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First grader at board reading 3-letter words for teacher
Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

Small Group Phonics in the Classroom — Good Idea or Not?

Dividing a class into groups means someone will get less instruction. Consider a Tier 2 pullout for children who need extra help to achieve mastery.

Teacher question 1:

Our district adopted a systematic phonics program and instruction is delivered whole class for each grade level for about 30 minutes per day. We have a wide range of learners in each class, so my question is, is whole class instruction an effective use of instructional time since some students are being exposed to phonics instruction beyond their level? For example, a second grader who still hasn’t mastered CVC words, but is focused on whole class instruction focused on CVCe words. Is there any research to substantiate that exposure to explicit phonics instruction beyond their current level of mastery is going to be valuable for that student?

Teacher question 2:

Do you know of any research that supports the notion that all students must receive tier 1 instruction in Phonics at their grade level even though they are significantly below in their decoding skills? I know that it is important that all students receive tier 1 instruction with grade level materials such as complex text and vocabulary, however I always get asked the question if it makes sense in phonics. I work with many teachers and often hear that some of their students still do not know letters, sounds or cannot yet decode simple CVC words yet they are receiving tier 1 instruction in more advanced phonics concepts. Is there any merit to this? 

Shanahan’s response

Glad you asked. I’ve been thinking about this problem recently. I’ve come across claims that teachers must differentiate phonics instruction, as well as ads claiming the superiority of certain products because of their instructional delivery to multiple small groups in a classroom.

Those assertions puzzle me because they fly in the face of the research that I knew and failed to cite any supporting evidence.

These kinds of questions don’t always match well with the research.

I wish that I could identify a bunch of studies comparing within-class small group instruction addressing varied content with whole-class instruction with no content adjustment.

Half these imaginary studies would equalize the amounts of instruction; the whole classes would get 30 minutes a day and so would each small group, though this would necessitate a lot of seatwork for groups not with the teacher.

The other half of the studies would limit the overall time devoted to phonics in the classroom — staying to a total of 30 minutes for both the whole class and the multiple small group versions. The amounts of time devoted to the small groups would have to share the 30 minutes, 2 groups would get 15 minutes each, 3 groups would get 10 minutes, and so on.

With those kinds of data, I could provide you a solid research-based answer.

Instead, I must reason from existing research, that is not a perfect fit for these questions.  

Existing research has studied the effectiveness of phonics delivered through both whole class and small group instruction, though group size was not the point of those studies. The necessary comparison comes from a meta-analysis of 38 studies (National Reading Panel, 2000, (NRP)).

The problem with this kind of question in a meta-analysis is that the feature being evaluated was not manipulated by the researchers. It is only a correlation.

Unfortunately, for this question, you are mainly comparing phonics instruction in the whole classes (in the original studies whole classes received or did not receive phonics) with phonics instruction delivered to small groups (these studies compared small groups with or without phonics).

The meta-analysis looked to see if there were different effect sizes for the whole group and small group studies. Any difference of this analysis could be due to group size — in small groups teachers can tailor instruction to individual needs, more easily intensify instruction, better monitor children’s progress, and be more responsive. But any differences could also be due to the Tier 1 versus Tier 2 aspects of the context — perhaps classroom kids are more responsive to instruction, for instance. In other words, the research here will give us the best prediction of how experimental comparisons might come out, but they don’t study the benefits of differentiation directly, so there is a lot of room for error.

What did NRP find?

Basically, NRP reported no significant differences between small group and whole class phonics instruction. They appear to be equally effective, despite the idea that the small group instruction would be better matched to the students’ levels.

Inspection of effect sizes for individual studies… reveals that some whole class programs produced effect sizes as large, and sometimes larger, than those produced by small groups or tutoring. Given the enormous expense and impracticality of delivering instruction in small groups or individually — except for children who have serious reading difficulties — research is needed to determine what makes whole class phonics instruction effective.

National Reading Panel (2000)

I think part of the problem here is that teachers may be thinking about phonics in the same way that they think about (and should think about) math curriculum. It would not be possible to teach kids long division before they had some degree of mastery of subtraction, since it is entailed in division problems.

But a phonics curriculum is not like that. Few skills need to be taught before other skills can be learned. The sequence of phonics is largely arbitrary.

We advise teaching the skills that are more frequently used before less usable ones, but it is not necessary to know the /t/ sound before the /w/ sound. The same can be said about the CVC and CVCe patterns. One of these may help unlock more words than the other, but they are both useful.

You may think that if some kids haven’t yet mastered the CVC, they won’t benefit from  lessons on the CVCe. That isn’t the case. Students may reap a greater payoff from the CVC pattern in terms of how many words it might help decode, but the lack of the earlier skill should not be an impediment to learning the others — nor would it vitiate the value of learning the CVCe.

I would certainly like to give everyone the biggest payoff with every lesson. The cost of that isn’t worth it in this case.

Dividing a class into groups means someone will get less instruction. The kinds of gaps mentioned in these letters would best be addressed in a Tier 2 pullout, or afterschool or summer program (not instead of the classroom teaching, but in addition to it).

I would keep everyone moving forward with their phonics program whole class because that allows maximum teaching time for each element and pattern. It allows students to develop the ability to visually and phonemically recognize the elements in a variety of word contexts, as well as sufficient time for spelling and reading such words, and for practice with decodable text.

This same instruction in small groups either must be less thorough or more hurried. Not good choices if our goal is mastery.

The other alternative is to allow phonics to devour reading instruction — ignoring the needs to build language, fluency, comprehension, and writing. Again, not a good idea, and certainly not an idea in accord with the science of reading.

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About the Author

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 (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
February 20, 2024