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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

How Small-Group Instruction Benefits Your Teaching

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 15, 2021 15 min read
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(This is the final post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here; Part Two here, and Part Three 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.

In Part Two, Irina McGrath, Ph.D., Cindy Garcia, and Serena Pariser offered their commentaries.

In Part Three, Julia Stearns Cloat, Nancy Garrity, Laura Smith, Christina Krantz, and Luiza Mureseanu shared their ideas.

Today, Laura Robb, Kimberly Ann Rimbey, Ph.D., Debbie Diller, and Paul Tarasevich wrap up the series.

‘Reteaching & Extra Practice’

Author, teacher, and consultant Laura Robb has taught grades 4 to 8 for more than 40 years and continues to coach teachers in elementary and middle school. The author of more than 40 books on literacy, Robb writes blogs; creates podcasts with her son, Evan Robb; and speaks at national and state conferences:

Ms. Wilton, a 6th grade math teacher, assesses students’ progress with algebraic equations. All but five students can solve equations for an unknown, and Ms. Wilton creates a plan to support the group of five over three consecutive days by setting aside 15 minutes of her 45-minute class. She plans to reteach and provide extra practice, so she can monitor the group’s thinking as they solve equations. The remaining students are in three groups that watch a Youtube video to review the process and then complete enrichment or extra practice by teaming up to help one another.

Ms. Wilton explains: “It’s worth taking time to support small groups, as most students improve with reteaching and extra practice. I observe how they problem solve through their think-alouds and use this information to adjust how I support them.”

This numeracy story illustrates that besides the guided- and/or strategic-reading groups ELA teachers organize, there are other pressing reasons to pull small groups together and provide supports and interventions for students in all subjects. Helping students understand a challenging concept or process early in a unit can result in enhancing understanding and in all students experiencing success.

Finding the Time

Teachers often feel pressure to move on with a topic even when one to six students require additional support. “I don’t have the time,” or “If I stop, I won’t complete all of the required units,” are comments teachers repeatedly share. However, it’s possible to pull small groups to ensure that your teaching reaches all students, especially when you target interventions and take no more then 15 minutes of class time over one to three consecutive days. I suggest consecutive classes as this provides focus for your modeling and concentrated practice for students.

You can find more time to support students by flipping the learning. Create a video of the lesson you teach and have students watch at home. Doing this allows you to model, think-aloud, show how you solve specific problems, interpret texts, compare, contrast, etc. At home, students can watch the video many times and come to class with specific questions, allowing you to clarify a concept and/or process. In addition, students have class time to practice with you as their guide and supporter as well as collaborate with peers to deepen their understanding. Moreover, flipping your class provides opportunities for you to observe students at work, interact with them, hold impromptu discussions, and assess their progress.

Formative Assessments Monitor Students’ Progress

You can monitor students’ progress using a variety of assessments throughout a unit of study. It’s best to assess often so you can catch small misunderstandings before they transform in big learning obstacles. When the purpose of assessments is to inform your knowledge of students’ progress, tell them that these are checkups that help you support their learning. Be a careful listener and observer during mini-lessons and when students practice independently with a partner or in a small group. Consider using the seven assessments that follow as guides to your instructional decisions:

Listen to questions students have during mini-lessons and while they practice during class. Do questions reveal confusion or a need for clarification?

Observe students’ body language while you present a mini-lesson and think aloud to model a process. Do students avoid watching the lesson or are they engaged in another activity?

Observe students’ practice following a mini-lesson. Circulate among them. Are they able to complete the task using your demonstration notes independently?

Learn from homework. Did students successfully complete homework or does it indicate a need for extra help?

Have a brief meeting to discuss what students feel confuses them or the kind of help they believe they need. Can you group students with similar needs or do you feel the entire class need reteaching?

Ungraded assessments can be used for frequent checks on the level of students’ understanding. Can you move to the next concept or part of the process?

Exit slips show what students remember and understand after a lesson followed by student practice. Would students benefit from extra practice at this point or can you move forward?

Listening to and observing students occurs throughout class and enables you to identify those who might require immediate support. Avoid overusing quizzes or exit slips. Instead, continually circulate as students work and offer on-the-spot help, which can clear up many confusions.

Closing Thoughts

Keep the primary reason for using small groups for interventions during a unit of study at the forefront of your mind. Knowing your why and acting on it by providing support can increase every student’s knowledge and understanding of the concepts, literary elements, text structures, and notebook writing in your units of study.


‘Guiding Questions’

Kimberly Rimbey, Ph.D., serves as the chief learning officer for KP Mathematics and as the director of mathematics for the Buckeye Elementary school district in Buckeye, Ariz. Kim co-authored the Mastering Math Manipulatives books, co-published by Corwin and NCTM:

We all know that teacher-led, small-group instruction can be a powerful strategy for meeting students where they are. And yet one question tends to stop us in our tracks: “What do I do with the other students while I’m working with small groups?”

This question illuminates two different plans that must be attended to: the small-group plan and the rest-of-the-class plan. Whether you’re implementing guided-reading groups, heterogenous math groups, book studies, or other small-group types, the following three principles may be the just-right ingredients for bumping up your small-group instruction to the next level.

1) Anticipate and plan for multiple means of engagement. The way you launch tasks matters! Consider how you will launch a task in 90 seconds or less, avoiding too much upfront teacher talk. For example, if your class is working on identifying main ideas, start with a simple question such as, “What happened in the story?” Provide two minutes for students to sketch, write, or list all the things that come to mind. Invite them to listen to one another’s ideas and add to their own lists/sketches. Provide analysis time where you ask guiding questions to derive a main idea. And finally, think about how you can create parallel activities that mirror your small-group lesson so the rest of the class can work independently or collaboratively.

2) Anticipate and plan for multiple representations. When working in any content area, student learning skyrockets when they create and connect multiple representations. Let’s say you’re planning for a small-group math experience centered on simple linear equations. Provide your students with a basic scenario and then give them the choice to represent the situation by sketching a graph, deriving an equation, plotting points using pegs on a coordinate board, or describing with words. And then ask them to connect among representations.

3) Anticipate and plan for multiple modes of expression. Student strengths often emerge when they have multiple options for expressing their thinking. Ensure students have access to a variety of pencils, pens, colored markers, different kinds of paper, note cards, graphic organizers, thinking maps, manipulatives, and other tools. For example, if your students are in the beginning stages of a writing project, provide them with several options for brainstorming: Draw a story board, design a thinking map, or write a bulleted list. Again, think about how your teacher-led small-group task can be mirrored in the independent and collaborative rest-of-the-class experiences.

Guiding questions for your small-group plan:

  • How will you launch with a brief question (again, keep it under 90 seconds)?
  • How will you avoid show-and-tell teaching while maximizing students’ thinking, talking, and showing?
  • How will you ensure that the student-to-teacher-voice ratio is at least 2:1?
  • How will you activate students in creating multiple representations?
  • How will you use guiding questions to encourage connections among multiple representations?
  • What materials need to be placed in your small-group area ahead of time?
  • What examples or anchor charts should be posted nearby?

Guiding questions for your rest-of-the-class plan:

  • How will your parallel activities encourage students to express their thinking in a variety of ways? What materials will you provide?
  • Where is the folder/basket where they find their “think sheets,” and where do they place their finished work?
  • How will you set up your class so that students know how to get started?
  • What materials will you put out to encourage multiple representations connected to the small-group experience?
  • Where will you place the materials so students have easy access to them?
  • What anchor charts or guiding questions will you post to facilitate independence?
  • How will you prepare students to solve their own problems when they don’t have access to the you (e.g., ask three then me, parking lot, etc.)?
  • How will you organize and place materials so that cross-room movement is minimized?

Using these three principles as a way to organize your instruction provides you with a structure for ensuring that your teacher-led small groups and your rest-of-the-class experiences flow smoothly. Furthermore, planning with multiple pathways of engagement, representation, and expression provides scaffolds for students to work within their strengths. It’s a win-win for everyone!



Debbie Diller has been an educator for over 40 years, working as a classroom teacher, Title I reading specialist, literacy coach, migrant educator, and national consultant. She is well-known for her work with literacy stations, small-group instruction, and classroom space and has authored numerous books for Corwin Literacy and Stenhouse Publishers:

The better organized you are, the easier it will be to maximize the time you spend with students in small-group instruction. Spend some time before school starts to think about the space you’ll set up for small group. I recommend using a large piece of paper and small sticky notes to make a simple classroom map. Draw built-in items (e.g., doors, windows, boards, cabinets, or shelving that can’t be moved) around the perimeter of the plan first.

Then use sticky notes to label the follow areas in this order: whole-group instruction area, small-group instruction area, classroom library. Work with colleagues to look at space and help each other place classroom furniture only after mapping out your room and being intentional about organizing specific areas for learning and instruction. Planning saves time later, so you don’t have to move your furniture around after a rough day!

Set up a small-group teaching space where you can see every child in the classroom. This will help you monitor learning expectations for the rest of the class when you’re working with a small group. Having a table for home base for small group will provide a dedicated learning space where kids can focus as they work together. Choose a spot that is away from distractions, so students don’t look out a window or into the hallway during small-group time.

Provide ample space for each student at the table. If possible, have a seat for each child so they don’t have to drag chairs from their desks to the table. You might use placemats or adhesive colored table spots to define spaces and help young learners focus. Keep a caddy containing sharpened pencils, sticky notes, scissors, and dry-erase supplies, so everything needed for small group is at your fingertips.

You’ll want shelves for small-group storage in this area, too. Set up your small-group table near built-in shelving if you have this option. Or place shelves behind your table to organize your books and other small-group teaching materials. You might have a colored bin for each group’s books. Or use a clear vertical file holder with a colored folder for each small group containing their materials for the next lesson.

It’s handy to have blank wall space or a bulletin board or a dry-erase board behind your small-group space. That way you can post reminders for small group, such as your weekly schedule or anchor charts you might use for reference during small-group lessons.

Try to keep your small-group area organized. This will help you and your students focus during small-group meetings. Keep a tabbed binder with small-group lesson plans at the table.

Teach routines well, beginning the first day of school. Set up a classroom system for expectations (e.g., bathroom procedures, Kleenex use, sharpening pencils), so kids can learn to manage these things without your permission.

Be sure you’ve taught and modeled well in whole group, so children are working with familiar materials and tasks at literacy stations. Introduce stations, one at a time, and establish clear expectations for students practicing independently of you during small-group time.

Use the first few weeks of school to assess students and monitor their literacy stations to establish a strong foundation before starting small-group instruction. Be sure to listen one-on-one to every child read as you form small groups. Build upon what students can do and look at their developmental-literacy stage to meet them where they are and move them forward. Small group is the heart of differentiation. Plan wisely, and your students will sow the benefits!


Station-Rotation Model

Paul Tarasevich began his teaching career in 2016 at Martin Middle School in East Providence, R.I., teaching 8th grade English/language arts. Collaborating with his team and content-level partner, he works to create differentiated assignments that best support each individual student. For his work, Paul was named a 2021 Extraordinary Educator by Curriculum Associates:

If I had to recommend to a teacher how to best set up small-group instruction, it would be to utilize the station-rotation model and project-based-learning strategies. In our classrooms, we set up three stations for the students to rotate through during the week. Each station includes a collaborative station for them to work with peers, an independent station, and small-group instruction. Students are grouped and put at the stations with use of formative assessments. At the beginning of each class, students will create a goal for themselves and write it on a sticky note. At the end of class, students will either put a check minus if they didn’t meet their goal, a check if they met their goal, or a check plus if they met their goal and then some. For the next day, students who put a check minus on their sticky note will be put at the small-group instruction station for us to meet their needs.

Throughout the year, we will also do projects in class that are set up with “checkpoints.” Each checkpoint- is worth either a 0, 1, or a 2. A 2 represents that a student completed the checkpoint and is ready to move onto the next one. A 1 means that the student might have completed the checkpoint but needs to go back and fix something in the project. Finally, a 0 represents that the student did not complete that checkpoint or needs small-group instruction to fix the checkpoint. This is an efficient way to organize small groups because you can see, as students are progressing through a project, who is mastering the skills and who needs more targeted support.


Thanks to Laura, Kimberly, Debbie, and Paul 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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