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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.

What Should Small Group Reading Instruction Look Like?

June 8, 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's 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.

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"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." — Frederick Douglass