Be Flexible with Flexible Grouping

Small group reading instruction should be flexible based on the needs of students.  As student needs are constantly changing, so should the small groups.  The make up of these groups should be based on assessments and targeted to lift each reader to a higher level based on their needs.

It’s easy for those looking into a classroom to say flexible grouping is necessary for reading instruction but in practice it’s much more challenging. Often groups don’t feel as flexible as they should.  Kids don’t always neatly fit into groups. Assessments take time.  Organizing takes time. Planning takes time.  Flexible grouping is a critical instructional strategy, but difficult to implement in a consistent, meaningful way.

Start with one group and just do it.  Instead of trying to orchestrate flexible grouping for all my students, I started small.  Working with one group of students who had a clear need for extending their reading, I started a small group book club.  The students read the same book and learned how to compose written responses based on their reading.  One group, one instructional focus.  After I organized that group, I looked for other children with similar needs and started another small group using reader’s theater to develop fluency.   You don’t have to put all kids into groups at the same time. Starting small and adding groups to an already existing reading routine ensures manageable success.

Assess in many ways. I started my small groups right after I administered the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) to all my students.  This assessment showed instructional next steps for each student, but I didn’t just use that data.  I considered my individual conferences, observations, and levels of engagement or independence.  Quantitative data such as reading levels are a good starting point for groups, but should not be the only measure.  Thinking about student personality, reading goals, or strengths also offers clues to what a reader might need next.  For example, I have a student that reads fluently but is not highly engaged.  I put that reader in my reader’s theater group as peers are a motivating factor to keep reading, allowing the reader to be successfully engaged.

Keep materials on hand. Pre-select books, organize supplies, and have it all in one central location.  This might sound basic but having books available that you might use with a group in a week or two speeds up the planning process.  Once I decided I wanted to form a group to work on retelling after reading, I could easily grab one of the leveled texts that I already selected from our book room, eliminating that step in planning.

Move kids around for a variety of reasons. My reader’s theater group was so popular that all students in my class wanted to participate.  Right now I have three reader’s theater groups with varying levels of text complexity.  Instead of putting all my top readers in the most challenging group, I mixed it up a little bit.  I put a few students who I knew could handle the challenge to keep my groups flexible for reasons other than text level. As long as this is done with intention, mixing groups for a variety of reasons supports and challenges all readers.

Set up groups all over the classroom. As teachers we often like our own routines.  But staying in the same place makes it harder to change.  Instead of always working with a small group at my “rainbow” table, I might start a group there and then leave them to work. I’ll gather another group on the rug or in our reading library.  Changing students, changing location and changing instructional strategies shows children that groups change.  Being flexible in more than just the students keeps the momentum going.

There are days groups won’t feel so flexible.  There are times when it is a struggle to plan, organize and implement flexible grouping on a daily basis.  Most importantly, students are reading books every day and small group instruction authentically matches their needs as readers consistently.  Start small. Know your readers. Be flexible with kids, spaces, and texts. Eventually, flexibility will become the routine.

A few resources that have shaped my teaching and thinking with small groups:

Teaching Reading in Small Groups:Differentiated Instruction for Building Strategic, Independent Readers by, Jennifer Serravallo.  A practical guide to implementing multiple types of small groups

The Reading Strategies Book by, Jennifer Serravallo. A recipe book of sorts with specific lessons organized by reading goals

Units of Study for Teaching Reading by, Lucy Calkins. Four units of study by grade level to teach reader’s workshop style, with detailed information on how to support small groups embedded within lessons

The Next Steps in Guided Reading: Focused Assessments and Targeted Lesson for Helping Every Student Become a Better Reader by, Jan Richardson. A great first resource to improve guided reading instruction beyond the use of a leveled text