Best Practices for Small Group Instruction

How we teach matters as much as what we teach. So, what do we do when our students are not on the same level? Simple answer: Small group instruction.

My secret sauce to why my students demonstrate tremendous learning gains at the end of a year with me is due to differentiated small group instruction. Emphasis on the small and emphasis on differentiated. And yes, I have taught middle and high school.

Whole Group Instruction

Whole group instruction is a teaching method where the teacher provides direct instruction to the whole group—usually a class.

What is Small Group Instruction?

Everyone can learn: some just need more time. Anyone who has taught children a day or two can tell you that it is rare to teach a new concept and 100% of your students understand and master said concept.  I would say that 99% of the time, there is a student or a group of students who may not fully grasp what’s being taught and might need a little help or more time.

Small group instruction allows teachers to work more closely with each student on a specific learning goal, reinforce skills learned in whole group instruction and check for student understanding.

Small group instruction is effective because it gives students more of the teacher’s focused attention and teaching is focused precisely on what the students need to learn next to move forward. Ongoing observation of your students, combined with systematic assessment enables you to draw together groups of students struggling students or those who fit a particular instructional profile.

The small-group, differentiated reading model enables teachers to focus on specific skills needed by varied groups of children.

My Small Group Instructional Model

Let me do a brief overview of my instructional model:

  1. Opening Routine/ Bellringer
  2. Whole Group Instruction
  3. Small Group Rotation
  4. Wrap Up/ Exit Ticket

Keep in mind that this is fluid depending on where the class is in our unit or the focus of the lesson or even the time of the year which I blogged about over at Secondary English Coffee Shop. There are days with no whole group instruction or days that I work with only one small group instead of three. 

The caveat is that my instructional block has always been between 85-120 minutes but even if I had a shorter block, I would still implement small group instruction. 

Teacher reading book to young students in classroom. Horizontally framed shot.

Why Small Group Instruction?

Students vary in their strengths and weaknesses in reading instruction. I have had classes with students still struggling with decoding, have low level comprehension or require more rigor. Also, teens are notorious for not wanting to answer in a whole group setting for fear of failure or just not wanting to be seen. Small group instruction is a safer space because students are typically grouped based on ability. Small group instruction therefore allows me to drill down to the component of reading that the student needs help in: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, or comprehension. 

How To Implement Small Group Instruction

For most small groups, groups are based on reading data. Both state assessments as well as teacher assessments are used to place students in groups. Also, groups are formed for book clubs or group activities so it is possible for students to be in groups of mixed ability. 

Groups do change throughout the year depending on the target skills. Also, if my instruction is working, students should be moving into different focus groups. Best practice suggests that students are assessed to determine if the immediate, intensive instruction is making an impact and that assessment can be done normally after 20 instructional days or even at the end of a term. 

How To Do Small Group Rotation

Depending on your instructional block, if you are able to work with multiple groups during one class period, I suggest starting with the lowest group first. These would be the students at decoding or fluency typically. 

We know there are a million distractions and time suckers so starting with that group ensures they get the teacher directed instruction they need. If you do not have longer blocks then it is fine to work with one group a day until you have gone through all your groups. 

I normally have three groups but there are instances where I have had one student that needed phonemic awareness and I carved out ten minutes to work with him 1-1.

The number of groups are based on student need. You can also have two groups with the same ability. The goal is to be able to work with every student and not allow for students to “hide” which they often do during whole group instruction and they get passed from grade to grade without their reading needs being addressed.

It doesn’t matter if I am teaching a remedial reading class or an advanced class of gifted students because it is naive to think that ALL students are on the same level on all skills. Students do not make improvement or enrichment if the instruction is not tailored to them. 


Small group instruction allows teachers to ensure that students have equitable learning experiences and can be just as successful as their peers in the class. 

Best practices for small group instructions allows all students to learn content at a pace and level they understand. Without effective small group instruction, some students will continue to be at-risk, have learning gaps, and experience missed opportunities to learn in a meaningful way.

Oh, let me not forget to share my other secret sauce. Reading and lots of it. Skills in isolation are ineffective. Skills are developed while reading text- whole novels, short stories, and excerpts. Not worksheets.

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