Expanding the Reach with Small Group Work Blog Series · mentor texts · minilesson · self-assessment · small group

A Few Tips for Small Group Instruction: Expanding the Reach With Small Group Work

When I first taught my daughters how to make an omelette, they needed specific measurements and directions. They used timers and they checked and doublechecked that every ingredient was in the house. And their omelettes were delicious. All four girls now understand the basic structure and rules for cooking combinations of vegetables, meats, cheese, and eggs together. They don’t need a recipe, and they have the courage to try new ideas. 

As you get better and better at small group planning, delivery, and record-keeping, you’ll develop your own recipes for it, your own structure. From there, maybe these few tips and ideas can become new ingredients that you blend in. 

Tip #1: Create Opportunities, Expectations, and Space for Student Engagement

When you think about small group instruction, you can use the structure of a minilesson, in which case, you should be planning for some active engagement. 

(Stacey wrote a great post about minilessons that you can access here.)

Because the ratio of students to teacher is so much lower, students still tend to look toward the adult to guide the conversation and provide immediate feedback. You can nudge students toward more independent conversations by having them turn away from you. 

TIP #2: Invite Students Into the Planning Process

One way to form small groups is to ask students to identify what they are working on and establish goal-oriented small groups. You can ask students to sign up for specific groups through a google form, or even on a bulletin board or a set of sticky notes– whatever works for you! The important aspect of this is that you are inviting students into the processes of assessment, planning, and instruction. When students know and understand what they are working on, you are likely to see greater learning growth. 

Students signed up for small groups based on what they felt they needed to work on.

The reality is that students may have no idea what they should work on when you first introduce this opportunity. They may not have the vocabulary, let alone the self-reflection, metacognition, and goal-setting mindset. You may need to teach lessons on what students could be working on, and then study how those lessons show up in how students begin to talk about themselves as writers. Maybe, at first you have to offer choices in order to bring students into the planning process pathway. Students’ ability to talk about, reflect on, and self-assess their writing and themselves as writers provides important information about their knowledge and skills. 

You will build students’ ability to participate in planning and goal-setting by introducing them to tools and resources such as charts, checklists, and mentor texts. 

TIP #3: Expand the Teaching Opportunities

Small group instruction is a powerful way to address specific skills and knowledge that center on writing, and small group instruction is also an effective way to address behaviors and processes as well. For example, you can do some kidwatching as students transition into independent writing time, and you might notice some students who take a while to gather their materials… a small group focus could be that writers have ways to get themselves going when it’s time to write. Another small group focus could be about how writers use tools and resources. You can expand the reach of small group instruction when you expand the ideas around teachable moments. 

The chart below could help you think about categories of instruction. 

Writing ContentWriting ProcessWriting Behaviors
Capturing readers’ attention with a strong lead

Using paragraphs effectively

Weaving in development strategies
Revising as you draft

 Using all you know about editing and conventions as you draft

Thinking of ideas

Recognizing when you’re done and ready to start another piece
Getting started right away

Staying focused/stamina

Erasing too much/ productivity

Using partners effectively

Any of the bullets in the table above could become the focus for a small group, and the categories could inspire you to continue thinking about additional ways to leverage the power of small group work. 

Tip #4: Leverage the Power of Mentor Texts

Mentor texts provide wonderful inquiry options for small group work. Instead of providing an explicit teaching point, you can challenge students to look and read closely, studying a text for how an author did something. Examples of possible study groups include but aren’t limited to:

  • How did the author use dialogue to develop the story?
  • What vocabulary does the author use in order to establish a mood/ build readers’ understanding/ relay an opinion? 
  • How do you notice the author using paragraphs? 

The questions are unlimited. Sending students off to do this sort of collaborative inquiry gives them practice in close reading, opportunities for meaningful speaking and listening, and authentic agency in their own learning. 

TIP #5: Plan For Multiple Sessions and Enlist Students For Accountability

Planning for small group instruction is challenging since it involves that much more planning, preparation, and data collection. Therefore, consider planning with the lens of multiple sessions around a single topic. For example, the first session could be the instruction about the topic, and the following sessions could be accountability-oriented sessions that focus on how the initial instruction is showing up in students’ writing lives. This concept has multiple benefits, including but not limited to:

  • Maintaining the clarity for both students and you of what they are working on
  • Establishing the climate of risk-taking and approximation in the room which helps students try out new learning without the worry of being perfect. 
  • Holding students accountable for the great instruction you’re giving!
  • Providing students opportunities to be learning and accountability partners with each other, especially if you teach them to ask each other about the learning goal and where the work toward it is showing up.
  • Making your planning easier. 

Small group instruction is one of the most powerful ways to differentiate instruction while offering opportunities for collaboration and connections between students. Hopefully, you can stir in one or two of the following tips with some of the other ideas from previous posts, increasing the leverage and impact of your writing instruction. 

Giveaway Info:

  • Many thanks to Candlewick Press who is sponsoring a giveaway of ten books. TWO readers will receive FIVE of these books each. The books are A Child of Books, Grow: Secrets of Our DNA, Hoop Kings 2: New Royalty, How to Have a Birthday, If You Take Away the Otter, Mi Casa Is My Home, Rain Before Rainbows, The Barn, The Stars Just Up the Street, and Walrus Song.
  • For a chance to win these five books, please leave a comment on any of this blog series’ posts by Sun., 10/31 at 6:00 a.m. EDT. Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski will use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names she will announce at the bottom of an ICYMI Post on Monday, 11/1.
    • NOTE: You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter this giveaway. Please be sure to leave a valid email address when you post your comment so Kathleen can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Candlewick will send five picture books to each of our winners. 
  • If you are the winner of the books, Kathleen will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – SMALL GROUPS. Please respond to her email with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

11 thoughts on “A Few Tips for Small Group Instruction: Expanding the Reach With Small Group Work

  1. Thank you for the tips! I’ve been looking for new ideas for small group teaching, since my class size and class needs have grown. I’m hoping to incorporate an idea or two alongside my student teacher this coming week.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really appreciate your advice on small groups. I would love to read more about how you create a hyarchy of needs to place kids into small groups. THANKS!


    1. Hi Tammy,
      I’m not positive that I’m exactly answering your question– it could be the beginning of an entire blog post– but I think it’s important to remember that students have to produce written work in order for me to teach them anything. Therefore, courage and productivity are the most important for me. Once they are developing independence and they are producing material, I can make instructional decisions about what to teach. Conventions are important to me, and I work hard to balance– CONSTANTLY! — my expectations and instruction of them with maintaining the courage and cognitive work it takes to create.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Love the column about small group instruction! We know that individualized instruction is the key to student growth. Your tips will come in handy! I would love to win the books!


  4. This series has been just what we needed to start the discussion and learning around the power of small group instruction. We are excited to share these great ideas with our teachers. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience!


  5. So many great ideas! I’m loving this series and know I’ll be rereading posts when I have a bit of time to absorb them and ponder how they can improve my instruction/small group work. Thanks!!


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