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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

What Is the Best Way to Organize a Classroom for Reading Instruction?

Learn why teachers should minimize the amount of small group instruction — and what effective small group instruction looks like.

Teacher question

One of our younger teachers saw you speak, and she says you discouraged the use of small group instruction. She has been trying to teach her lessons to the whole class. I assume that she didn’t understand what you were saying because everybody knows small group instruction is the best way to teach reading. I’ve been a teacher for 18 years and I would appreciate it if you would respond so I could set her straight, I think she could be a fine teacher. Thank you.

Shanahan’s response

I think I’m going to disappoint you. Your colleague probably heard me right.

I encourage teachers to try to minimize the amount of small group instruction.

That doesn’t mean that we should ban that configuration or mandate whole class teaching. There are enough situations in which small group instruction makes a lot of sense. But we tend to overdo this small group thing. Many teachers (and other educators) feel like you do, that it is the “best way to teach reading” or anything else for that matter.

That just isn’t the case, hence my desire to not overdo things when it comes to organizing a classroom.

Studies do find small group instruction to offer some benefits, at least under certain circumstances (Lou, et al., 1996). For instance, small group math instruction seems to deliver positive benefits — both larger and more consistent learning payoffs than in reading.

Reading studies often report that the amount of small group instruction confers no advantages or at best very small advantages (e.g., Hong & Hong, 2009; Patrick, 2020; Slavin, 1987), but when researchers drill down a bit it turns out to be a bit more complicated (Sørensen & Hallinan, 1986). For instance, research finds that kids are more likely to learn what is taught in a small group than in the whole class. I suspect that is often true, and it is what you are responding to. You can see that kids are really getting it when you are teaching small configurations of students.

However, that advantage get balanced out against the reduction in instruction that is required in most small group situations. In most circumstances, students don’t learn much away from the teacher. It is difficult to come up with seatwork activities that lead to much gain, except possibly for the highest achieving kids (Connor, et al., 2013).

That means that while grouping may increase the proportion of a lesson that students may master, it also means that there is much less opportunity to learn because so much less can be taught in the reduced time.

Think about it this way. Let’s say you have a 90-minute reading block and you have decided to teach three groups of students during 1-hour of that block. That means that students may learn a great deal of what you teach them during their 20 minutes, but they are not likely to be taught very much during that other 40 minutes. Of course, they probably won’t get the full benefit of those small group periods either because of the transition time and the times when you must stop teaching to manage the kids who aren’t in the group.

Surveys say that three group estimate is about average (Ford & Opitz, 2008). There are teachers who only work with two groups and there are those who work with 4, 5, or more. As the number of groups goes up, opportunity for learning goes down since students receive fewer and fewer minutes with the teacher.

I’m not willing to give up on groups because there are times when I need to supercharge my teaching briefly. These days absentee rates are high in our schools (a tragedy), so there are situations when I may need to reteach something that several students missed yesterday.

There are also those lessons that seem to go awry. Some of the kids got it, but many didn’t, so I plan on reteaching this tomorrow to those in need.

Certainly, there are circumstances, such as in math, where some kids are still on double digit addition and others are ready for multiplication. Given how sequential math is, it makes sense to ensure that foundation is sound. Most reading lessons don’t work like that, so grouping for skills isn’t as necessary.

The major way that reading tends to be grouped is around different books that the students are to read. Some children can read a fourth-grade book without too much trouble, while others may struggle with the second-grade book. Teachers have long been admonished to teach reading at the students’ reading levels, so that tends to end up with one group reading a fourth-grade book and the other reading one from second grade.

More and more, I have concluded that we overdo those separations, and can teach most kids with their grade level book — meaning that we could reduce the amount of small group reliance quite a bit (Shanahan, 2013, 2020). That would mean more time for teacher directed reading and other direct instruction lessons and fluency practice, which would be a real plus for most kids.

Grouping does not have a main effect on learning (Hiebert, 1987). It is beneficial only to the extent that it improves instruction in ways that really make a difference.

  • Small group teaching can matter — if it facilitates effective differentiation with students properly matched to curriculum and when teaching those skills separately really supports better learning.
  • Small group instruction should improve teachers’ ability to monitor learning, too. It’s easier to notice a puzzled look with six kids than with 25. That should mean that it fosters greater intensity of instruction.
  • Small group instruction should facilitate participation or interaction. For instance, a larger proportion of students should be able to respond to teacher questions, since there are fewer peers to compete with for that attention.

But small group instruction must confer those advantages to an extent that overbalances the reduction in teaching that it necessitates. If it doesn’t do that, then it’s just a waste of time.

Quite often I see grouping schemes that provide none of these advantages: the differentiation is unnecessary or trivial. Teachers are trying to correct for student diversity that doesn’t matter or that would not undermine a less differentiated lesson. Or situations in which the intensity seems no greater, or the amount of student engagement no higher.

Of course, the assumption seems to be that whole class instruction is a problem and grouping is the solution to that problem. Classroom configuration is not a problem; the problems are whether we are teaching students what they need to learn, whether we are teaching enough and whether we are making sure that everyone gets it, that everyone is paying attention and is engaged.

Perhaps instead of focusing on how to get rid of whole class instruction, teachers would do better to think about how whole class instruction could be better implemented to address some of those pedagogical needs.

Some investigations have shown how especially low readers can get lost in whole class instruction (Schumm, et al., 2000), and that makes sense. But the solution to that is not necessarily to reduce the amount of teaching markedly to ensure that these students get at least a modicum of instructional attention. Teachers need to be aware that those students’ needs are often neglected both in whole class and small group teaching, and the importance of keeping their needs in mind as they deliver lessons — monitoring them closely, making sure to hold their attention, and making adjustments and modifications to meet their needs, whether that is adding some explanation or emphasizing a feature the other students might not require.

How can classroom seating be rearranged to ensure maximum attention and participation? (Individual desks in rows and columns seems to reduce inattention and facilitate greater cognitive engagement, for instance; but it is important to consider the purpose of the activity, too).

How can teacher placement and movement facilitate learning?

How can differences in students’ abilities or knowledge be facilitated without trying to teach everyone something different?

How can student participation be increased with techniques like multiple response cards, random student selection techniques, turn and talk, and so on?

Again and again, studies find that small group teaching either leads to no increase in learning or to very small increases. The reason for that is that it’s possible for teachers to address well these kinds of instructional needs no matter the configuration, so it isn’t the grouping that makes the difference.

I’m aware that some teachers aren’t providing lots of small group instruction because they believe that to be best. No, their curriculum director or principal believes it, or maybe it is one of the senior teachers at the school who weighs in. Some schools even require that teachers schedule a specific amount of small group teaching. That makes little sense. It’s sort of like insisting that teachers wear a red sweater at least two mornings a week. Neither approach is likely to do much for children’s reading achievement.

Let’s be more strategic than that … using pedagogical tools purposefully and wisely. That’s how you raise reading achievement.

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Connor, C. M, Morrison, F. J., Fishman, B., Crowe, E. C., Al Otaiba, S., & Schatschneider, C. (2013). A longitudinal cluster-randomized controlled study on the accumulating effects of individualized literacy instruction on students’ reading from first through third grade. Psychological Science 24(8), 1408-1419. (opens in a new window)

Ford, M. P., & Opitz, M. F. (2008) A national survey of guided reading practices: What we can learn from primary teachers. Literacy Research and Instruction, 47(4), 309-331. (opens in a new window)

Hiebert, E. H. (1987). The context of instruction and student learning: An examination of Slavin’s assumptions. Review of Educational Research, 57(3), 337–340. (opens in a new window)

Hong, G., & Hong, Y. (2009). Reading instruction time and homogeneous grouping in kindergarten: An application of marginal mean weighting through stratification. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 31(1), 54-81. (opens in a new window)

Lou, Y., Abrami, P. C., Spence, J. C., Poulsen, C., Chambers, B., & d’Apollonia, S. (1996). Within-class grouping: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 66, 423–458. (opens in a new window)

Patrick, S. K. (2020). Homogeneous grouping in early elementary reading instruction: The challenge of identifying appropriate comparisons and examining differential associations between grouping and reading growth. Elementary School Journal, 120(4), 611-635. (opens in a new window)

Schumm, J. S., Moody, S. W., & Vaughn, S. (2000). Grouping for reading instruction: Does one size fit all? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33(5), 477-488. (opens in a new window)

Shanahan, T. (2013). Letting the text take center stage. American Educator, 37(3), 4-11, 43.

Shanahan, T. (2020). Limiting children to books they can already read. American Educator, 44(2), 13-17, 39.

Slavin, R. E. (1987a). Ability grouping and student achievement in elementary schools: A best-evidence synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 57(3), 293-336.

Sørensen, A. B., & Hallinan, M. T. (1986). Effects of ability grouping on growth in academic achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 23(4), 519-542. (opens in a new window)

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
April 15, 2024