Thomas R. from South Dakota asked me this question: We have been working really hard to get our small group instruction going really strong everyday but it doesn’t seem to be working or working fast enough. What do you suggest?
My response: Thanks for the question Thomas – it’s a very popular one! First of all, you are very wise to be putting a lot of energy in refining your small group instruction as a practice that enhances the core instruction in your building. When there is an issue with small group instruction, it typically has to do with the things that we can change, so that’s the good news for us! Here’s what I think you ought to investigate:
Are students placed in the groups because of true academic needs or have we placed our behaviorally challenged kids in the groups to "get rid" of them during instruction?
Do you have your most engaging and most skilled teachers teaching the lowest groups? Oftentimes the kids who struggle the most need to be taught that they, indeed, CAN learn! It takes a skilled teacher to keep them engaged, make them feel like they can do the work and, at the same time, have the technical skill to do the work with the kids.
Have you given enough time to see results? It will typically take 2 weeks or so for the planning, preparation, delivery and reflection to kick in for the teacher.
Have you given realistic, yet aggressive instructional goals for that week? This question is a two-partner: have you set goals for each week (like "the students in this group will increase their ORF scores by 2 on the progress monitoring" or "students in this group will go from intensive on their comprehension test to strategic in two weeks with the proper support") and are they too aggressive (for example, it’s not feasible that a student will growth 10 wcpm in a week!) or are they not aggressive enough (sometimes we forget that with smaller groups and more intensive instruction even the most struggling students are getting an advantage in the small group and should have increased performance).
Are we planning the right instruction? Is the instruction focused on too many things or is it focused on 1-2 concepts that we can truly measure?
What are your thoughts? Leave them below so we can learn from you!
Kim asked this question about comprehension conversations: I find that sometimes the children get very involved in what we are reading and our discussions takes over. I’m glad that we can discuss, and that the children find the topic interesting. My question is when is to much and when I have to transition to another area of planning such as lunch do I come back to it later or let it go if the children don’t mention it.
First of all, Kim, this is a GREAT problem to have! Here are a few guiding questions to ask yourself as you are conducting a conversation with your class:
Is the conversation deepening or is it just idle chit chat?
Does it have academic value?
Is everyone reacting and giving information into the conversation or is it the “usual suspects” that are contributing?
Are you guiding the conversation and the depth of the comments?
Have you connected a written component? (This is where some serious extending of conversation should happen)
Here’s what Open Court’s “Handing Off Routine” encourages – this is a GREAT way for any teacher to teach students how to converse in the academic setting:
Students are seated so they can see each other and engage in a discussion.
Take a seat and be part of the group.
Students have their books and are free to refer back to any selection to make a point.
Students take responsibility for discussion.
Students ask questions, comment on what they have read, react to the text.
Students choose—hand the discussion off to—others in the class.
Model handing-off by offering comments on the text, the style of the writer, or the connection to the unit theme.
Use discussion starters such as “I didn’t know that . . . “ or “This piece made me think . . .” or “I disagree with _________ because . . . “
Participate in the discussion by raising your hand.
What successful techniques do you use? Share them in the comment sections see what other educators think!
Gwendolyn from Idaho asks this question: We are having trouble seeing the effects of our small group interventions with our below-benchmark kids. What is optimum group size? I think our groups might be too big.
My response: This is a really common question and one worth investigating though it is not typically at the root of the intervention problem. My experience tells me that small groups can range from two kids to fourteen kids (thought I start to wonder if fourteen is still considered “small”!) and have a pretty wide range of effectiveness. While I personally encourage our clients to keep their small group instruction between four and eight students, I think we can over-emphasize group sizes when the scores aren’t going up.
There are many factors in a successful small group lesson or series of lessons: classroom management, student engagement, behavioral expectations…and that’s even before the teaching begins! Then we look at teacher skill, teacher preparation, lesson pacing, instructional delivery, checking for understanding, perfect practice opportunities and whether we’ve matched the right materials for the right groups. You see, what is most important about small group interventions is that the quality of the instruction is extremely high (your most talented and skilled teachers should teach these) and that the content is designed specifically to close the skill gaps that exist. So, when you have a lack of growth or some growth but nowhere near what you need to see, you have to investigate all of these areas.
Do you ever feel like you’re living in the movie Groundhog Day – like every day is nearly the same as your last?
If so, it might be that you are living in perpetual admiration of the problems at hand: class sizes too big, not enough planning time, need more aides for support, too many responsibilities, interventions not powerful enough, not enough time…and…on…and…on.
The problem with this existence (besides it being very boring!) is that we end up resolved that our school-related problems are never going to be solved and that it’s a futile effort in even attempting to solve our problems because they’ve been our problems for so darn long.
Ask yourself: Are the problems that I regularly try to solve the same problems I’ve been trying to solve forever?
If your answer is “Yes”, then it’s time for some analysis of the problems at hand:
Am I getting at the root of the problem or solving a part of the problem?
Is this a problem I can solve or do I need to work around it and live with it?
Am I blaming or taking responsibility for my contribution to the problem?
Am I getting something from keeping this as a problem?
Do I really think it is a problem or have I gotten into the happen of crabbing about it?
From time to time I receive really good questions from clients or friends of Jackson Consulting and I will start to share some of the questions and ask YOU to pose a question that you would like a response to here!
If you have a literacy or reform-related question, you can email it to or just post it in the comments section and I’ll make sure to answer it!
Here’s one recent question: Where is the most important place to start when coaching teachers in the classroom?
My response: It is critical to begin with classroom management, as that is the foundation of any good lesson – and good lessons can’t happen without it! So, if the teacher is struggling to manage behaviors work to define who/what/when/where/why of the behaviors that are dogging the teacher. If the teacher lacks routines, work alongside the teacher during lesson preparation and help the teacher understand what routines will support the students mastering the content.