Question and Answer Session: Small Groups

I am a new secondary teacher, and I am still learning how to conduct small groups into my everyday classroom setting. I am familiar with creating groups for in-depth activities, but I am always looking for new ways to use the strategy for differentiated instruction and intervention. (I know I am not the only one out there who feels this way, right?!) So, I enlisted the help of Ashley for a question and answer session to pick her brain on how she uses small groups in her elementary classroom. Let’s face it; elementary has this strategy down pat.

~Jess

*Disclaimer* We do not claim to be the β€œfinal say” of the small group strategy; this is how Ashley has been trained in small groups and what works best for her and her students. The advice Jess gives are tips she has picked up in her own classroom.

Jess: When, during your instructional time, do you normally conduct small groups?

Ashley: I do small group instruction four days a week. In reading, we have a 5-day plan and on the fifth day, we test. So on that day, I am focusing on progress monitoring students’ fluency along with testing as well as finishing up with my intervention group that I pull daily. I also may need to use that time to re-test any students or work with a student on re-doing an assignment. This allows me to see what academic level my students are on (did they master the standards taught? Are they making progress?) and tells me what I need to focus on for the next week.

I do whole group first, then we get into small groups. Whole group can be be thirty minutes to an hour (no longer than an hour if you want to keep their attention). After whole group, I devote the rest of my time to small groups.

In my secondary room, I have around forty-five minutes for history and around an hour and twenty minutes for English. As Ashley suggested, in my English class, I usually have whole group instruction anywhere from thirty to forty-five minutes (depending on the material covered), then we break into small groups. In history, when I do small groups, I will spend around ten to fifteen minutes on whole group, then break into small groups, as the time is more constricted.

Jess: How do you regulate other groups when you are working with one group?

Ashley: When I have a small group at my table, other groups are working in centers. I have four small groups since I have 26 students in my class. I usually assign three centers for students to be working on when they aren’t at my teacher table. For example, I may have a fluency/skill center, writing center, and vocabulary center. Students will complete a task at each center. The key is to try and have as many hands-on activities that are focusing on the skills or content being taught for students to complete as possible. Workbook pages are fine too as long as the skill has been previously taught and students have a way to check their answers.

Another biggie is students knowing how to behave while you are with small groups. This is something that must be practiced many many times at the beginning of the school year before small groups begin. Teachers must model what is expected of students and then students need to be given the opportunity to practice together in groups while the teacher is walking around and observing making sure students understand what they should be doing. A lot of positive feedback should be given to the students during this time. After a few weeks of practice, small group instruction actually begins. The goal is to be able to stay at your teacher table or center and focus on the group you are with without having to leave that group or redirect other students. Now, we all know things happen and it’s not going to be perfect. We just want to strive toward that goal.

Another good idea is letting students know that they do not need to come to your teacher table when you have a small group unless it’s an emergency. You can show them signals they can use for the bathroom, library, etc. I tell my students that I am “invisible.” πŸ™‚  This way, you are not being interrupted while teaching, unless it’s an emergency of course.

Here a few VERY simple center ideas that can be used for any grade level with any subject:

Vocabulary Center: Vocabulary Rock N’ Roll. Students roll a dice to see which action they need to do with their vocabulary word.

Vocabulary rock n roll

Writing Center: Writing Roll-a-Story. Students roll the dice to see what character, setting, and problem they will write about. This could also easily be adapted and changed in any subject area according to what you want them to write about.

Roll-a-story 1

Fluency/Skill Center: Students can read an on level passage or story that you choose or that they may choose AND work on a skill or concept at the same time. Students can partner up and listen to each other read, then provide constructive feedback. Once they have read, they then look for grammar content such as comparative and superlative adjectives and adverbs or irregular verbs, they can compare and contrast two topics, draw conclusions, make inferences, look for theme, etc. No matter what subject you are teaching, you can adapt it to something that applies to your subject and make it work!

These are all great ideas to monitor student behaviors during small groups! I love the center activity ideas. In my classroom, space is very limited, so I have to be creative with where I place my small groups. My largest class has 20 students, and I do not have room for many tables. So generally, I place two to three groups spaced around the room (either in chairs or on the floor), and I place one to two groups in the hallway outside my door. It does make for a lot of walking and monitoring, but it is a good option for students to have plenty of room to work together. 

Jess: What assignments do you give groups? Do you give all groups the same or different activities? Are the groups based on ability level?

Ashley: My groups are based on ability level. I may work on the same skill, such as main idea, with each group, but I differentiate and scaffold according to my students’ needs. I follow my teacher manual and add or change things in order to meet my students’ needs.

I also do the same in my secondary classroom, I usually divide the groups based on ability level and differentiate scaffolding according to their needs. However, I have given groups different assignments based on the concepts they need to improve upon. I have also divided the groups into heterogeneous groups and given them all the same activities with varying scaffolding.

How do you conduct small groups in your room? Any tips? Do you have any other questions about small groups?

~Ashley and Jess

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