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Why Your Small Group Instruction Doesn’t Work!

Guided Reading, Reader’s Workshop, and Math Workshop have narrowed teachers’ understanding of why small group instruction is necessary. These three instructional strategies use small group instruction to deliver math or reading instruction to students, which may lead many teachers to believe that they are interventions for students.

Using small group instruction to close achievement gaps was introduced as Response to Intervention in 2004 within the re-authorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). The Office of Special Programs (OSEP) wrote into the notes a statement that asks school districts not to rely on what is called the discrepancy model for identification of specific learning disabilities and consider using interventions tried within RTI.

In response to  the re-authorization of IDEA most school districts required teachers to implement small group instruction in their classrooms for students who are were struggling academically. Under the RTI model small group instruction that is done by the teacher and is considered a Tier II intervention.

I regularly use small group instruction as a part of my instructional routine, because 60% to 70% of my students are working below grade level. I have always understood why small group instruction was necessary, however implementing it has not always been easy.

Grouping Students

Data is the foundation of small group instruction. Putting students into to groups based on data can be tricky, because the students won’t have the exact same deficits. It’s a lot easier for math teachers to group students because your groups will be based on skill deficits.

For example, in the beginning of the year my goal is to get my students to multiply and divide using the standard algorithm.  After about a month or so of instruction, I pull the students students’ test scores from the previous year to see who scored low in the Number and Operations strand. Then, I use my formative assessment checks and weekly test to create my groups.

Other data points such as universal screenings and benchmark tests can also be used to group students as the year progresses.

Resources for Small Group Instruction

The goal of small group instruction is to close achievement gaps. I use the vertical alignment of skills to achieve this goal. Most school districts and states have documents that tell you at what grade level certain concepts and skills are taught. These documents are most often called vertical alignment progression of skills. The vertical alignment of skills will tell you where to begin with your students and what skills need to be mastered before they can master on grade level math concepts.

Once you know where to begin with the students you can then find resources that are specific to your grade level. You might be saying to yourself I don’t have any second or third grade resources. Well, the reading teacher on our 5th grade team last year had the same problem with finding text on 4th grade level. I told her to go to the 4th grade teacher and utilize their resources.

Your resources for your small group instruction are in the previous grade levels, unless you teach middle or high school. Don’t reinvent the wheel!

Independent Work During Small Group Instruction

The most difficult part of small group instruction is classroom management. I know that most administrators or district personnel will tell you that you MUST have workstations. Workstations aren’t a requirement for small group but a preference. I don’t use workstations with my small group instruction because they require my students use Social Emotional Learning skills such as self-management that my students don’t have yet.

Instead I use programs such as Mobymax, Reasoning Mind, Math Playground and assign lessons through Google Classroom. Sometimes I’ll even use Edpuzzle to review or introduce a new skill for an upcoming lesson.

If your administrator is requiring you to use workstations I highly recommend that you begin with independent practice before introducing any other workstation to your students.

Time in Small Group

I don’t have small group everyday because unlike Math Workshop and Guided Math I don’t use small group to deliver instruction. I use it to close my students’ achievement gaps.

I have small group twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays for most of the class period. This gives me the opportunity to work with all of the students that need extra help. I don’t see all of my students because not all of the students have deficits with the skill that I may be focusing on in my small group.

Each cycle last approximately two weeks. Every two weeks I regroup my students and start for a new skill and put the students who haven’t mastered the skill from the previous cycle into one group.

Tracking Students in Small Group

By now you can probably tell that I’m big on using data to make instructional decisions. Using data to make changes in small group is not an exception.

In my small groups I prefer to use anecdotal notes  to track my students progress in small group. Anecdotal notes along with tracking mastery of the concepts helps me to focus on what mistakes the students are making rather than just did they get the problem right or wrong.

The true goal of small group instruction was not to deliver instruction but rather to provide students with additional academic support in the classroom. So if your students continue to make insignificant gains on assessments then you may want to reevaluate how you’re using small group instruction.

2 thoughts on “Why Your Small Group Instruction Doesn’t Work!”

  1. I am very excited with your teaching methods. I will be using them in my classes. This has been very informative.

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I help math teachers who teach high need students to effectively manage their classrooms and deliver high quality math instruction. Learn more about me


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