When you put kids together in a small reading group, what are you grouping for? Are your grouping decisions based on students’ reading level? Are they based on skills that you believe need to be taught? Some kids may need those types of groups, and some may not. In our experience, kids jump at the chance to meet with their small group if it’s about a text they chose or a topic they’re interested in, and if they’re in a comfortable meeting spot.
When students have a chance to discuss readings with peers, their motivation and engagement are ignited—peer-to-peer interactions are social capital that keeps students invested in the work. We’ve developed a three-step process to launch small reading groups at the beginning of the year, with an emphasis on using students’ collective and individual curiosities, passions, wants, and needs as a motivator for group work.
1. Rethink Surveys
Many times, we’ve surveyed kids in the first weeks of school, gathering information that would impact our instructional decision-making. Often, our good intentions fell short because we asked questions—what students read over the summer (or didn’t read), their favorite authors, etc.—that were important to us but that didn’t really energize students. Asking questions that are relevant to their lives is key.
We still ask questions about favorite books and authors, but we now add questions such as: “If you don’t have homework after school or you finish earlier than expected, what’s your favorite free time activity?” Or we might give them pairs of words and ask them to circle the word in each pair that best matches their interests:
- Fiction vs. nonfiction
- YouTube vs. video games
- Instagram vs. Snapchat
- Legos vs. colored pencils
- Breakfast vs. dinner
- Famous heroes vs. legendary villains
2. Launch the Groups
While some students complete these surveys with gusto, others may be a bit more reserved in what they share. One reason for that is that some students prefer talking to writing. We address that by launching our small discussion groups using the student surveys as the text. Here’s how we do it:
- Use the survey results to guide how you form your small groups. You can divide students into groups of three or four based on common interests—grouping together students who chose Legos over colored pencils, for example. Or you can form groups based on diverse interests—some group members chose breakfast while others chose dinner.
- Explain that students will be sharing their survey responses with their group, and encourage them to elaborate on some of their ideas. Give students an example: “If you chose YouTube over video games, you can explain what YouTubers you follow and why.”
- As students share, eavesdrop and take note of what you learn about them. This will help you plan instruction and curate resources for future small group work.
3. Curate Individual Students’ Readings
After collecting information about students, it’s time to put that information to good use. How do you do that? Consider two hypothetical students, Alex and Sebastian.
Alex is energetic, a middle child, wild about ice-skating, and a fan of pink and the Babysitter’s Club graphic novels. She’s a beagle-owning, stuffed-animal-collecting, broccoli-disliking third grader. We know about these details through conversations and our beginning-of-the-year survey. From the first days of school, it was easy to connect with Alex because we knew so many of her likes, dislikes, interests, and passions.
Sebastian, a quiet and unassuming fifth grader, opened up during the small group survey discussion. He mentioned that he was really into jazz and played the saxophone, and talked about his fascination with marine life. He prefers learning factual information and likes to read about Native American tribes and chiefs. He had just received his ham radio license.
With these kinds of details, curating texts for students is easier. Making sure Alex has access to some of the Babysitter’s Club books is a first step—add some other graphic novels, a short article or video about the first beagle to win the Westminster Kennel Club Show’s Best in Show category, and maybe an infographic about the brain benefits of eating broccoli. Providing Sebastian with texts on new ways scientists are working to save coral reefs in the Pacific and Indian Oceans or on Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest will have him reading for hours.
Students might read their texts independently and then share ideas with their small group, or they might invite a small group to join them in reading the texts that the teacher has curated. Both the text choices and small group work become motivators because they serve as invitations for social engagement around topics of interest.
Even though students’ texts are specific to them, when they meet in a small group to share what they’ve learned or new ideas they’re thinking about, the enthusiasm can be contagious. Before long, the small group interactions have excited other classmates to try out reading about beagles, broccoli, marine life, and even ham radios. When students talk about texts and topics they’re interested in, they diversify the range of texts in the classroom and validate themselves as readers.
Using surveys to get to know our students’ collective and individual curiosities, passions, wants, and needs helps us be more intentional with our planning. Small group work holds a lot of social capital because it is a structure and routine students can count on for reading, learning, and sharing new ideas with others.