By Teachers, For Teachers
Small group instruction is a strategy mostly utilized in the elementary school setting. The sole focus of small group instruction is to grow students' academic skills. Many students enter school with learning gaps several years behind their current grade level. Teachers are expected to provide instruction to students and grow their academic competency within one school year. Therefore, educators implement small group instruction to best meet the needs of their students to ensure their success.
The purpose of small group instruction is to address learning deficits. Students are placed within groups of two to six by providing direct instructional support. Small group instruction is especially beneficial for special populations of students such as English language learners, special education students, at-risk students, and students of poverty.
According to J. Kendall’s Small-group instruction for English language learners: It makes sense, “small group instruction provides an environment in which students can feel comfortable practicing and receiving feedback and teachers can offer additional teaching and modeling of content.” Knowing students’ instructional levels is necessary to effectively plan and implement small group instruction.
Determining a student’s instructional level includes reviewing and analyzing multiple assessment data. Once the instructional levels are determined, students are grouped homogeneously to provide targeted instruction based on their individual needs. Progress monitoring data, formative assessment data, and standardized assessment data are a few sources that can be used to identify student deficits on learning targets and state standards.
After analyzing data, teachers should plan specific lessons to address the learning targets. During small group instruction implementation, learning is scaffolded by utilizing visuals, graphic organizers, supplemental aids, note taking assistance, reading supports, technology, and manipulatives. Small group instruction can be implemented in any content area. However, most teachers implement small group instruction in reading and math due to the pressures of state accountability and the need to grow students’ skill sets in a short amount of time.
There are many reasons why small group instruction is important, but the biggest benefit to students is the setting allows for more individualized support and yields great academic success for students. “Instruction of children in small groups affords children and their teachers invaluable and unique opportunities, that may not be possible in large group activities.” Teachers are able to diagnose students’ learning deficits and cater specific learning plans to meet their needs in content areas.
For example, if a group of students is struggling with multi-step word problems in math, the teacher can provide support on operations and reading comprehension. Being in close proximity to students allows the teacher to address misconceptions immediately that would not have been possible in whole group instruction. Students can ask specific questions and receive feedback without fear or judgement from peers.
If the majority of the students in a class struggle with a particular skill or concept, the issue lies more with direct instruction on the teacher’s part rather than individualized learning deficits of the students.
Small group instruction should begin for students after the first 6 weeks of school through the remainder of the school year. It is appropriate to use at least 3-5 times per week to reinforce skills for students. The first 6 weeks are used to collect data and pre-assess students’ reading and math levels. The data is also used to determine specific learning targets students need to be successful. The first week of a new unit of study can also be used to collect data and regroup students.
The small group instruction learning cycle includes pre-assessment, direct instruction while progress monitoring, post assessments, and reteaching of concepts for mastery. The cycle should happen for every concept unit that aligns to the local and state curriculum.
Implementing small group instruction in the classroom should be highly structured. Planning in advance is key to ensure effective small group instructional learning cycles. During the small group instruction learning cycle, access to manipulatives, visuals, graphic organizers, technology, and lesson plans are necessary for students to grasp concepts.
In their 2008 book, Educational Leadership professors Dr. Nancy Frey and Dr. Douglas Fisher explain that lesson plans should include ‘I do’, ‘We do’, and ‘You do’ activities to scaffold learning for students. Lesson plans can also include inquiry to address gaps in students’ thinking and to provide clarity to any misconceptions.
Anecdotal notes should be used to track students' progress and write down ideas for the upcoming lesson plan the following week. Instructional adjustments must be made on a weekly basis to ensure students are successful in learning content skills.
The biggest challenge for teachers when implementing small group instruction is deciphering how to engage other students in the classroom while working with a small group of 2-6 students. Classroom management is necessary to effectively implement small group instruction. Teachers should utilize differentiated instruction and have a variety of learning stations that challenge and engage other students in rigorous activities that are aligned to learning standards. Some examples are project-based learning, computer-based applications, instructional games, writing workshops, investigation stations, book studies, skills practice, etc. All learning stations must align with grade level standards to ensure further learning gaps are not created.
Teachers should also find natural breaks during small group instruction to check in with other students who are working in learning stations for a few minutes to ensure they are on task and successfully completing assignments. During the check-in times, teachers should take quick anecdotal notes on any student that is struggling to address the deficits in small group instruction. If most students are unsuccessful in learning stations, teachers will need to explore other effective instructional strategies to address the deficits during whole group instruction.
Small group instruction allows teachers to ensure students have an equitable learning experience and can be just as successful as their peers in the educational setting. It provides the opportunity for all students to learn content at a pace and level they understand. Implications for further studies should address the effect of small group instruction in the middle and high school setting. Most studies address the importance of small group instruction in the elementary school setting. Without effective instruction, underprivileged students will continue to be at-risk, have learning gaps, and experience missed opportunities to learn academic content in a meaningful way.
Felicia is an elementary school principal and holds an Ed.D. in Teacher Leadership.