small group · writing workshop

Ideas for planning Small Group Instruction

Small Group Instruction

At this point in the year, many of us have gotten a sense of our students as writers, and we can begin to see common strengths and growth opportunities. It’s a time when small group instruction becomes an effective tool for maximizing instruction since minutes are precious.


Small group instruction is highly effective when a group of students will all benefit from instruction on a specific skill. Groups of 3 to 4 students can be formed based on common strengths or weaknesses as determined by student writing or some other form of assessment.

Students can be brought together while the rest of the class is working independently, and the teacher should be clear about the reason for bringing them together. Just as a teacher states the teaching point during a minilesson, a teacher should state the teaching point during small group instruction. In fact, the format should follow the basic architecture of a minilesson with the teaching point, the active engagement, and the link. While students are practicing the new skill, the teacher may even have time to walk away from them and have a conference with another student.

A question I frequently encounter is around how to form groups. Small group instruction involves planning and goal setting, both on the part of teachers and students. Below are some ideas for making the most of this important instructional time.

Some ways to form groups:

  1. Do a quick sort of student writing and ask yourself what teaching point would help these students?

I like to create categories which may be revised over the course of the year as students grow and genres change. To begin the year, I usually sort students into categories that include:

  • Structure
  • Development
  • Conventions
  • Stamina
  • Generating
  • Volume
  • Elaboration skills
  • Planning

A simple table is a wonderful tool for seeing where some of the strengths and growth opportunities are in your classrooms of writers.


2. Ask students to set goals.

You can start with some ideas for them, as you may get a lot of blank faces when you first make the suggestion. Here are a few to get a classroom of writers thinking about goals:

    1. Having a clear beginning, middle, and end
    2. Using transitional phrases to help readers follow what is going on
    3. Creating interesting leads that
    4. Balancing dialogue with description and action
    5. Including thinking within writing
    6. Stretching out important parts

This is only the beginning of a list. You could think about it with your class or even have it serve as an inquiry lesson.


3. Having students sign up for seminars.

You can offer a selection of seminars based on the needs you’re seeing. In a current fourth-grade classroom where I’ve been working, we have identified some classroom trends, so we’ve created some specific seminars.


Once students make their choices, you have a collection of small groups. This strategy is especially great because the concepts of goal setting and seminars are really appealing to students!

A word about the seminars: I hear teachers ask what if students sign up for a seminar that isn’t the one they really need. My advice is to let them. If they feel like they need it, they’ll be more open to learning and more invested in the concept of seminars. Give them time–they can “attend” another seminar, and it may well be the one you would have suggested, but their choice in the matter may offer you a much more invested student!

I have a future post planned about some of the tools to have on hand to make instruction go more smoothly, so if any of you have ideas to share, please do!

6 thoughts on “Ideas for planning Small Group Instruction

  1. I love the seminar idea! I can’t wait to suggest that to our teachers. If you haven’t read Small-Group Writing Conferences by Holly Slaughter, (Heineman) you may want to pick up a copy. It makes small group writing instruction so manageable. Lots of great ideas.


  2. Melanie, Your post was validating in two ways. First, my literacy team has adopted a theme for this year: Promoting choices, independence, and stamina in Literacy. Providing students the opportunity to take charge of their learning clearly supports our intentions with this focus. Second, I appreciated your use of small group seminars. My school has worked hard to carve out time for additional small group instruction to support our learners outside the regular workshop. Coincidentally, we call that time Seminar! Teaching in a middle school where we have only an hour block for both reading and writing workshop per day, it was difficult to find the extra time, and now that we’ve managed the logistics of the schedule, it is refreshing to hear your ideas for managing and maximizing that small group time.


  3. Great ideas for small groups! I love the idea of offering siminars and allowing the kids to sign up! This gives the kids such power and ownership over their learning. I agree, let the kids choose their engagement and agency will skyrocket!


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