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Differentiated Instruction

5 Steps for Setting Up Small Group Math Instruction in the Elementary Grades

Small group instruction is a key strategy for meeting the diverse needs of students, but figuring out how to manage it can be tricky.

October 3, 2023
FatCamera / iStock

Every teacher knows that small group instruction is an effective way to help students reach mastery and get the differentiated instruction they need. Although that sounds easy, it can take years for teachers to master this skill in the mathematics classroom.

My first year teaching, I spent my time making sure that my whole group lessons were up to par. I thought that was enough. I didn’t have any training on small group instruction; it was just expected that I would pull small groups to meet the needs of my students.

When I tried to figure out small group instruction, I didn’t know where to start. What data should I use? What would I do in small groups with them? How often did I need to meet with each student? Carrying out differentiated small groups that grow mathematicians is a master teacher skill that takes years to develop. Or does it? I worked with hundreds of teachers to come up with five concrete and easy-to-understand steps to bridge this learning gap.

Getting started

1. Create a short assessment anticipating what you want to see from your students. When you’re creating the assessment, be strategic about getting data on the exact teaching points you want to target. Here are some things to consider:

  • Embed the targeted math concept into rigorous problem-solving to get a deep look into processing behaviors, organization strategies, and the math strategies used to solve the problem.
  • Keep assessments for small group instruction focused on the most essential math skills that students need to master.
  • Keep it short. Use only one or two questions so that students can go deeper in the work. 
  • Use a checklist or embedded representations so that you can check in on specific behaviors and strategies.

I’ve put together a lower grade example and an upper grade example.

2. Use an If… Then… chart to drill down to specific behaviors that need support. One of the biggest misconceptions I witness in creating small groups is grouping students by the problem they missed. There could be so many reasons why a number of students missed the same problem. You could end up with a student who only made a simple mistake in a group with another student who didn’t even know where to start and yet another student who needs help with number lines.

When students are grouped this way, the time together isn’t meaningful to all students. Instead, approach the creation of small groups by behavior to create more impactful learning experiences for students. Using a simple If… Then... chart is the key to staying targeted, which keeps small groups intentional and short.

Take one piece of student work and create a T-chart. Practice pinpointing student misconceptions and think of a concrete action that students could take to master that skill.

For example, if a student answers only the first part of the problem, then I can teach them to write an answer statement in order to ensure that they focus on the question and answer the appropriate part. If a student subtracts across zeros incorrectly, then I can teach them to subtract across zeros using a place value chart with base 10 blocks.

The T-chart also helps to break problem-solving into steps of comprehension. This continuum can help you get started with naming teaching points for a progression of problem-solving. As you look at each piece of student work, figure out what teaching points they’ll need and plug them into this chart. Then list what each student in the group needs. You may need many chart pages, depending on how many learning targets you end up with. Continue this process as you look at each student’s piece of work. 

3. Choose appropriate skills for learners who have a lot to work on or the ones who got the correct answer. These students can be the trickiest to figure out. When looking at a student’s work that shows there’s much to work on, choose the next step they’re ready for. That might mean you start with figuring out where they are on the problem-solving continuum or an essential math concept that will help with other concepts throughout the year.

For students who have the correct answer, it’s still important to ensure that they’re flexible in their thinking and they can fully communicate their justification. Another option is to do inquiry work with these students. Give them a rich math task and tell them what you want to see in their work as they collaborate with their peers in the group. Check in on them throughout with facilitating questions and support as necessary while you pull other groups.

4. Use a predictable lesson structure and reuse your assessment. You might be wondering what you should do with students once you get them into groups. One of the biggest favors you can do for yourself is to have a predictable lesson structure to provide an avenue to quick and effective lessons. There are many different structures you can choose from. Here’s one you can start with.

Launch: Begin the lesson with one of the options below. (This should take one minute.) 

  • Pose a question to strike up curiosity and excitement.
  • Start with a compliment based on a common strength of the group. 
  • Present a real-world example that links to the math concept.

Teach: State the learning target several times while using one of the approaches    listed. (This could take four to five minutes.)  

  • Show an exemplar (student work or teacher created) of the learning target, and point out what students should notice and how it will help them. 
  • You can do a direct teach if it’s the first time a student has been exposed to a strategy. Use this method sparingly, as it promotes a low level of thinking in students.

Try it: Let students try it out with a new problem in pairs or independently.

  • Offer learning targets that don’t call for students to solve. For example, if the lesson is about visualizing and drawing a quick sketch to match the problem, that will be the only thing to work on during this time. 
  • Instead of telling students what to do, refer them back to the anchor chart or example to try to think it out. Another option is a simple prompt to remind them to reread. 

Empower: Dismiss each student as they finish, and send them off with one of the options below.

  • Compliment them on a strength you noticed as they tried out the new skill.
  • Give them an artifact, such as a mini anchor chart or written note, to remind them of what they learned and to use as a guide as they try it out in their independent work. 

Use the problem from the assessment you gave in the “Teach” or in the “Try it” to save you some time.

5. Make small group preparation a part of what you’re already doing. It doesn’t have to be an extra task. Make this meaningful work part of your grading routine. As you’re grading or giving feedback, put students into groups. Then you can start your week with fresh data each time you dive into student work.

Don’t be afraid to just try it out. The only wrong way to do small groups is to not do them. Meeting with students this way builds strong relationships, helps you gain more insight into student thinking, and focuses on specific skills of your mathematicians to close gaps. Being so intentional is empowering. You’ll see students make gains right before your eyes.

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Filed Under

  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Collaborative Learning
  • Math
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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