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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Do We Teach Decoding in Small Groups or Whole Class?

December 8, 2015
Teacher question:  
You are confusing me. You have said that we should “never do in small group what could have been done as well as whole class,” but you also say that phonological awareness and phonics instruction are more effective when they are taught in small group. What should be taught in small group and what can be taught in whole class?
Shanahan's response: 
I’m a strong believer that when readers point out my contradictions that it is time to lather on plenty of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was Emerson who famously said, “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”
That quote sure makes me feel better — and if the questioner feels like skulking away at this point, who could blame him?
Okay, that’s not fair. You deserve an explanation of the seeming contradiction.
First, the small group/whole class distinction. Small group instruction tends to be more effective than whole class teaching. In small groups, its easier for kids to stay focused, for teachers to notice error or inattention, and there is more opportunity for interaction and individual response.
Although small groups may be more effective than whole class, that isn’t the real choice facing teachers. Their decisions must teeter between lots of whole class teaching versus small intermittent doses of small group teaching punctuated by independent seatwork. The kids may be advantaged by the small group work, but its benefits are balanced by the time spent on their own.
Frankly, I see too much done in small groups. Teachers often present the same information over and over. If she has four comprehension groups, she’ll explain how to predict or when to summarize four times. My preference would be for the teacher to explain the strategy or skill to the whole class and then guide the student practice later in small groups. Similarly, when a teacher has two groups reading the same selection, I’d combine them, though it would make them larger.
Now what about my phonics and phonological awareness statement?
That one is a little trickier. I was explaining the findings of meta-analyses of several studies that were aimed at determining whether phonological awareness or phonics instruction provided any advantage. The studies were comparing phonics teaching with little or no phonics teaching. And, over and over again explicit decoding instruction led to better reading performance.
Although these were not studies that compared whole class versus small group phonics, the variation in studies made it possible for the meta-analyses to evaluate this feature. In some of the elementary studies the decoding skills were taught in small groups, while in other studies they were taught whole class. The conclusion was that studies that had looked at small group phonics teaching had bigger outcomes. Phonics and PA teaching work either way, but the small group delivery really magnifies those outcomes (perhaps because it facilitates the children seeing the teacher’s mouth movements and hearing the sounds clearly). (With children in preschool and kindergarten, such a comparison is not possible. All of the studies at these levels examined the outcome of decoding instruction delivered in small groups or individually.)
However, lets not take such a finding as the final word. A program I know of here in Chicago, Reading in Motion, teaches such basic skills through the performing arts, engaging kids in songs and chants and so on.
They deliver their engaging lessons whole class, but then follow up in small groups as necessary. If kids are making good progress from the whole class lessons, they don’t get small group work. If they struggle, the lessons are retaught in smaller groups to intensify it. Overall, this means less small group work than in many classes, but with higher rates of success. One can be both efficient and effective.

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"The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you'll go." — Dr. Seuss