Realizing the Magic That Is Small-Group Instruction

Oct 24, 2023
Small group

If good teaching is like magic in the classroom, then small-group learning is where pixie dust flies. There’s something so special about watching lightbulbs go off up close when you’re zeroing in on specific gaps in learning or pre-teaching a new concept inside your latest small-group session. Without a doubt, these moments made the most treasured memories from my time in the classroom and helped me understand firsthand the alchemy that can occur inside these bite-sized learning moments.

Small-group instruction is an essential element of any intervention strategy, but it isn’t always easy to pull off. It requires a lot of careful lesson planning, regular shuffling of student grouping, and behavior management to ensure that the rest of your class doesn’t descend into anarchy. Let’s explore the rationale behind this practice and some tips for making it successful.

Why prioritize small-group instruction?

While most often found inside of elementary classrooms (usually aided by the familiar kidney table), small-group instruction is appropriate for all ages, and it allows educators to react and respond in real time on a personalized level to questions, misconceptions, and successes. This practice in flexible and differentiated learning works best when your groups are kept small (from two to six students) and the learning is intentional and focused. Imagine being able to actually monitor the minute-by-minute progress of your students—that’s the power of small-group learning.

How do you structure small-group instruction successfully?

Small-group learning thrives on routine and clear procedures. After all, how else are you going to be able to give the handful of learners in front of you your full attention?

Consider timing

Sessions typically range from 15 minutes to as much as 30 minutes depending on the stamina of your learners. Start small, building to an age-appropriate time allotment, and help create transparency around your routine. If each session is 15 minutes, another 2 minutes are allotted to transition, and three rotations are planned for the day, make that known. Post the schedule on the board, start a timer that everyone can see, and practice! Decide up front if students are physically moving or just pivoting their activity, and set clear expectations of how you expect that to look and sound.

Decide how students will be grouped

There are lots of ways to run your groups, but the two most popular methods for dividing your learners are by similar ability and by focus strategy. With either approach, it’s important to have a plan for yourself on how to make these groupings, a set cadence to check in on shifts that could be needed, and a means to communicate which groups students are in.

For similar ability, you might explore grouping learners by reading level for these ongoing touchpoints. Inside of your ELA block, this means that students can all access the same text or focus on a similar skill with relatively equal footing.

For focus strategy grouping, you might use assessment data as your guide for a one-time or two-time remediation pullout. This is most prevalent if you have a particular skill or standard where only a portion of the class needs remediation.

Set expectations for the rest of the class

Making assignments can be tackled in a variety of ways. You can elect to have all remaining students doing independent work or engaging in project-based learning, such that, at set times, you would swap which students moves to a small-group table, leaving other students to remain uninterrupted. Using this approach, I was personally a fan of “must-do” and “may-do” lists where all learners were required to do one or two activities during this time, but after that, they could choose from a menu of approved options.

Alternately, consider a method where all students rotate to different activities when you shuffle in a new small group. Often referred to as center time or a station-rotation model, it’s been popularized by the Daily Five. You see this approach most commonly in elementary classrooms, but it’s worth considering how a change in activity with regular frequency can help reenergize and engage students of all ages.

How should learning time be spent inside of each small-group session?

Planning for your specific small-group activities should be a part of your ongoing lesson planning. Just like you must thoughtfully design a whole-group lesson, you must also discern the topic, strategy, method, and approach that will be targeted inside of each small group. The focus here should NOT be a continuation of what you already did in your primary lesson, but rather material that is carefully tuned to the needs of the specific learners in each rotation.

This time is also not all about you, the teacher, doing the talking. Make the learning active. Students can be reading books, retelling stories to peers, interacting with manipulatives, answering questions, or playing learning games. The options are endless, but whatever you chose, there should be a means for you to collect insights and make notes on progress and ongoing needs. This important step ensures that each new small-group lesson is 1) delivered to the right group of students and 2) at the right level that continues to move learning forward.

All told, keep believing in the magic that is small-group instruction. With the right tweaks, you’ll find your pixie dust; students will too, and then learning can really soar.

Curious about how to implement effective intervention strategies at every grade level? Discover insights from Dr. Courtney Holley and learn how Cook County Schools designed their award-winning program in our article, What Intervention Strategies Look Like for Every Grade Level.

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