We all know that smaller groups help teachers to teach. Gosh, literacy centers is practically drilled into our skulls in teacher prep courses!
But what is often skipped over is the actual way to MAKE small groups and how to use small groups to your advantage.
I know. I was the teacher who learned about literacy centers, but never was actually shown HOW to make them and WHAT needed to be in them for my kids to be successful. I guess the powers that be think that we will just show up on the first day knowing how to do this without ever having been taught. Weird that this doesn’t happen with your actual students, but I digress.
How To Create Small Groups (In The First Place!)
So, there are about as many ways to group children as there are clouds in the sky. I have a few favorites, but the way I group depends on what my purpose is at that moment.
- Non-Leveled Stations: sometimes kids just need to accomplish a series of tasks in a groups of peers. Ability level doesn’t matter for this one at all, so I just give the kids numbers until there is a equal-ish amount of children at each station. Then we begin the task at hand.
- Leveled Stations: other times I need to see my students in groups based on ability level or skills that need fine tuning. For this, I pre-plan the night before. I will look as recent work samples, assessments, or even just go with my gut. I’m still aiming for equal-ish sized groups, but I’m more concerned that the kids are with similarly performing students.
- On Going Leveled Groups: this is for things like literature circles, spelling/word study, literacy centers, or math centers. I’m trying to get children in these groups who are just about working at the same level. I’ll look at those assessments, work samples, or go with my gut (or a combo of all three) to create the initial groups. I try to make the groups gender balanced, but will have all girl or all boy groups to if needed. I also try to keep kids in their comfort zone as opposed to pushing too far, too fast. I want mastery, not mystery! The most important thing is that these groups should be fluid. If a child is regressing, making significant gains, or just needs a shift in focus, I can reshuffle the deck until it works. I create new on-going leveled groups at the start of each new math/literacy unit.
- On Going Non-Leveled Groups: this would be group projects, desk arrangements, or other partner situations. I also use a more random group generator system: picking popsicle sticks, numbers, etc. But since this will be a longer term assignment than just one class, I also try to think about the social dynamics of the kids in each group. I like to separate the best friends. Having one “talker” in each group helps get things going, too. I also watch out for kids that are NOT getting along, and keep them apart as much as possible.
One of the things that almost no one talks about in terms of creating small groups are the special education students who are learning in general education classrooms. As an inclusion teacher, I have seen these kids thrive and succeed. I have also seen them get rushed over by their on grade level peers, often being left in the dust with very little understanding of the topic and with even less input into the group work.
In these cases, I try to coordinate with my special education co-teacher to have group work times during her push-in. And to make it a bridging opportunity, that way work can be done in both classrooms. When this isn’t possible, I do tend to cluster these children in one or two groups and spend extra time coaching them through the process.
Setting It All Up
This might be the most challenging part, honestly! You need to come up with X meaningful things to do that will actually help them develop/practice skills in Y content area. And it needs to fill Z amount of time. Plus, have simple easy to understand instructions. Sometimes you need a cheat sheet. Here are my favorite activities in the four core subjects (Reading/Writing, Math, Science, Social Studies/History).
Monitoring and Accountability
Keeping your kids on the straight and narrow can be tough, especially when they are all over the place.
My favorite tool was Padlet. I created four different Padlets for the core subjects and one for indoor recess. I added all of my students names as separate “thoughts” and then created new thoughts for each of the activities. Then, I simply moved all the activities to the top in the order that I wanted them to be cycled through and placed each child under an activity (creating my small groups).
I could use this two ways.
- Kids could work at their own pace through the materials, and I could see where they were just by looking up at the board (more on this in a later blog post). As a child finished one thing, he simply went to the smartboard and slid his name over to the next activity. If he finished early, he moved to the final category: Free Time. In this category I listed all of the things that were acceptable uses of extra time: finish your work in other subjects, read silently, work on a challenge folder item, review your spelling words, (ask) to go on Khan Academy, (ask) to work on independent (approved and connected) research.
- Kids didn’t move their own names, but I could see where everyone started. I knew that Student A started at station 1 on Monday and we got through three complete rotations, meaning that she should start at station 4 on Tuesday. I could then move each group over to the appropriate station in time for the next session.
Keeping track of all of this work is challenging. If each student has four to seven stations in a given subject, with a product being created at each station, then the teacher MUST have to look at everything, right? Wrong!
A lot of my stations were not producing materials. Instead, I asked students to use games and cooperative activities to practice their skills. Another option I used was to have the students create work that then became their own reference material or interactive notebooks. On any given day I had one or maybe two stations in a subject area that required students to pass in work to be graded.
Most of the time, to keep kids accountable, I used a check mark system. Essentially, did they do the work? Yes or no. As they finished or as I called them up, each child needed to demonstrate that they had met the agreed upon benchmark for that day (3 stations complete, work done up to X point, etc.).
Once you get the hang of it, it can be simple. For me, it frees me up to really focus on the group I am with because I know that my class all have assignments.
Yes, tracking progress can be challenging.
Which is why you should check out my Teachers Pay Teachers store for a handy multi-subject assessment and tracking sheet. I’m a fourth grade teacher, so this is targeted at the grades 3-5 age range but is adaptable for pretty much any grade/ability/subject. If it’s not, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can figure out something that works for you.
And if you want a FREE PDF of the small groups cheat sheet, sign up for my VIP mailing list. I send out once weekly emails and a monthly FREEBIE.
Thanks for reading!