“Small Group Instruction” [What Does it Really Mean?]

An often-heard phrase heard from administrators everywhere is “we want to see small-group instruction.” Because I’ve been in this field for soooo long, I’ve seen the definition of the term “small-group instruction” change a great deal. Different people all seem to have different definitions. So much so, I fear we’ve lost sight of what its original true intent was.

When you do a general Pinterest or Google search for the term, you get loads of links to download packets and papers and forms and checklists….and more often than not, none of them are really what your students actually need. Which makes sense. Those things were created by someone else, who had a different set of children in mind.

It’s enough to make a teacher dizzy! And very frustrated.

Let’s Talk about “Guided Reading”

Somehow, along the way, small group instruction has come to mean only “guided reading.” And I agree with that. What I don’t agree with is that “guided reading” is often only seen as the traditional format that Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell taught us in the 1990’s, in their book on the topic. Jan Richardson has a very similar format, and Reading Recovery lessons are also close to this, as both Fountas and Pinnell and Jan Richardson are heavily influenced by the work of Marie Clay, Reading Recovery creator. These formats are mostly what you’ll find on TPT as well.

This common type of guided reading looks something like this:

  • Text introduction
  • Vocabulary work
  • Teach point (either before or after kids read, depending on your model)
  • Listening to kids read while teacher coaches
  • Comprehension discussion
  • Word work (again placement of this depends on your model)
  • Writing extension

The whole goal of this type of small group instruction is to guide readers into the next level of complexity of text, so that they can become equipped to take on the new challenges books at the next level pose for readers–to give them tools in their toolbelt to handle the next level of complexity with increasing independence.

Sounds perfect, right?

So what’s the problem?

The problem is not the intent or the structure. The problem is that this is what seems to be the only definition of “small group instruction” in recent years. A fantastic, comprehensive model, to be sure. But also extremely time-consuming to conduct and to plan for. These lessons typically span several days, in order to work through a text and have multiple opportunities to work on each skill.

Here’s an even bigger problem. From my experience, more often than not, teachers don’t actually “guide” kids into the next level; they walk them through it entirely, and then move on to the next and next and next level, never loosening their “guidance.” The teacher becomes the one who carries the child the entire way, not the guide who coaches. Kids aren’t getting enough of a chance to apply their growing skills independently, across many texts. And that is exactly what is needed for the learning to solidify.

Another problem is that books and skills are chosen by the teacher–all the choice is taken away from kids. And because it’s a group of students you’re meeting with, the skill work might not be exactly what each child needs. It’s more of a “meet them in the middle” sort of thing. Groups also tend to remain static for a long time, and aren’t very flexible.

How did this happen?

I think this is because teachers aren’t always aware of the myriad other ways small group instruction can look, or the many skills, concepts, and behaviors that can be taught through small group instruction. Very often, neither do principals, which is where the “we want to see small group instruction” mantra begins to be problematic.

Teachers stress about getting small group instruction up and running, but they aren’t exactly sure what that should look like, because it’s actually nuanced and with endless possibility…so they turn to TPT and download all kinds of checklists, forms, and passages. Or they work hard to follow what their fellow teacher next door uses. Or follow the lesson plans that come with the sets of books that are provided by the school. All of these are variations of “guided reading,” but none of them are necessarily what your students need, so they aren’t getting as much out of this time as they could be. And teachers are left feeling frustrated.

It’s a constant hamster wheel. The teacher never steps to the side with groups. Small groups last for 20 or more minutes each, every day. When you consider the wide variance in ability levels in a given class, we know that some groups need to be seen more often than others. Which means it is not physically possible to meet each child each week. The struggle to meet with each student at some point in the week for small group instruction is a huge challenge–and source of much stress–for teachers everywhere.

It’s time to rethink our definition of “small group instruction.”

In their book, What Are You Grouping For?, authors Julie Wright and Barry Hoonan agree. They say that “guided reading has a specific protocol based on the premise that books have levels of difficulty, and that grouping based on these levels helps students develop their reading abilities. The challenge is that in far too many schools, guided reading is considered synonymous with small group instruction, and so it becomes all that is offered to students. Guided reading is one approach, but it’s not particularly indigenous to the landscape of readers in grades 3-8.”

Jennifer Serravallo concurs. At a conference she led several years ago, to promote her new book Understanding Texts and Readers, she said that students don’t need traditional guided reading all that much after about a level J or K. She is a big advocate for strategy group instruction: very short, laser-focused instruction on a specific need.

I could not agree with her more.

A More Focused, Student Needs Approach:

Because strategy group work is so targeted, the lessons are SHORT. They might be anywhere from 5-15 minutes–far less than a single guided reading lesson. If we lean on strategy group lessons for even part of the time, we’ll see far more kids far more often.

Even better, we’re much more likely to hone in on exactly what each child needs in that moment, because the time it takes to plan for and conduct this type of small group instruction is far less than a traditional guided reading lesson.

Guess what? BOTH of these structures guide readers.

A New Definition

The way I define small group instruction is best said by Regie Routman, in her book, most recently Read, Write, Lead. She says that “Guided reading is any learning context in which the teacher guides one or more students through some aspect of the reading process: choosing books, making sense of text, decoding and defining words, reading fluently, inferring, monitoring one’s understanding, determining the author’s purpose, and so on. The teacher builds on students’ strengths and supports and demonstrates whatever is necessary to move the child toward independence.”

See the shift? Any learning context. This opens the doors for much more targeted and efficient teaching. When we confer with kids, we are guiding their reading. A strategy group is guiding reading. A small group shared reading or interactive read aloud is also guiding reading.

How Does it Look?

The structure of the small group is dependent on what the students in that group need. For example, if the thing they really need in that moment–the thing that would really move the needle–is fluency work, it makes little sense to do a whole drawn out, traditional guided reading lesson. And no downloaded packets are needed–just kids’ own books, or a passage from a shared text you’re already using in the classroom. So simple!

Here’s a short list of different ways your small group work might be structured:

  • Shared Reading
  • Shared Writing
  • Strategy Group
  • Guided Reading
  • Partnerships
  • 1:1 conferences
  • Group/table conference
  • Small group interactive read aloud
  • Book Club

And a short list of things you might work on in any of those structures:

  • Print work/accuracy
  • Fluency
  • ANY aspect of comprehension
  • Just-right book selection
  • Previewing a text
  • Self-monitoring
  • Engagement
  • Goal-setting
  • Book club or partner conversation
  • Any aspect of the writing process

At any given moment, any number of students would benefit from many of these teaching points.

Is there still a need for traditional guided reading?

Absolutely and unequivocally! As students grow in their reading skills, they will be ready to take on more challenging texts, even in that upper grade band. We still need to help them prepare for the challenges they’ll encounter in those texts–that’s where traditional guided reading steps in.

This structure is also fantastic for our English language learners, who very much need the vocabulary, background knowledge building, discussion, and writing that are inherent in a traditional format. For these same reasons, our youngest readers also benefit from it tremendously.


Then we step aside, off the hamster wheel. We then turn our attention to focus on smaller skills as needed, while allowing our students to go take on the complexities of that next step without us holding their hands the entire way. We are right there, ready to join them at any moment to steady them when they wobble. But then we release them again, and watch them continue on, with confidence in their every step.

Because THAT kind of independence is the ultimate goal of any small group structure.

Want some help determining how you can leverage small group work efficiently for the greatest student impact? Contact me to set up a coaching call, so we can think it through together! And, join my private FB group for immediate support from like-minded educators!

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