Every year, early elementary teachers welcome students with a wide range of reading abilities into their classrooms. Some kindergarteners may be reading whole books, for example, while others don’t know their letters.
For decades, a popular way to address this broad scope of student need has been leveled reading groups. Teachers group students at similar achievement levels to provide guided instruction in books deemed just right for their abilities, spending time with each group of students in their class every day.
But mounting evidence suggests that this practice doesn’t improve struggling students’ reading skills. Studies have shown that the tools powering popular leveling systems don’t always accurately capture students’ abilities—and that dividing up high- and low-performing students can actually widen achievement gaps.
These findings leave teachers and school leaders with a few big questions: Should they get rid of grouping altogether? If not, how do they group students if not by level? And how should they go about restructuring literacy blocks that have been designed around leveled group time for so long?
“Understanding the research base on this is a tricky endeavor,” said Kristin Conradi Smith, an associate professor of reading education at the College of William & Mary’s School of Education.
Leveled reading groups aren’t an effective practice. But that doesn’t mean that all grouping has to go, she said.
Researchers who study reading groups say that ability grouping can be effective under certain conditions—if the practice focuses on specific skills that students need work on rather than general reading levels, and if the groups are flexible enough so that students can move once they have mastered those skills.
They also point to the benefits of other types of small group instruction, like mixed-ability grouping and partner work.
Grouping students can be “extremely powerful,” said Matt Burns, a professor of special education at the University of Missouri’s College of Education & Human Development. “It’s especially effective for [lower-performing] kids; we see more growth.”
Critiques of leveled reading groups
Leveled reading groups are a component of some of the most popular early literacy curricula. In a 2020 EdWeek Research Center survey, 61 percent of K-2 teachers said that they use leveled texts in small group work.
To determine their reading “level,” teachers give students an assessment, usually listening to them read and recording the number and type of errors that they make. This level is designed to measure overall reading comprehension ability, rather than component skills like decoding or fluency.
In small groups, students read texts that match their level, while the teacher supports them with strategies students can use when they get stuck. (These strategies often are rooted in cueing—encouraging students to turn to other sources of information instead of the letters on the page, such as pictures and context, to guess at the words on the page.)
The goal with leveled reading groups is to meet students where they are, giving them enough challenge to grow their abilities, but not so much that the lesson becomes too difficult.
But research from Burns and his colleagues has shown that the leveling system doesn’t actually achieve that goal.
“The measurement system is highly erroneous, about 54 percent accuracy,” said Burns, referencing a study that found data from leveling assessments correctly predicted students’ reading ability only a little more than half of the time.
“If the test says they’re at a particular level, we don’t really know if that’s true or not,” he said.
There’s a second problem, too, he said. The leveling system overestimates struggling readers, meaning it matches them with books they have trouble reading.
In part, that’s because “kids who are supposedly at the same level actually have very different skill profiles,” Burns said.
Levels only offer a determination of general comprehension ability, which can mask differences in students’ underlying challenges. For example, two students could both be at the same low reading level, but one might have trouble with decoding, while the other struggles with vocabulary, requiring different kinds of support.
Educators and researchers alike have also long criticized leveling as a kind of tracking that makes it difficult for lower-performing students to ever catch up.
Studies have shown that students who start school in the lowest reading group are unlikely to catch up to students who start in the highest reading group. These students in lower groups also make slower progress than their peers, leading to wider skill gaps.
An evidence-backed option: skill-based groups
Still, there is a type of differentiation that can help struggling students make progress, researchers say: skill-based grouping.
Instead of assigning students a general comprehension level, skill-based grouping seeks to pinpoint, and address, the specific challenges that students have.
Imagine a teacher has five students who need support around segmenting and blending sounds, but the other students in the class have already mastered that skill, said Sharon Vaughn, a professor in the department of special education at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education.
“We don’t need to reteach that lesson to the whole class,” Vaughn said. “We can deliberately put our instruction on the point of need for students.”
Research shows that this kind of targeted, skill-based grouping can be effective. A 2017 study found that students who were in personalized reading groups from 1st to 3rd grade outperformed their peers who were in traditional reading groups, gaining the equivalent of about two months of extra progress each year.
A meta-analysis of small-group reading interventions, published in 2018, found that these interventions were more effective when they were targeted to a specific skill than when they were general comprehension programs that addressed multiple skills.
Putting together skill-based groups requires different assessments than those teachers would use for leveled reading, Burns said. Teachers should use tests that can identify specific skill deficits—such as decoding inventories or fluency screeners, he said.
But informal observations can also play a role here, said Stephanie Al Otaiba, a professor of teaching and learning at Southern Methodist University’s Simmons School of Education & Human Development. Teachers can incorporate information they’ve collected about students’ understanding of academic language, for example.
These targeted small groups allow teachers to provide extra modeling and give students immediate feedback on the skills they struggle with the most, Burns said.
When students start mastering skills, then it’s time to retool group composition, said Burns, suggesting that teachers could reshape groups every other week based on assessment data.
These assessments can be short, he said—for example, having students read 10 words that feature sound patterns that were just taught.
When mixed-ability groups can be useful
Some instructional goals are best met in skill-based groups, researchers said.
Students should only practice specific, discrete skills—such as the /oi/ sound, for example—if they haven’t mastered those skills yet. If they have, “that additional practice might not be as beneficial,” said Vaughn.
But other activities might be better executed in mixed-ability groups, Vaughn said. Take, for instance, small group discussions after listening to a read-aloud together as a whole class. Having students of varying abilities can be beneficial in this context, she said, because they bring different perspectives to the table.
“A range of knowledge about a word enhances everyone’s understanding of that word,” said Vaughn. “A range of knowledge of language use enhances everyone’s knowledge about language use.”
Discussing text in heterogeneous groups can also ensure that all students get access to grade-level material, said Tiffany Young, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Doane University in Crete, Neb.
Young taught elementary reading for a decade before she entered academia. She used leveled reading groups as part of her practice with students at the time.
“The more I taught, the more I realized, they can’t move to higher levels if they’re not being taught at that level,” Young said. “Students can’t learn something they’re not exposed to.”
Experimental studies suggest that weaker readers can benefit from reading complex texts, in part because it helps them further develop subject-matter knowledge—knowledge that can then, in turn, support their comprehension of future texts. Pairing weaker and stronger readers to read together as partners, specifically, is supported by studies, too.
In her classroom-based research, Young has proposed several design principles for implementing non-leveled, mixed-ability groups in early reading classrooms. Schools need to shift away from differentiating texts for students by level, she said.
“Instead, we need to think this way: How do we differentiate our teaching so that we bridge the gap for each student between what they know and can do and what they need to know and do in order to access the text that is at their grade level, or above?” she said.
Vaughn raised a final benefit to mixed-ability groups: opportunities for kids to form connections with more of their peers.
“These fixed-ability groups also fix, in a way, friendship groups,” she said.
Addressing logistical challenges
Small-group time can be valuable, but it’s also “expensive,” Conradi Smith and her colleagues write in a recent article that gives practical tips for teachers on maximizing small-group reading instruction.
“Not in terms of money,” they write, “but in terms of management and planning.”
For skill-based small groups to work well, teachers need to spend time analyzing assessment data and organizing other activities for the rest of the class to do during a group rotation. There are ways to tackle these challenges, though.
In most early elementary classrooms, Conradi Smith said, the group work portion of a literacy block can take anywhere from one to two hours, with the teachers spending about 20 minutes with every group. She would recommend less time—up to an hour total, with the teacher spending about 15 minutes with each group. Burns suggests something similar, with 10 to 15 minutes per group.
These are just recommendations, Conradi Smith said, as the research base on grouping provides “surprisingly little detail or guidelines.”
Figuring out timing is a delicate operation, she said. Teachers want to allot enough time to each group to provide individualized feedback. But when the teacher is with one small group, the rest of the students in the class are on their own. Small group time shouldn’t be so long that students are working independently for the majority of the literacy period, Conradi Smith said.
Some schools are getting creative with scheduling, planning for small group time to occur when another adult can also be in the room—a reading specialist, or an English learner teacher, for example, she said. Districts could also use trained volunteers, she added.
In elementary schools near Virginia’s William & Mary, where Conradi Smith works, college students drop in to help during small group time. “Whether they’re college students or other volunteers, I think we’re going to need to look beyond just the reading specialist to think through, how can we have some other adults in the classroom who can support?” Conradi Smith said.
If there aren’t other adults available, students should be given assignments to work on by themselves or with peers that come with clear directions and some modeling, she said.
Finally, these activities should align with what teachers are providing in whole group instruction. “Whatever students are doing, it needs to be activities that allow them to apply the knowledge and skills that they have learned,” said Young.
If students are independently reading, for example, they should be encouraged to apply their decoding skills—rather than relying on the pictures in the book to infer the story’s meaning, she said.
Planning and executing small group time while considering all of these factors is difficult, Conradi Smith said. But she thinks that schools could lose an important opportunity if they toss out all types of grouping in a rush to get rid of leveled reading.
“I think we always want to be sure that we’re meeting the needs of our students,” she said. “It could become a problem if we’re not able to help some of our students catch up.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2023 edition of Education Week as Classroom Reading Groups: What Works and What Doesn’t