The University of Iowa

Critical Elements of Implementing Small-Group, Skills-Based Instruction

Kim Buryanek Q&A

Posted on: September 19, 2017

Director’s Note: In January, we spoke with two Sioux City Community School District elementary school principals about the implementation of small-group, skills-based literacy instruction. At the time, a few of the elementary schools were piloting the approach in their core literacy block. During the 2017-2018 school year, the district is implementing small-group, skills-based instruction in 12 elementary schools, serving almost 7,000 students. To find out how the pilot implementation went and how the full implementation will look going forward, we caught up with Sioux City Community School District Associate Superintendent Dr. Kim Buryanek* for a two-part Q&A blog post series. Buryanek is working closely with Director of Elementary Education Brian Burnight, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment April Tidwell, elementary principals, and teacher leaders to implement the consistent structure for the 90-minute literacy block.

Deborah K. Reed, Ph.D.

Director, Iowa Reading Research Center

*Buryanek is also chair of the Iowa Reading Research Center Advisory Council.

Q: What kinds of successes did you experience last school year with your implementation of small-group, skills-based literacy instruction in the pilot elementary schools?

Kim Buryanek (KB): We have seen a common structure, process, and language being used across the classrooms during the 90-minute literacy blocks because of the shift in practice to small-group, skills-based instruction. This is reducing the variability in instruction. By the end of the year, when I observed these classrooms, I saw the following practices being used consistently: Teachers using whole-group instruction appropriately but also typically for less than 30 minutes; students following routines to retrieve materials efficiently; processes being used to carry out small-group activities; and students in small groups engaged in learning that was focused on literacy skills targeted to their needs.  

Q: Were there some critical elements you put in place at the district level to support the implementation?

KB: There were two critical elements that we put in place to support the implementation. First, we purchased quality materials. Our budget allowed us to purchase new literacy materials for four of our 14 elementary buildings in the 2016-2017 school year. We implemented small-group, skills-based instruction at the four buildings that were provided new materials and gave the principals at the other ten schools the option of implementing small-group, skills-based instruction during the 2016-2017 school year. We believed that the new instruction focused on reading skills coupled with new materials would result in a change in learning outcomes. We knew that it would be easier to cause a change in literacy block structures and practices at the same time new materials were introduced rather than after habits with the new materials had already been formed.

The second critical element that we put in place was a strong partnership with the Iowa Reading Research Center. The IRRC provided professional development for the leaders and teachers of the schools piloting the small-group, skills-bases instruction prior to the start of the 2016-2017 school year. Many times when we initiate a change, it is difficult to get started. However, the 21-day phase-in training that the IRRC provided reduced the initial floundering that often happens with a new approach. There were concrete steps with a specific timeline that teachers across the district followed as the small-group, skills-based instruction process was implemented. The IRRC also provided support to leaders during the 2016-2017 school year.

Prior to the 2017-2018 school year, the Iowa Reading Research Center provided training for the leaders and teachers of the additional schools that will implement small-group, skills-based instruction during the current school year.

Because we have a two-phase implementation of the small-group, skills-based instruction, we have built a support system for the second group of implementers. The first group of implementers can provide suggestions, resources, and support to the teachers and school leaders that are implementing the instructional approach for the first time during the 2017-2018 school year. I believe this will increase the sustainability of the practice within the district.

Check back to the blog on Oct. 3 for the second installment of this Q&A.