Small Group Instruction that Focuses on Readers

There is a plethora of research (Duke, 2019) on the effectiveness of  small group instruction. Typically, we think of small groups as being based on the skills students need to work on. These are groups that typically focus on the work of reading.  We pour over our conferring notes, notice that there are students who are still retelling the entire book, and design a series of lessons on summarizing chapters. Or, our analysis of running record data shows that there are students who routinely ignore punctuation, and we prepare a series of lessons on fluency and why punctuation matters. These groups are an efficient way to reach multiple students, and students enjoy working together.  Most of us are familiar with these sorts of small groups and are already implementing them effectively.

What if we built on what we knew about the effectiveness of small groups and widened our vision of what small groups could address? What if we took all that we know about teaching readers and designed small groups on aspects of being a reader, such self-efficacy, agency, and book choice? 

So when we think about the reasons we gather students together with this expanded notion of teaching reading and readers in mind, new possibilities for teaching open up.  Here are some groups focused on the work of readers that teachers have tried so far this year:

  • What are different ways that readers choose books?
  • What do readers do when they get stuck?
  • Why do we read? What are different purposes for reading?
  • How can I get back into the book when I have forgotten what is happening?
  • How do I keep my brain in the book for a long time? What do I do when I get distracted?
  • How do I balance reading and writing about a book?
  • How do I try a new genre?

These groups thrive when we use a combination of inquiry and explicit teaching. Using inquiry as an entry point for the work of the group is a powerful way to intentionally start from a place of strength and provide time for students to share these ideas with others.  

Here are three ways groups could go:

You might begin with a general question to frame the work:

Teacher: What are the different ways you already have to pick books?

Student: I swap books with my reading partner because we like the same things. 

Student: I read all the books in a series.

Student: I sometimes pick books written by the author of a read aloud I liked.

Teacher: These are great! Let’s get them down in a chart. We can work together to build from there…  

You might begin by acknowledging what the students are already doing and teaching a new strategy:

Teacher: You have lots of different ways that you go about picking books. You often think about your favorite genre and your favorite series. Here is something else you can do. Think about the kinds of characters you like and find other books that have those kinds of characters. For example, Fatima likes strong female characters who do not act the way that girls are “supposed” to act. She found a lot of books with these kinds of characters. 

Finally, you might begin by inviting students to share their challenges, a move that also serves to implicitly teach students that sometimes the work of readers does not go smoothly.  

Teacher: As a reader, sometimes I find that I’m in a slump.  I go to the library or the bookstore and nothing looks good…I just don’t know what book to pick up. Does that ever happen to you?  Let’s talk about that a little bit to try to find out what is getting in the way…

Implementing small groups about the work of readers can also be an opportunity for students to reflect on their own identity as readers and use these reflections to make agentive choices.  Instead of putting students in  groups, you could introduce the topics to the entire class and invite students to sign up for a group that they feel would be relevant to their needs as readers.

How are you using small group instruction to teach readers, not just reading?

Reference: Turn Small Reading Groups into Big Wins by Nell K. Duke and Laura Varlas

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