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Teacher question:

I was curious what your thoughts are regarding small group instruction in Elementary school during the ELA block.  I’m unaware of any definitive research on the effect size of small group instruction or the impact it has regarding student achievement in reading. There seems to be a few different schools of thought: direct whole group instruction for all components of reading, shortened whole group reading followed by differentiated small group instruction, whole group instruction followed by student work groups facilitated by teacher walking around. It seems all three could be effective depending on the students, the teacher and rigor of text or content being used.  However, I’m curious if there is a research-based recommendation? 

Shanahan’s response:

What a smart question.

Small group teaching is ubiquitous in elementary reading. Sixty-years ago (when I was being taught to read) the same was true—though since our classes then were so large, “small group” usually meant groups about the size of today’s typical classroom enrollment!

A hundred years ago there was a great deal of within-class grouping, but that was due to the pervasive one-room schoolhouse. The “groups” were the “grades” that the kids were in (my dad, for years, bragged that he “graduated at the top of his class”—meaning that the other kid flunked).

When I was first exploring the idea of becoming a teacher myself, the lore of the time was that reading teachers always had three reading groups: the Robins, Blue Jays, and Crows. As a teacher’s aide it looked that way to me, and I certainly wasn’t surprised during student teaching when Mr. Krentzin had me take over his reading groups one at a time, so I could ease into it.

As a primary grade teacher, I always grouped my kids for reading instruction. (Studies since the 1960s usually report that more than 90% of primary grade teachers group for reading instruction, and the numbers are still high in grades 4 and 5, as well).

Nevertheless, I’ve been surprised recently by the odd practice of organizing instruction specifically around the idea of “small group” teaching. In the past, the grouping was to match book levels to the kids’ reading levels (let’s face it, the Crows just can’t keep up).

But this is different: by organizing the schedule around “small group time” these schools are promoting the idea that small group teaching is valuable—no matter what the teacher may be teaching or what the kids’ levels may be or what the materials are that they are using.

That makes your question especially timely. Does small group teaching advantage kids in learning to read?

John Hattie identified three meta-analyses on small group instruction and reported it to have a medium-to-large effect (.49) on learning. However, few of the studies in those meta-analyses focused on reading, they weren’t always comparing small group teaching to whole class instruction, and some of the reading studies were from back in the day when 45-60 kids in a class was common practice. Several of the studies were based on secondary school and college teaching, too.

Robert Slavin also conducted a best-evidence synthesis of research on grouping back in the 1980s (effect size of .32). But at that time, he found no reading studies that compared grouping for reading instruction with whole class teaching.

Not exactly the evidence base I’d want to use for recommendations about elementary reading instruction.

However, even if we were to rely on those meta-analyses, the payoff of grouping for reading instruction had lower effects than was found for the other subjects (only .13), and it mattered a great deal how large the groups were—groups of 5 or larger received little or no learning benefit from within-class grouping (Lou, et al., 1996).

There are a couple of sizeable individual studies I think we need to consider, however.

For example, Kamil and Rausher (1990) conducted a study in which they compared whole class reading instruction with small group teaching in a large suburban school district. Surprisingly, they found that small groups “were not superior to whole class” teaching in terms of learning. There was just “too much variance within classrooms for the grouping patterns to have much of an impact.”

Even more sobering is a large study of grouping in reading conducted by Sørensen & Hallinan (1986). They found that small group teaching was more effective than whole class instruction—that is, if one compares 30 minutes of small group teaching versus 30 minutes of whole class teaching, the kids in the small group tend to make larger learning gains.

However, they also found that small group teaching provides kids with fewer learning opportunities. Basically, teachers teach more when teaching whole class.

Comparing equal amounts of small group teaching with whole class teaching might make sense to researchers, but it has little to do with the actual circumstances of classrooms. If a teacher has three groups who each receive 20 minutes of teaching, this should not be compared with 20 minutes of whole class instruction… but with 60 minutes—the time it takes to teach the three groups (in fact, it might even be fairer to compare it with 65-75 minutes because it takes transition time to switch out these groups).

When one compares small group and whole class instruction in this more meaningful way, small group teaching loses its advantage; that is, no differences in average achievement.

But, that doesn’t mean there’s no impact. What Sørensen & Hallinan (1986) concluded was that the high groups tended to get more learning opportunities in small group instruction than the low groups. And, because race and SES are correlated with reading, Black kids and poor kids (and I imagine ELLs) are more likely to find themselves in the low groups. Thus, there is no overall or average learning benefit for small group teaching, but there is a bit of rotation that ensures that minority kids make the least progress.

My conclusion from this is that small group teaching is beneficial in that it improves the impact of a lesson on the kids who are taught the lesson. But that amount of instruction matters, too, and when kids are grouped they are necessarily going to get less teaching. It’s a tradeoff at best. But we also need to be concerned about the lower readers who tend to be somewhat disadvantaged by this approach.

I’m not willing to give up altogether on small group instruction (or even individual teaching)—because there can be useful learning advantages from it. But I’d never organize classrooms in order to ensure that they specifically receive small group teaching. And, I’d always try to minimize small group teaching whenever possible for the sake of efficiency.

Never do with a small group, what you could be done as well with the whole class. I’ve observed the identical lesson being delivered repeatedly to groups of three, for instance. That is foolish—even if the curriculum director mandated small group teaching. Similarly, the idea that conferencing one-on-one about a book (for 2-5 minutes) is going to take kids to the same depth of interpretation with a text that a group or whole class discussion (for 30-60 minutes) is strikingly unconvincing.

Districts would be wise to provide teachers with professional development in the most effective ways to teach whole classes–including how to use grouping within those classrooms when it is sensible. Seatwork is necessary in both small group and whole class instruction. In the former, the assignments are aimed at keeping the kids busy while the teacher works with other groups, while in the latter the teacher is usually able to circulate among the kids while they work on the assignment (giving support and additional guidance as needed). Perhaps teachers would be better off teaching a whole class lesson, that was followed by individual work done in ability groups (in other words, three or four different follow up assignments based upon the lesson depending on the students’ levels). Then the teacher could circulate, helping kids at all levels.

Last week I watched my friend, Catlin Tucker, showing how teachers how she organizes her classrooms by task. If kids are working on research projects, she groups them based on what part of the project they are focused on at a given time. That allows her to maximize the power of her instruction, without the inefficiencies of unnecessary grouping.

In other schemes, teachers deliver whole class lessons, monitoring kids success and then small group work is reserved for re-teaching as needed.

Of course, there are approaches like cooperative grouping that have good research records, but that allow for a mix of whole class, small group, and individual work without the large losses of time evident in most small group centered classrooms. Cooperative grouping, project based learning, and other similar approaches may be beneficial in part because they don’t lock kids into reading levels–but encourage work with grade level texts or with a range of text difficulties.

Maximize the amount of learning opportunity that you provide to students. Use groups to focus on different learning tasks or to follow up whole class lessons as needed. Don’t group for the sake of grouping and minimize grouping on the basis of reading level—at least beyond beginning reading.

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
May 14, 2018