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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

Small-Group Instruction: Work It for Your Students—and You

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 14, 2021 15 min read
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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.

Today, Julia Stearns Cloat, Nancy Garrity, Laura Smith, Christina Krantz, and Luiza Mureseanu share their ideas.

Gradual Release of Responsibility

Julia Stearns Cloat has spent the past 25 years working in unit school districts in roles related to literacy, MTSS, professional learning, and curriculum development. She currently works as the executive director of curriculum and instruction in Freeport, Ill., and as an adjunct professor at Northern Illinois University. Julia has co-authored her first book, Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Reading Practices: A Leveling System for Authentic Spanish Instruction, which will come out in next year:

Students returned to the classrooms this fall with inconsistent learning experiences and a range of proficiency levels that exceeds those of a typical school year. There is a significant need to target and differentiate learning, making effective small-group instruction more important than ever. Three key elements to consider when designing and organizing small-group classroom instruction are:

  1. Gradual Release of Responsibility
  2. Personalized Learning Plans (PLPs)
  3. Formative Assessments

Gradual Release of Responsibility to Design Instructional Time: Using a gradual release of responsibility design for lessons will help teachers to structure instructional time in a way that provides students with the opportunity to learn and collaborate and teachers with the opportunity to observe and assess learning. While it is certainly not a new concept, the gradual release of responsibility is a crucial element to designing classroom instruction. As teachers and students return to fully in-person instruction, maximizing every instructional moment will be more important than ever, and effective instructional moves can take place at each phase of the gradual release.

  • I do it - explicit instruction & modeling
  • We do it - safe practice as a whole group
  • You do it together - peer collaboration and meaning making
  • You do it - demonstration & assessment of student proficiency

A well-designed lesson that is gradually released benefits students through opportunities to apply new learning. It allows the teacher to observe peer interaction and to assess individual student proficiency of the new learning. It is recommended that between the third and fourth phase, teachers take advantage of on-the-spot assessment to formulate informal small group(s) of students. For example, a teacher who has observed students sharing misconceptions during peer collaboration could gather the students together as a small group. The teacher would then briefly and explicitly reteach the concept, check for understanding, provide targeted and actionable feedback, and then release the students to work independently. This extra layer of small-group instruction before the learning task increases the likelihood that students, who may have otherwise held on to misconceptions, will experience success.

Personalized Learning Plans to Build Relationships & Organize Small Groups: Personalized learning plans will be a useful tool for teachers in the postpandemic learning environment to get to know their students, support the social-emotional needs of the students, and to form small groups. PLPs are completed with the teacher and student working together, which helps to build relationships and puts the student at the center of learning. Students who are able will write about their interests on the PLP. Then the teacher and student will meet together to set goals and review the student’s interests. The PLPs then can be used to build small groups based on learning goals or student interest.

For example, in an ELA classroom, the teacher may review the writing goals on the PLPs to form small groups of students with the same or similar goals. Then during class, the teacher provides direct instruction to small groups of students with the same goals as the other students are writing independently. Alternatively, the ELA teacher may look at the interests of the students to create small groups of students with the same or similar interests to work on a research project or nonfiction pieces about a given topic.

There are many PLPs to choose from online. The PLP created by the State of Vermont Agency of Education has a simple format, is easy to use, and is beneficial when building relationships at the beginning of the year.

Formative Assessments for Organizing Students Into Small Groups: Formative assessments are crucial to organizing and planning for small-group instruction. Much has been written about formative assessments as tools for monitoring student learning and to provide ongoing feedback, but they are also an absolutely critical tool when forming small groups. There are limitless examples of formative assessments that can be used for grouping students based on their proficiencies toward a learning target. Common examples include using running records to establish guided-reading groups, word-study tests to establish strategy skills groups that focus on specific phonics skills, or exit slips to create guided-math groups. The key to assessing formatively is not the assessment itself but what is done with the information once it is gathered.


‘Decision Trees’

Nancy Garrity is the senior director of early childhood at Scholastic. She has spent more than 25 years developing educational experiences for children, teachers, and families—first in the classroom and then at Scholastic, working with leading early-childhood experts and practitioners across the country to create resources and programs such as PreK On My Way:

How can educators best inspire and empower children in ways that are just right for them? Thoughtfully planned and implemented small-group time is an essential component in meeting children’s varied needs as they navigate the school year. Small-group time enables us to meet individual needs, practice social skills, and build children’s confidence.

Meeting Individual Needs

In small group, we can focus on areas of need based on formative assessment, make modifications based on developmental and special needs, and respond in real time based on input from each individual child. In our work with the Children’s Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center, we focus on decision trees where we make choices to support or challenge a child based on their individual response to specific questions. Recommendations:

  • Use weekly formative assessments such as check-ins or observational checklists to help inform responsive instruction during small group. Identify which children have shared learning needs and what activities and materials you will use to address those learning goals (e.g., which children need additional practice identifying the /b/ sound, comparing and contrasting, or resolving conflict).
  • Decide how you will adapt the activity to meet children’s abilities, interests, and needs related to language development, mobility, sensory experiences, auditory challenges, fine motor development, etc.
  • Plan a decision tree, with small moments when you ask a question to check a child’s understanding, then offer additional support or an extra challenge based on the child’s response (e.g., offer additional support to understand a word’s meaning or additional challenge to connect the word to the child’s direct experience).

Practicing Social Skills

Our partners at the Yale Child Study Center consistently advocate literacy as an essential part of lifelong wellness—and for social and emotional wellness as an essential part of learning. Small-group instruction that intentionally incorporates social experiences and conversational turn taking can have an exponential benefit on children’s learning and on their larger school experiences. Recommendations:

  • Provide enough materials for a shared hands-on experience with a group of 5–6 children (e.g., photos, manipulatives, found objects, art supplies, etc.).
  • Prompt conversation with open-ended questions that encourage children to share their thoughts with you and with each other.
  • Encourage personal connections to help children appreciate individual differences and abilities (e.g., invite children who speak multiple languages to share words in their home language).

Building Confidence

One of the most rewarding experiences is witnessing a child’s pride as they succeed at something that had challenged them. Helping children understand that small successes help build bigger ones is an essential part of developing persistence and a growth mindset. Our early-childhood adviser, Jie-Qi Chen of the Erikson Institute, reminds us to make learning visible whenever we can. By taking time to show and celebrate children’s learning, we remind them of all they have learned and we give them confidence that they can tackle what lies ahead. Recommendations:

  • Use visual aids such as Venn diagrams and bar graphs to help solve problems, then display those visual aids in the classroom.
  • Invite children to draw and write in response to their learning, then display their work in classroom books for all to enjoy.
  • Take time at the end of each week, month, and year to reflect and celebrate ah-ha moments children have shared in small group.

Let’s inspire and empower children through small groups that meet individual needs, support developing social skills, and build children’s confidence. In the words of the late Scholastic Chairman & CEO Richard Robinson, together we can “reach millions of children, one at a time.”


Social-Emotional Learning

Laura Smith and Christina Krantz are educational consultants located in Lexington, Ky. They are authors of Beyond Think-Pair-Share: A Quick Guide to Effective Collaboration:

Using small groups in classroom instruction can be an effective instructional practice, especially when they are done well and with intention. Small groups provide students an opportunity to practice much needed social-emotional-learning skills. While students will get practice in all five areas of SEL, small-group work provide ample opportunities specifically in the areas of relationship skills and self-management.

Additionally, there are some essential skills that students will need to develop in order to work successfully in groups. Skills such as active listening, conflict resolution, perspective taking, empathy, and being a good team member are all essential for productive group work.

Before planning for small-group instruction, it is essential for educators to get to know their students. That is one of the very first steps in building teacher-student relationships as well as peer relationships. Both the students and the teacher need opportunities to share experiences, opinions, and talents in order to foster connectedness. A feeling of acceptance and belonging creates a safe place where students will be more comfortable and possibly take more risks in the classroom environment.

Ideally, you will work with students to establish norms for how to work in small groups. Students benefit from having a voice in the creation of norms or working agreements because this provides them with an opportunity to reflect on how they learn best or what might be a barrier for their learning. The process will also help all students understand the expectations for both participation and behavior. Posting these norms will provide students a reference point when a group member gets off track. It is important that the posted norms become part of day-to-day business. It cannot be merely a poster that is created and posted and not referenced on a regular basis to remain focused on what the entire class needs in order to learn.

As mentioned above, there are foundational skills that need to be explicitly taught and practiced before implementing small groups. In order to be a productive team member, students need essential listening and speaking skills as well as strategies for conflict resolution, which include perspective taking and empathy. Teachers can capitalize on the strong relationships and connections that have been built within the classroom in order to engage students in the learning and practice of skills needed in order for a small group to work effectively.

Forming small groups is often not an easy task. There are several variables that need to be considered. First, what assessment data is available to help determine which students need to work on similar content or skills? This data can be gathered from formative assessments such as bell ringers and exit slips or summative assessments such as unit tests and standardized-testing measures. One consideration in grouping students by academic performance is to make sure these groupings do not always stay in same-ability groups. Students need the opportunity to work with others on all levels of academic achievement.

With that being said, there are other group configurations that may be considered. Random grouping provides an opportunity for students to get to know each other and perhaps learn something new. Groups could also be formed based on interest in a topic or a task that is to be completed. Groups could also be formed by identifying a specific skill or strategy that students prefer or may need some additional practice. Student-choice grouping may sound a bit frightening; however, once classroom norms have become habits, and students have had ample opportunities to work in small groups, they should be prepared for that responsibility as long as everyone is included.

The benefits of planning and utilizing small-group instruction outweigh the time it will take to teach essential communication skills. Opportunities for student interactions will increase, students are more likely to take risks in a small group, and teachers can more effectively observe and meet the needs of every student.


‘Turn and Talk’

Luiza Mureseanu is a secondary school teacher currently working as an instructional resource teacher, K-12, for ESL/ELD programs, in Peel DSB, Ontario:

Small-group classroom instruction could lead to great learning success or, if not properly set up, a total classroom disaster. The key to an excellent result is careful planning and establishing clear expectations for learners. The trick is to carefully plan both the whole class and the small or guided instruction so moving between the two does not create confusion for students.

First, using the “whole-group instruction” (20 to 30 minutes), the teacher has an opportunity to inform students about the learning or content goals of the lesson. If the instruction is for ELLs (English-language learners), a language goal should be included. This is the time when students are informed on the specific goals and get to share their understanding of the topic. The teacher will use different strategies to assess their levels of understanding—Turn and Talk, chat online, others. For better comprehension and consolidation, the teachers could follow up with a read aloud (live or prerecorded).

Second, the teacher introduces step by step the small-group instruction or work, for example, reading centers for literacy instruction. While the teacher works with a small group, the rest of the class will work independently on a set task. One feasible way is when the teacher is conducting guided reading synchronously (10 minutes), the rest of the students work asynchronously on a preset task: It could be vocabulary work, reading response, journal entry, graphic organizer for writing, and so on. During the guided instruction, the teacher will assess learning and determine next steps for students in the small group. As students become more independent in their learning, the teacher will conduct a gradual release of responsibility and assign more independent time.

Finally, the teacher will have to bring the whole class together and check for student learning by using an exit ticket or some Turn and Talk. The reflection of learning is particularly important for informing practice and improving learning, and it is always a clever idea to collect evidence of learning by keeping a student portfolio.


Thanks to Julia, Nancy, Laura, Christina, and Luiza 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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