Whole vs Small Group Instruction: Which is Most Effective?

Many schools and districts across the country are moving to more whole-group instruction.  Not that long ago, a heavy emphasis on small group instruction was all the rage.  So it’s no wonder that many of us are left with a conundrum:  which is most effective if we compare whole vs small group instruction?  Where should we spend our limited time?

Whenever the question of instructional practices comes up, the first place to look would be the work of John Hattie and his meta-analyses of instructional practices.  (I’m using his 2017 data online along with his 2016 book, Visible Learning for Literacy, which is all I own.  I don’t yet have his newest book).  

In Visible Learning for Literacy, Hattie reports that Direct Instruction, aka whole group instruction, has a moderate effect size of .60.  An effect size of .40 is considered average, so above that is good.  But when we consider that some instructional practices have an effect size of above 1.0, .60 is just ok.  The effect size of small group instruction?  Very similar, coming in at  .49.  

So, according to the research, both practices are just about equal, with whole group instruction proving to be a small bit stronger than small group instruction.

Does that then mean whole group instruction should be the priority?  

Let’s be clear on what whole group instruction really means.  According to Hattie (2016), there are basic elements that need to be in place with direct instruction so that this effect size can be reached.  And those are:

  • Lessons planned according to learning intentions 
  • The teacher knows the success criteria
  • Student engagement is built in
  • Modeling
  • Frequent checks for understanding
  • Guided instruction, with feedback is in place
  • Lessons include closure that reiterates the learning intentions
  • Students practice the learning independently, with novel situations

So basically, Hattie’s definition of effective whole group instruction also includes a lot of factors–and each of these have their own effect sizes.  

If you’re using a scripted curriculum, you’re doing direct instruction.  However, scripted curriculums may have many of these elements, but not all.  The learning intentions provided in these resources are not necessarily in response to what your particular students need, for example.  This is a common complaint I hear from educators in my Facebook group. The feedback piece in direct instruction is very important–which no publisher can provide, since it depends on student responses.  

The point?  

Whole group instruction can be very effective, but there’s an art–and a science–to it.  

Let’s now turn to small group instruction.  Maybe that’s where our time should be prioritized?  

The definition of small group instruction that Hattie uses is that is is needs-based–not ability groups.  Ability grouping would be what was used back when I was in school 100 years ago–the proverbial bluebirds, robin, and buzzards groups:  low, middle, and high.  That’s ability grouping.  We all got the same instruction, just at different paces.  Hattie also says that needs-based groups must be flexible, and that the teaching must target students’ specific needs. 

@Deposit Photos

Small groups by definition must be responsive and fluid.  Because they’re based on specific needs, they change often.  

This makes sense, but we can’t ignore that the effect size for small groups is not as high as whole group instruction.  

We still don’t know which is most effective.

Let’s now turn to another prominent educational researcher, Tim Shanahan.  In a 2018 blog post, he reminds us that we must put efficiency first.  

“Never do with a small group, what you could be done as well with the whole class.”

Shanahan on Literacy, April 28, 2018

Which makes perfect sense.  There’s no point in teaching the very same thing to multiple groups.  If the majority of kids need something, your time is much better spent teaching it whole-group–as long as Hattie’s elements of strong instruction are in place.  

On the flip side, if only a few of your students need something, then there’s no point in wasting a whole group lesson on it–do it in small groups instead.  Very specifically planned, very targeted, fluid small groups.  My colleague Jana Lee explains this beautifully, in the video below:

So what’s the answer?  When thinking about whole vs small group instruction, which should we prioritize?

The answer lies in the effect sizes.  They are pretty equal.  They both have benefits.  They both have a clear purpose and place. 

We need to balance both.  One isn’t much better than the other.  

Both are necessary.  

With one exception.  

When talking about foundational skill work, Collaborative Classroom’s Drs. Seger and Stukey tell us that research shows that whole group phonics instruction is not the best use of time–ours or our students.

Research has shown us that the traditional whole-class phonics lesson is not the way to develop fluent readers—not for kindergarteners or, in fact, for students in any grade level. Whole-class phonics instruction assumes our students all have the same instructional need, but we know this is not the case.

Wendy Seger & Marisa Ramirez Stukey, Collaborative Classroom

Pretty interesting, isn’t it, that most of the programs in adoption today are exactly this–whole group phonics.

This is why I’ve long been a fan of Words Their Way, by the way.  When done well, this program is a highly differentiated way to teach phonics, and meets kids right where they are.  (Check out what I’ve shared about Words Their Way here.)  

So, when thinking about the question whole vs small group instruction, the answer seems to be, as it is with so many things when it comes to literacy, balance.

Know the purpose and place of both.  Use both.  Not one over the other.  

Know your learners.  Know their needs.  Consider efficiency.  

With these key things in mind, you’ll know what to do.  Research supports both, so your decisions about which to do and when to do them will be sound. 

Because it’s not a question of whole group vs small group.  It’s whole group and small group.   


Could you use a thinking partner in deciding what to teach in whole group vs small group?  Reach out for a coaching call!  I’d love to help clear the confusion!  

I’d love to know…was this post helpful?  What resonated?  Tell me in the comments or message me on Instagram!  And by all means, if you have a teacher friend who would find this post helpful, please share it!

Want lots more tips? Join my Facebook group! I have a mini video series all about effective, efficient, and targeted small group instruction!


Related Posts:  Small Group Instruction:  What Does it Really Mean?, Small Group Writing Planning Made EasyTeach vs Tell:  The Difference Between Strong and Poor Instruction


Who is Coach from the Couch??  I’m Michelle, a 24-year veteran educator, currently a K-5 literacy coach.  I continue to learn alongside teachers in classrooms each and every day, and it’s my mission to support as many teachers as I can.  Because no one can do this work alone.

I’m available to you, too, through virtual coaching calls


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