Should Reading Be Taught Whole Class or Small Group?

  • Classroom organization small group instructions
  • 28 April, 2018
  • 23 Comments

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.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Margaret Connolly
Apr 28, 2018 08:57 PM

So wouldn’t the best of both worlds be Reading Workshop where there’s a strong whole group mini lesson and then guided reading groups based on need? As you indicate in this article,classrooms have a wide range of reading abilities and it’s been my experience that readers who come into a grade level strong have no problem engaging in and progressing with mainly whole group instruction because they have strong skills and they can access the curriculum. But the students who have wide gaps to fill in academic language, literary language and reading behaviors and word study, don’t engage as fully in whole group, and never get their gaps addressed. Their deficits grow and they become less and less able to access the curriculum and they get frustrated. The reading rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Annarita Howell
Apr 28, 2018 09:09 PM

This is very helpful in supporting the planning and professional learning we are taking a look at to strengthen out MTSS at our site. But now I have even more questions! Ugh!

Karina Flores
Apr 28, 2018 11:24 PM

Annarita, thats exactly how I'm feeling right now as I think about how to run my 6th ELA classroom next year and think about our MTSS goals

Terry Stevenson
Apr 29, 2018 12:39 AM

In our city there is a move to "all guided reading - all the time." Teachers are reprimanded if someone enters their classroom and they are not working conducting a guided reading lesson. Some schools have even recruited volunteers (folks from my church volunteer in the reading program of one school) to work with the students who are not having their guided reading time with the teacher.

My concern is that when a teacher works with guided reading groups all day, every day then most students are not receiving skilled instruction about 80% of the reading time.

This format for reading is being promoted by and "expert" whom the district has partnered with. It won't surprise me if they do see some gains this year mainly due to an increased focus on literacy and the use of the adult volunteers in the classroom. My prediction is that the gains will level out very quickly. In a year or so this district will be searching for another reading innovation to implement.

Rob
Apr 29, 2018 12:44 AM

60 kids in a class ??? How big were the classrooms?

Kim Entzminger
Apr 29, 2018 01:45 PM

Like with most things in life, I believe moderation and necessity are key. As a kindergarten teacher, I found great benefit to whole and small group instruction. My "small groups" however were flexible and students frequently moved between groups. Sometimes they were based on reading level, sometimes on skills that students needed additional instruction in to grasp the concept. As a reading interventionist, my time was spent completely in small group or individual instruction because that was how I pulled them. As a Literacy Coach today, I believe that teachers need to do what is in the best interest of students. Having students grouped in small groups all day I believe often limits them because we have a tendency to teach to where students are within their small group. Without exposure to grade level standards or above grade level standards, we rob them of the opportunity to grasp concepts and advance above where they currently are. However, having time to work with students on what they need help with is also beneficial. My rule of thumb is that we let the needs of the students in the classroom dictate our teaching. I hate "time mandates" that say we spend this many minutes doing a mini-lesson, then this many minutes on guided practice, etc. We pull small groups to help students master what they need to master, but we work to ensure that we are hitting the "sweet spot" to move students along the continuum to higher learning. We take advantage of whole group time to teach grade level standards and things that ALL students need to learn. We pull small groups to help ensure that students are moving toward and beyond grade level standards and that we are meeting individual needs. We work with individuals when needed to ensure that they are learning and we are meeting their needs. My personal experience has shown that the blend of both works best, IF and WHEN teachers understand why they are doing what they are doing and not simply following some mandate.

patricia blauch
Apr 29, 2018 10:48 PM

in the past I’ve raced to complete whole group instruction in a timely manner so I could fit in 3 guided reading groups 4 out of 5 days a week. It made sense when I was teaching 1st grade, but now I teach intermediate and I don’t feel as if I’m as effective as I could be with a better model. I like the idea of whole group lesson with differentiated follow up tasks based on ability and understanding, the teacher circulating to assist and assess, similar to my math workshop model. One question that comes to mind:
since levels still matter in my district and we mark on level, below level and above level each quarter on report card, do you recommend periodic cold running records to obtain and track reading levels?

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 30, 2018 04:02 AM

Margaret— why minilessons and not lessons?

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 30, 2018 04:03 AM

Terry—
Makes you wonder what expertise is based on.

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 30, 2018 04:05 AM

Rob—from grade 1 to 8 I was never in a class with fewer than 48 kids (the largest class I was in had 52 kids). The rooms were about the same size as today’s typical classrooms.

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 30, 2018 04:08 AM

Patricia—
Given what your district wants for reporting that is likely necessary—and I think it can be useful to find out levels early in the year to get a sense of who needs scaffolding and how much they might need. Beyond grade 1 I’d argue against matching kids to books by reading level for instruction.

Sam Bommarito
Apr 30, 2018 04:51 PM

Some comments on small gp vs. large group instruction. All small group instruction all the time runs completely contrary to both workshop and guided reading instruction. Properly done, both these systems of instruction require whole group instruction based on some form of a unit of study. Units of study provide the scope and sequence of the curriculum. Small group instruction is intended to provide the teacher with chances to zero in on the particular needs of the students in the group. When I was pushing in to do help teachers work learn either system, I used a little "not exactly according to the rules" trick. simply reference the whole group lesson or to build their mini lesson around the whole group lesson for that week then continue with the small group reading encouraging and supporting the students in whatever strategy/topic that group needed help with. On the question of why a mini lesson? From my perspective, partly it was because it was follow up teaching, and partly because the proof for me that the teacher knew their teaching point was that that they could get it across concisely. There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of text decodability vs text difficulty. Two examples: E=MC2 and "I'm my own grandpa". Both phrases are very simple to decode. Both take a lot of thought to unpack (the implications of the former are still taking some scientists full lifetimes to explore, and the later is an old song from the 40's- not as complicated but it is lots of fun to see how it all plays out). The point here is that if one uses leveled text for instruction, one should keep in mind the main purpose is to give the students text they are able to decode and then proceed with teaching the content/strategy you want them to acquire. There is no such thing as a first grade book. There is such a thing as a book containing content often taught at first grade. There is such a thing as a book first graders can decode on their own. I also encourage the use of "ad hoc" strategy groups. Strategy groups are a Calkin's invention. These are groups formed for a short period of time (2-4 wks usually) and formed around a strategy that students from various groups are having difficulty with Teachers often pushed back when I recommended the text for the book be at a decodability appropriate for the groups lowest performing member. TOO EASY for the other kids! Yes easy to decode, but properly chosen books can and should give ALL the students a chance to work with the problem skill/strategy. Once they understood the challenge teachers were usually able to find appropriate books (and yes there are limits to how wide a gap there can be in the levels at which group members were performing). Both F& P and Calkins have repeatedly said leveled text should only be PART of what students read. You provided a link to F&P latest thinking on leveled text to a parent who had a problem with a teacher who was taking leveling too literally. You pointed out these categories are not hard and fast (they aren't!). I especially like your speculation that high interest might result in students having a more developed schema in that particular area making it more likely the could READ the book. I have seen student perform multiple levels above their guided reading level when the text is right and had adults talk of times they read high schools texts in grade school and just did what it took to understand the text because they were so interested in the content. So your point that interest can mean the reader is bringing a more fully developed schema to the reading is well taken. Bottom line for me- Leveled text provide a possible tool for teachers to teaching students in a "target rich" environment for scaffolding their decoding skills. Picking by books level is not sufficient. The CONTENT of the books and the TEXT STRUCTURE of the books also must be factored in. I think an examination of the commercial Units by F&P and Calkins would demonstrate that book recommendations do take all that into account. Thanks for taking the time to listen. Hope to hear what you think, especially what you think about my making a distinction between decoding and reading.

Harriett Janetos
Apr 30, 2018 07:04 PM

I think the "mini-lesson" is one of the most misguided and misapplied recommendations from both the reading and writing workshop models. There's a definite time and place for the "maxi-lesson".

Sam Bommarito
May 01, 2018 03:44 AM

Harriett, thanks for pointing out the need for "maxi-lessons". There is DEFINITELY a time and place for the "maxi-lesson" and it is in the large group instruction that should be an important part of reading and writing workshop. Not sure if all workshop teachers do it that way, but when I was training staff that is the way I modeled and taught.

Timothy Shanahan
May 01, 2018 01:01 PM

Sam- where do F&P say that you need to teach reading to kids with a broad array of text levels and where do they and Lucy Calkins champion the idea of spending considerable time teaching reading in whole class configurations as opposed to conferencing or small group work? I can’t find that.

Nancy Young
May 01, 2018 07:33 PM

Dr. Shanahan, what do you think of pre-teaching code-based concepts (phonics) in a small group setting to those who have been flagged by a good screener (and determined to be below average in, for example, PA and/or naming speed). Then, when the explicit lesson on that code-based concept is taught as a whole group, those students at risk receive more (or repeated) explanation, more repetition and feel positive vs. apprehensive (perhaps leading to greater participation...). Is there any research on this in K through grade 2? Thank you!

Sam Bommarito
May 01, 2018 08:30 PM

http://blog.fountasandpinnell.com/post/the-importance-of-a-multi-text-approach-to-guided-reading

Try looking over the material in the preceding posting from the F&P blog. Here are some excerpts:

“Interactive read-aloud is a way to engage daily in comprehending and articulating their thinking about age-appropriate material (the level is generally beyond the instructional reading level of most of the students),” (Fountas and Pinnell 2017).”
“Independent reading is all about choice. Your primary role in independent reading is to provide students with a rich, well-organized collection of books from which to choose. The texts should be in a variety of genres and levels of difficulty so all students will be able to find something they want to read.”

“You start with high teacher support in shared reading and interactive read-aloud, and gradually release the control over to the students through guided reading and independent reading, while book clubs and literature discussion are woven throughout. The level of support will vary, however, depending on the demands of the text and the level of control by readers, which can fluctuate at any point in time.”

My thought: workshop includes significant amounts of time for large group instruction, perhaps not as much as you might like but certainly enough to take notice of. I continue to think that there is more in common ground in what various leaders in the field are saying and less difference than might be apparent on the surface. Guess I’m just a glass half full kind of person.

BTW- your website contains a treasure trove of ideas/materials that I am learning from, even the ones with which I don’t totally agree. I hope all of your readers are aware of those resources and how to get to them. It would help a lot of kids if they did. Thanks for making them available!

Sam

Timothy Shanahan
May 02, 2018 02:01 AM

Nancy-
Most studies of PA and phonics instruction in preschool through grade 2 focus on small group instruction. The exception to this is whole class teaching followed up with small group teaching in the fashion that I wrote about. Indeed, I would be very comfortable with small group preschool instruction of any kind.

Timothy Shanahan
May 02, 2018 02:09 AM

Sam-
I respectfully disagree on this... here the main teaching takes place in small groups (the guided reading)...and the kids get to read self selected materials on their own. I can’t imagine a lot of interactive read aloud in teaching kids beyond beginning reading levels and given that this is high support it could be individual or small group. What this means is teachers read challenging texts to kids, the kids read relatively easy books with the teacher in small group, and kids read books of unknown levels on their own. That’s not even close to what I am talking about: teachers teaching kids in complex texts—varying the difficulty of those texts—and doing that as efficiently as possible. I see no rapprochement between those positions.

Tim

Sam Bommarito
May 02, 2018 01:52 PM

Looks like we will have to agree to disagree about the usefulness of workshop as a method to implement instruction.

One last question.

What do you mean by complex text. Are you factoring in decodablity, text structure or both?
Where can one look for the best examples of teachers using, models to use for teaching around complex text?
Thanks, Sam

Timothy Shanahan
May 03, 2018 01:12 AM

Decodability is the main complexity factor in beginning reading pictures... but by grade 2 those other aspects of complexity takes precedence.

We disagree less about the value of a particular unstudied instructional method than we do on the importance of maximizing the payoff from every minute of instruction—particularly for kids who won’t largely learn to read at home.

Ann Cozzocrea
May 08, 2018 01:32 PM

My district's vision is that students will engage in personalized learning experiences in preparation for careers, college, and life. The district's definition of personalization is "seeking to facilitate student learning by tailoring the instructional environment - what, when, how, and where learning occurs - to address the individual needs, skills, and interests of each learner. Students take ownership of their learning, while also developing deep, personal connections with each other, their teachers, and other adults." Whole group instruction is frowned upon.

Beth
Jul 14, 2018 09:37 PM

I agree completely with your points on changing groups based on mastery of a skill or strategy, and recognizing when certain students would benefit from re-teaching or acceleration of a concept, even if they are in different groups based on the level of text they are reading.

It is important to allow for flexible groupings, which is what I like to incorporate into my whole group lessons-- having students work with other students not typically in their reading groups based off of reading levels.

The elementary school that I teach at expects small group instruction every day in reading, based on current reading levels and with leveled books. You say in your blog to avoid teaching in small group what you can get done in whole group. Frequently, I am teaching similar strategies in only slightly modified ways to my small groups because they are practicing the strategies with different leveled books. What recommendations or advice do you have for teachers in a school that has expectations like this? I do understand where the administration is coming from with this thought. I teach fifth grade and have students ranging from Level 1 ESOL to Level Z on the Fountas and Pinnell system. How would I reach my emerging readers in my classroom if I am focusing more on whole group instruction at grade level texts?

Thanks!

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Should Reading Be Taught Whole Class or Small Group?

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