monitor student progress, allowing for more specific and timely feedback.

It’s clear that there are many positives to implementing small group instruction into your class’ weekly routine.  However, it can be difficult to pull off effectively.  So let’s talk about how you can develop your teaching superpowers and use small group instruction to accelerate student achievement.

The When

Typically, small group instruction can begin as early as six weeks after the first day of school.  Once assessments have been completed, data has been assessed, and students' learning targets have been identified, you’re ready to begin!  You can plan to implement small group instruction anywhere between 3-5 days each week.

The How

When engaging students in small group instruction, it is vital to set clear expectations, organize your materials, strategically plan student groups, and consider timing.  Feel like this sounds like a lot to take on?  Don’t fret!  We’ve got some tips that can help you master the magic of small group instruction!

Illustration of brain carrying weight

Start with introducing your expectations and practice the routine.

This is absolutely critical for successful implementation of small group instruction.  Before beginning your first small group session, discuss with students what kinds of factors would contribute to a successful small group work session.  Consider creating a contract to keep students accountable for their actions in the future.  Paint a clear picture of what small group work should look like and sound like.  Use pictures or have students act out or model scenarios, if necessary.  Without clear expectations, you can’t be disappointed if students don’t act appropriately.  Before introducing assignments into the mix, practice the routine and procedures as many times as possible.  Some specific criteria to demonstrate and discuss with students include the following:  

  • The noise level that is expected when working with their classmates
  • The level of mobility throughout the classroom that is permitted
  • The amount of time that each station will have to work
  • The quality of work that is expected
  • How the materials should be organized
  • When it’s acceptable to interrupt the teacher’s station
  • The types of language that should be used during discussions

Keep materials and plans organized.

A common challenge that many teachers run into while working in small groups is losing control of the students that are working on their own.  Try to avoid this problem by considering some of the strategies below:

  • Review the goals and expectations for all groups of students before sending them on their own.  Post instructions on posters or on the board for students to refer to from their seats.
  • Assign a “Group Captain” to help reinforce directions or provide assistance to students in their station.
  • When working without a teacher, students’ small group assignments should assess previously taught material and supplement learning.  For example, after completing a unit on addition and subtraction fluency, students can work on practicing these skills through the use of manipulatives or task cards.
  • Provide students with models of acceptable work, if possible.
  • Include extension activities or assignments to complete when students have finished their work.  An “I’m Done!” folder or bin can be filled and located near students’ seats to access, if needed.

Plan student groups strategically and keep them fluid.

There are many ways to organize your groups, from ability level to focus topic.  However, it’s important to remember that while you will be changing the focus of your small group instruction, you should also be modifying and changing your student groups.  While one student might excel in one area, they might struggle with another.  Try to change groups based on the topic and needs of the students.  Review your assessment data each week to identify students’ areas of needs and plan your group work based on the targets that you’d like to achieve.  

Consider your timing.

The amount of time you spend with each small group can vary based on the grade level and stamina of students.  Typically, somewhere between 15 to 30 minutes is an appropriate amount of time.  At first, start at the shorter end and include time for transitioning and preparing for work at the next center.  Post the schedule and a timer on the board so students can keep track of how much time remains and where they will be working next.  The more practice students have with this routine, the more smoothly it will run!  

Magic wand

Unleash the Magic of Small Group Instruction

While we all wish that effective small group instruction could be accessed with the wave of a wand, it does, indeed, take a great deal of planning and organization to complete.  However, with proper preparation and practice, the results are nothing short of magical.  The time you spend in these small groups is so valuable and can lead to amazing results.  Not only will you have the unique opportunity to get to know your students, but you can tap into their learning targets in an effective and meaningful way!

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