The University of Iowa

Successfully Using Small Group Instruction Tip #1

Group of students with teacher reading

Student literacy data can be used to create small groups with similar instructional needs.


Posted on: July 26, 2016

Teachers often want to know the magic wand that can “fix” literacy education. Unfortunately, we have not yet discovered that—in part, because every learner, teacher, and school context is unique. But it is precisely that uniqueness which creates an opportunity for individualized and differentiated instruction to work. This is by no means a simple task, but one key to making it more manageable is to use small group instruction for all students within the regular reading block. Over the next three weeks, we will share with you tips to planning for small group instruction.  

Tip 1 is to use data to determine what skills to teach to whom.

Universal screening assessments are administered three times per year to indicate if a student is reading below, at, or above grade-level. Additional data, perhaps from placement tests within a curricular program, can help identify a student’s specific areas of strengths and weaknesses. This information can be used to create small groups of students with similar instructional needs. Teachers can then focus their instruction on what each student needs to learn, and the groups can be reformed as different skills are addressed.  

Another consideration when forming groups is how much help the students need. The more they are struggling, the more individualized attention they need. This can be facilitated with a smaller group size. When small groups go beyond 5-6 students, the intensity of the individualization decreases.  

Progress monitoring data can be used to determine when the group sizes, make-up, or focus should be changed. By reflecting on how students are or are not improving their reading skills, teachers can consider what adjustments might be necessary to the kinds of lessons or instructional activities they are offering students. It also may be appropriate to adjust the groups. Just because a group is set in the beginning of the year does not mean that group needs to stay the same the entire year, or even the entire week! Progress monitoring data can help guide these decisions and can be used to motivate students. Teachers can involve students in setting goals and tracking their progress towards their goals. Additional tips on data-based decision making can be found on the RTI Action Network website.  

Using data to plan for the instruction is just the first step. Next week, we will share the second tip to implementing small group instruction successfully.