The University of Iowa

Successfully Using Small Group Instruction Tip #3

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Before implementing a supplemental activity or lesson, make sure it is connected in some way to other literacy lessons in class.


Posted on: August 9, 2016

Over the past two weeks, we have been sharing tips for implementing small group instruction to differentiate lessons and address each students’ literacy needs. This first tip was about using data to determine what skills to teach to whom. The second tip concerned organizing centers and setting expectations for students during their independent practice times. This week we conclude this series of blogs with the final tip.  

Tip 3 is to Know Your Resources

Once you know your students’ needs, you need to know what resources you have available to meet those needs. This includes formal and informal assessment tools, materials within your core reading curriculum, and supplemental resources. For example, many core curricula come with supplemental lessons or extension activities for struggling and advanced readers. These can be used not only during teacher-directed small group instruction but also in peer-guided or self-guided learning activities. Below are five questions to ask yourself when deciding whether a lesson or activity is appropriate for a student:

  1. Is the lesson/activity focused on a literacy skill that the student needs help developing?
  2. Is the lesson/activity targeted at the students’ instructional level (i.e., not too easy or too difficult)?
  3. Will the skills or strategies the students learn in the lesson/activity be reinforced in or connected to other lessons?
  4. If the lesson/activity is for small group instruction, is there sufficient guidance for the teacher to provide explicit instruction on the literacy skill with specific feedback and practice opportunities?
  5. If the lesson/activity is for peer- or self-guided learning, do the students have enough of the requisite knowledge and skills of what to do and how to do it in order to complete the work independently?

Small groups that are performing well below or well above the current grade level may need materials from adjacent grades. For example, a third-grade teacher may need to check with the second-grade teachers for supplemental lessons and extension activities. Teachers in need of new resources should search for those with a strong research background. A great place to start is the What Works Clearinghouse, which suggests what programs and strategies have research support.  

As might be expected, getting started with small groups and rotations for individualizing instruction takes practice for both the teacher and students. It may be tempting to give up when the first experiences prove challenging, but teachers will find success if they problem solve and figure out where students need more support or how the activities can be adjusted. There may not be a magic wand, but differentiation is one of the best tools for “fixing” literacy problems—and well worth the effort on the part of teachers.