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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

15 Ways to Improve Small-Group Instruction

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 09, 2021 9 min read
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(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are your recommendations for how best to set up and organize small groups in classroom instruction?

In Part One, Valentina Gonzalez, Olivia Montero Petraglia, Jenny Vo, and Jennifer Mitchell provided their suggestions.

Today, Irina McGrath, Ph.D., Cindy Garcia, and Serena Pariser offer their commentaries.


Irina McGrath, Ph.D., is an assistant principal at Newcomer Academy in the Jefferson County district in Louisville, Ky. She is a co-creator of the ELL2.0 Google site and enjoys creating and sharing resources to support English-learners and teachers of ELs. Irina is also a co-director of the Louisville Writing Project (LWP) and a University of Louisville and Indiana University Southeast adjunct professor:

Why Small Groups?

Research has shown that working in small groups improves academic achievement and relationships with peers. With regards to English-learners, small groups promote problem solving and critical-thinking skills, thus increasing students’ self-esteem and confidence. Additionally, they increase student “on-task” time and bring the affective filter down. For small groups to work best, teachers need to consider the size of the groups: Those with four to six students are more effective than those of larger sizes. Also, they need to carefully plan group composition to ensure equal participation among group members.

Types of Small Groups

There are many different types of small groups. Students can be grouped heterogeneously and can choose their partners, or teachers can assign them either randomly or intentionally. Students can also be grouped based on their academic achievement, native language or proficiency in English, interests, knowledge of a topic, and more. The type of group chosen depends on the purpose of the activity and the objectives of the lesson as each small-group type has its benefits and well-defined structure that are suited for specific styles of activities.

Clear Expectations and Practice

Teachers need to be clear from the beginning how groups are to be organized and how the group structure will help the students achieve the lesson objectives. If the group activity requires that the students assume certain roles such as a note-taker, timekeeper, or discussion leader, every member of the group should practice each role.

Videos can be helpful when modeling small-group work. Students can watch a video and discuss what they observed, paying attention to “look fors” associated with effective group work. “Look fors” can include:

  • using a signal to get attention
  • asking clarifying questions
  • listening attentively and taking turns sharing
  • contributing relevant ideas
  • accepting feedback
  • showing respect for peer contributions

Taking a moment to practice small-group work may seem like a waste of time, but that is far from reality. Rather, the benefits from practice are numerous. In addition to working on the obvious tasks such as listening, talking, reading, and writing, the students gain the ability to connect with each other, communicate well, and feel more comfortable in such an activity. Ultimately, they learn to accomplish shared goals collaboratively.

Feedback and Self-Assessment

Teacher and peer feedback during practice time is crucial. One way teachers may offer feedback is by providing specific examples observed during practice: what was done well, what needed a bit more work, etc. Another way is to follow the Praise-Question-Suggestion protocol, in which both the students and the teacher take turns offering praise, asking clarifying questions, and offering suggestions for each student and his or her role. Students should also be encouraged to reflect and self-assess their contributions to the work. As John Dewey, a well-known American psychologist and educator, once said, “We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.”

Ongoing Support

For small groups to continue functioning at their highest potential, students need ongoing support, which includes teachers monitoring off-task behavior and responding to group needs, evaluating students’ group placement, and reassigning groups, as well as modifying or changing group tasks as needed.

In summary, small groups can make a significant positive impact on ELs’ learning and bring joy to teaching; however, their success is contingent on teachers’ intentional selection of a specific type of small-group work, clear expectations, practice time, feedback, and ongoing support.


‘Make Tasks That Are Engaging’

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 16 years and is currently a districtwide specialist for P-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics. She is active on Twitter at @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

When facilitated correctly, small-group instruction can greatly support student learning. Below are some recommendations for preparing and organizing small-group instruction:

  • The physical area where small-group instruction will take place needs to be organized. All of the materials that will be used by the students and teacher must be easily accessible. Small-group time can go very fast, and therefore, time needs to be spent on instruction rather than looking for materials.
  • Multiple data points should be taken into account when forming small groups. One assessment usually does not yield enough information about what students understand and their misconceptions. What is the purpose of the small group? Why are specific students in the same small group? What is the need of each small group?
  • Be prepared to change group members. Small groups should be flexible. Students should enter and exit different groups based on their need. How will you check for understanding? How will you determine if the student no longer needs to be part of the group?
  • Small-group instruction should not be a repeat of a previous lesson or a continuation of whole-group instruction. It is important for small-group time to focus on a specific strategy, skill, method, or approach. What will be the focus of the small group? What materials do students need to practice what is taught?
  • Small-group time is not the time for a teacher lecture and teacher explanation. Teachers need to have planned questions ready to prompt students to share their thinking and figure out how to work through a task. What are some different ways to have students justify their responses and collaborate with each other? How will feedback be provided to students?
  • During small-group instruction, there should be differentiation on the process, product, or content. If students will be able to demonstrate their learning by creating different products, what resources need to be available? If the content will be differentiated, how will lesson materials be adjusted?
  • A notebook, binder, or other ways to record notes is needed during small-group instruction. As students are working, teachers should be recording notes about their content misconceptions, learning behaviors, and approaches used. This information can be used to plan for future instruction.
  • Make tasks that are engaging and relevant that can be completed independently available to students that are not part of a small group. Teachers should be focused on their small group, and that means the rest of the class needs to be fully on task without the need for teacher support.

‘Giving Each Group Member a Role’

Serena Pariser is the bestselling author of Real Talk About Classroom Management: 50 Best Practices That Work and Show You Believe in Your Students and Real Talk About Time Management: 35 Best Practices, both published by Corwin Press:

Group work really can be your biggest ally or your worst nightmare. However, ironically, students usually love group work because they are human beings and wired for connection. Group work is more than just pushing desks together; there’s much more to it.

When planning for group work, consider how you want to group the students. Think to yourself: Is the assignment harder than what the student could do on their own? If so, this calls for heterogeneous groups (students of different academic-ability levels working together). This way, each group has at least one student that can help the other group members or a mini teacher so to speak.

Also, keep in mind that groups of four to six are usually the most productive. You could also consider arranging the group seats before the students enter the classroom. A lot of the success of group work, as simple as it sounds, is a direct result of how well the desks are arranged. If one desk is pushed to the side, that student may subconsciously feel as if she is not part of the group.

Another best practice is giving each group member a role to make sure all students are carrying their weight. Some roles I’d recommend are group leader (students can choose their leader), cheerleader or cheerman, reporter (reports back to teacher on progress), and recorder. Assigning roles is a way to scaffold or support the group, so do it if the students need more support working collaboratively or the first couple times they work in groups. Like any scaffold, the hope is that you can let go of the support slowly, so perhaps they do not need roles by the end of the year.

Also, make sure to have the group-work instructions delivered both verbally and written somewhere. Many students need to see it as well, and you can simply point to the instructions if a student asks for clarification. As an additional scaffold, you could use a rubric and daily point system for their progress.


Thanks to Irina, Cindy, and Serena for contributing their thoughts.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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