Reading teachers have started the school year already in a crunch, with students’ reading skills at a 20-year low.
As educators look for ways to help students gain ground academically, research suggests refining traditional classroom reading groups could help.
As part of an Education Week webinar with educators Thursday, special education professor Matthew Burns talked about how to improve the effectiveness of small-group instruction. Burns, the director of the University of Missouri Center for Collaborative Solutions for Kids, Practice, and Policy, said effective small-group reading instruction can cut across different grades and subject areas, but students should be arranged based on the specific skills they need to hone in comprehension, fluency, phonics, and phonemic awareness—rather than overall reading levels.
It’s a small but critical distinction: It’s not that reading groups are inherently a bad practice, but the way they’ve traditionally been set up by ability groups has the potential to do academic damage.
The Q&A below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full discussion through the webinar, “Getting Reading Groups Right.”
How should teachers approach using same-ability versus different-ability groups?
When you’re doing homogeneous (same-ability grouping), it’s getting down to grouping kids with like skills, you can differentiate instruction. I do heterogeneous grouping when I’m applying skills. So when we do partner reading, for example, we do heterogeneous grouping. We don’t take the lowest of the low kids and put them with the highest of the high. We sort of slide it this way so that the skills are not crazy different, but there are certainly stronger and lower readers. We’ve seen that both kids grow really well and we have data that show the higher kids grow really quite a bit, too.
How should teachers decide on skills for grouping?
So one teacher could say, wow, my in my class, I have two kids struggling with phonemic awareness and seven are struggling with phonics and one [kid who needs help with] fluency. The other teacher says, well, I’ve got three fluency kids, three phonics, and one phonemic awareness. So we’ll group those kids, and we’ll do another inventory and say, these four kids are struggling with this aspect of decoding, and two of those kids are from your class, and two are from my class. So we can juggle kids around, across classrooms to get more precise groupings for intervention, but we use big buckets skill grouping as part of instruction.
What role should student choice and interest play in creating reading groups?
I have some concerns about using interest as a driving force for grouping. We did a study where we looked at how well a child could read a book [controlling for] several factors, and interest in the book consistently didn’t lead to particular outcomes. All things being equal, and if you group by skill and the kids want to pick between two or three different things to read, sure, go with that, but it’s got to be something that they’re capable of reading.
Is there consensus on the optimal structure for using reading groups—for example, the best size for a group or how long students should spend in groups?
Yes and no. We did a meta-analysis in 2018 and looked at 26 studies of small-group reading intervention. The correlation between effectiveness and group size wasn’t zero, but it was fairly small.
Smaller [groups], generally speaking, are more effective, so we have recommendations of roughly three to five. The older the kids, the larger groups can be, for middle and high school groups.
Recommendations on the number of minutes [to spend in groups] are 15 to 20 minutes, but that’s based more on how much time it takes to do the intervention and the attention span of the kids. The only compelling study I’ve seen around this is a recently published the study on frequency. [Researchers found] if you held the instructional minutes constant but broke them up into more sessions throughout the week, you saw stronger effects.
How often should students be assessed to change up reading groups?
That depends on the intensity of the need. We need to have growth data to make good decisions. And I hear people say, “Well, yeah, but if we keep a kid in an intervention group for eight to 10 weeks, is that too long?” Well, really no. If I’m collecting data every week, I will have 10 data points to make a reliable decision.
As a classroom teacher, I’m going to assess my struggling readers once a week, every other week, and the higher readers once a month or so. And you can flexibly group within that as often as you think you need towithin the parameters.
During the last few years, reading teachers have had to do a lot more online reading instruction. What have we learned about how to use virtual reading groups?
What we learned during the pandemic creates some opportunity for different types of work. I can have a kid in this classroom and a kid in the classroom down the hall engaged in reading with each other because they can use a Google document to share a form, and they can use Zoom to talk to each other. But there still needs to be some aspect of modeling that I think needs to happen.
If you’ve gotten back to face to face, I would encourage [teachers] to use your creativity in application of technology, more on the practice and application side of it than the actual modeling and initial instruction.
How should English-language learners be incorporated into reading groups?
We assess them the same way we do English speakers and where they shake out, they shake out. But sometimes we may need to do a little more depth. Like, for example, if we think a child doesn’t have phonemic awareness, we should assess their phonemic awareness in their native language, because phonemic awareness transfers.
But there’s one difference with children who are emerging bilinguals: Always, always, always infuse vocabulary into the instruction. So if I’m doing a small group on phonics, and I’m gonna teach today the "-ch” [sound], I will maybe show the kid before I start three pictures that start with the "-ch,” like chair, chip, whatever. And I’ll explain, OK, this is a picture of a chair. Chair starts with “ch” in English. What’s this in your language?