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Small Groups, Big Engagement: Expanding the Possibilities and Potential 

Small group instruction can take many forms and serve many functions. Over the years, TWT authors have written countless posts about it, and here’s another one with some fresh approaches from Melanie Meehan and guest authors Julie Wright, Pam Koutrakos, and Maria Walther. In this post, we reimagine when and why small groups come together and expand your small group repertoire. 

Start by asking the following questions:

  • What will be the big takeaways for students engaged in this small group?  
  • How long will the group stay together? 
  • Who will be in charge of the learning and outcomes that happen as a result of this small group work?
  • Which type of small group experience will engage students and nudge them toward independence?

Based on the answers to these questions, consider the different forms and functions of small groups with a focus on guided, teacher-led, student-led and inquiry based small groups.  Click here for more.  

Stretching the Possibilities of Writing Instruction

One way to stretch the possibility of teacher-driven small group work is to plan in sessions. Since small group instruction should hone in on a skill or behavior that writers can practice, approximate, and use right away, students have strong accountability to the instruction. To expand that possibility, If students understand and expect that the focus of the small group sessions will span over the course of a week or two, their sustained attention should lead to even more intentional practice for longer than just a class period. The chart below shows what this could look like:

Mastery rarely happens through one day of practice, and a series of small group instruction has the power to maintain students’ focus on new learning. 

Creating student-led systems where students know and understand success criteria and self-assess their own work extends the power of small group work. Learning targets and student goal-setting lead to more student agency and consequently higher learning rates (Berger, 2014).  Additionally, self-assessment correlates with stronger learning rates (Hattie and Clarke, 2019).

Elementary students appreciate the term seminars, as it implies a level of sophistication and high expectation. Students can sign up for seminars that may include specific skills such as capitalizing or using transition words, as well as writing behaviors such as ways to take charge of our own learning. Sticky notes with the titles of available seminars work, as well as digital sign-ups through a platform such as Jamboard. Google Forms also provide a way for students to self-assess and self-identify a goal. A checklist or multiple-choice question can include a list of skills that students can select.  Additionally, forms can  include an opportunity for students to describe their work and request feedback on a specific element or skill. 

Just as the commitment to the goal of the small group work extended beyond one session in a teacher-driven model, the commitment can extend in a student-driven model as well. Instead of students selecting a skill for a single session or seminar, they would select a goal to work on over the course of a longer time period. 

Considering the Potential

Moving beyond the student-led model that involved a commitment to practice over time, what if the small group work became a “goal-setting group?” In this way, students become an inquiry group, holding each other accountable for practicing a new skill and evaluating how it is working within their writing. 

Small group work can also have a focus on a product by establishing guiding questions such as:

  • What are we writing? 
  • What will the product be?
  • What will be practiced as we create it? 
  • What will we learn as a result?

This sort of small group work shifts the agency to students, extends over a period of time, and taps into the joy of collaborating and learning together– relationship building, self-efficacy, and higher achievement. 

WORD STUDY

Stretching the Possibilities of Word Study

Connecting word work to authentic and relevant contexts is an essential aspect of word learning. Ultimately, the goal of word work is transfer; can students read and understand words, and can they spell and use those words within their writing? Small group learning experiences provide the ideal context for this worthy work. 

Each of the below small groups could be teacher led, co-facilitated, or student led. 

Considering the Potential

To foster a greater sense of personal value in this learning, students could also collaboratively delve into word-themed inquiries. As students wonder, discuss, research, and reflect, the power word learning becomes clarified. Here are a few small group, word-themed explorations that are closely connected to writing: 

  • When and where do we see these words? Where and when could we use these words?
  • What words are connected to this topic? How can we become better prepared to use these words as we communicate our ideas? 
  • How could we apply our word knowledge as we write? 

By using a variety of small groups to explore connections between and contexts for words, students become prepared to connect the dots and use what they know about words as they write.

Stretching the Possibilities of Short Texts

Whenever Julie works with teachers about the opportunities within short texts, she asks:  What text types and/or text sets are going to get kids jazzed up about reading and writing?  Starting with this question, figuring out what will motivate students to increase their reading and writing volume, sends the signal that using students’ interests and curiosities are essential.  Here are some examples.

Prioritizing small group learning opportunities for all students increases the chance of designing learning where the best interventions are simply good instruction (Wright, 2021).  Using culturally diverse texts and affording students to choose short texts they want to read serves as good instruction that is also an authentic intervention.  To accomplish these goals, consider some of these questions as you’re planning with your colleagues:  

  • What short texts will we select for minilessons, shared reading experiences, or small group learning?
  • Will students read the same or different texts? Together or independently? Will these decisions be made for, with or by students?
  • How will the texts we select help students learn about themselves and others?
  • How will we ensure student choice in text selection?
  • What do we hope students will know, understand and/or do as a result of the work? 
  • How will we know we’ve accomplished our goals?  What evidence do we anticipate we might see/hear?

Curating short texts and short text sets for small group work increases engagement and creates opportunities to differentiate by responding to students’ collective and individual wants and needs.  

Considering the Potential

Just as teachers can move from a teacher-led stance to a student-led stance in writing instruction and word study, this similar line of thinking works when launching and sustaining small group work using short texts. Flexible, small group work gives students time and space to consume short texts (what they can read, view, listen to, observe or experience) and produce (what they can write, make, create, design, talk about, solve, perform, or do) alongside their teacher and peers (Wright & Hoonan, 2019).  These experiences create opportunities for teachers to design culturally responsive instruction and for students to explore a wide range of text types with their peers, yielding greater self-efficacy.  Using short texts in small group work provides in-the-moment support for students while also increasing students’ autonomy and agency.  

Stretching the Possibilities with Read Aloud

While books are important informational resources for students, there are a multitude of ways to access information. So, to stretch the possibilities for young researchers, you can curate multimodal text sets about high-interest topics. As an example, the chart below stretches the possibilities of the picture book Crossings (Duffield, 2020), a narrative nonfiction text about wildlife crossing structures around the world.

With minimal teacher support and a clear goal in mind, the learners in these small groups make discoveries far beyond what they might learn through a whole class read-aloud experience. While sifting through the resources to locate information, they are deepening their understanding of how researchers work. As an added bonus, the groups are motivated to consume texts in order to learn about something that interests them. Then, using the knowledge they’ve gained, they produce a diagram to share their learning, all of which increases their comprehension (Duke, Ward, & Pearson, 2021). 

Creating small group learning opportunities that engage students and nudge them forward is the goal.  Sometimes small group instruction is more teacher-directed while other times it is almost completely driven and led by students.  We hope you’ll consider small group experiences in reading and writing, using word study, short texts and read aloud, to maximize student growth potential.

References

Berger, R., Rugin, L. and Woodfin, L. (2014). Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment. EL Education. 

Duke, N.K. & Cartwright, K. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly 56(S1), S25-S44. 

Duke, N. K., Ward, A. E., & Pearson, P. D. (2021). The science of reading comprehension. The Reading Teacher 74(6), 663-672.

Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin. 

Hattie, J. and Clarke, S. (2019). Visible Learning: Feedback. Routledge. 

Koutrakos, P. (2018) Word study that sticks: Best practices K-6. Corwin. 

Meehan, M. (2019). Every Child Can Write: Entry Points, Bridges, and Pathways for Striving Writers.  Corwin. 

Meehan, M. and Sorum, K. (2021). The Responsive Writing Teacher: A Hands-on Guide to Child-Centered, Equitable Instruction. Corwin. 

Muhammad, G. (2020).  Rethinking What Matters:  Incorporating Anti-Racism into Teaching.  Retrieved from www.langaugemagazine.com/2020/05/19/rethinking-what-matters

Walther, M. (2019). The Ramped-Up Read Aloud: What to Notice As You Turn the Page. Corwin.

Walther, M., & Biggs-Tucker, K. (2020). The Literacy Workshop. Stenhouse.

Wright, J. & Hoonan, B. (2019).  What Are You Grouping For? Grades 3-8: How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers — Not the Book. Corwin.

Wright, J. (2021). What’s Our Response?  Systems and Structures to Support ALL Learners. FIRST Educational Resources. 

Wright, T. (2020). A teacher’s guide to vocabulary development across the day. Heinemann. 

Guest Authors

Pam Koutrakos is an instructional specialist and educational consultant who enjoys spending her time partnering with students, teachers, and administrators PreK- grade 12. She authored Word Study That Sticks: Best Practices K-6 and The Word Study That Sticks Companion: Classroom-Ready Tools for Teachers and Students, K-6 and Mentor Texts That Multitask: A Less-Is_More Approach to Integrated Literacy Instruction.Connect with Pam on Twitter @PamKou, Instagram @Pam.Kou, and on LinkedIn

Julie Wright is an instructional coach, educational consultant, author, and a short texts-of-all-types enthusiast.  Julie believes in bringing out the best in the work by using asset-based approaches. She is the co-author of What Are You Grouping For? Grades 3-8: How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers — Not the Book (Corwin, 2019) and author of What’s Our Response? Systems and Structures to Support ALL Learners (FIRST Educational Resources, 2021). To learn more visit Julie’s website www.juliewrightconsulting.com or follow her on Twitter @juliewright4444

Teacher, author, literacy consultant, and children’s literature enthusiast, Maria Walther taught first grade for 34 years. She partners with teachers across the country to bring joy to their literacy instruction. The ideas she shares reflect her commitment to teaching, researching, writing, and collaborating with her colleagues. To learn more about her teaching resources, visit her website mariawalther.com or follow her on Twitter @mariapwalther.

Melanie Meehan View All

I am the Writing and Social Studies Coordinator in Simsbury, CT, and I love what I do. I get to write and inspire others to write! Additionally, I am the mom to four fabulous daughters and the wife of a great husband.

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