Small Group Reading Instruction in the Elementary Grades
Reading is a social experience, and these frameworks for small group instruction prioritize relationship-building while supporting reading proficiency.
There are many types of student readers, from bookworms to those more reluctant to delve into the written word. To better understand students’ relationships to reading, as well as my own, I launched an inquiry project with the help of my principal and assistant principal exploring the question, How can I promote positive reading behaviors to strengthen student readers?
Throughout my investigation, I’ve come to understand that reading can be a pleasurable social process for students. Just like adults in a book group, children crave opportunities to talk about books with their peers, especially in small groups that allow them to express their feelings about the stories they read.
I’ve used four types of small groups with third- and fourth-grade students, presented below, all of which helped develop positive reading habits in my classroom.
I started with reading strategy groups. During these small group meetings, I spent eight to 12 minutes modeling specific strategies for students to practice. Before creating groups, I studied students’ behaviors through their book choices, their notebook work, and the amount each student was reading to understand what comprehension or fluency strategies students needed to build.
Groups were fluid, meaning that as a group became proficient with a reading strategy, I would introduce another. And they were not based on reading level—one group, for example, was dedicated to reading with expression; when students’ reading voices began to develop, we moved on to another strategy.
Strategy groups revealed the social element of reading instruction, as students expressed excitement to share their thoughts and held each other accountable for their work by turning and sharing what they achieved at the end of a workshop, demonstrating authentic engagement.
Partner Work and Book Buddies
Another instructional move that proved to be quite valuable was the implementation of book buddies. Working as partners, students picked out a book that they wanted to read together and set a date to talk about it, usually allotting a week for reading time.
I monitored book discussions and coached students on next steps; for example, if I noticed that students were retelling what happened in the book, I would teach them how to reflect on the main character instead.
Each pair read four books a month, and some partners were eager to read more, meeting with each other outside of the times when they met with me. As I watched them eagerly sift through the big red tubs that store books in my classroom, it was beautiful to see their intrinsic motivation—fostered through a social reading experience.
When my class returned from winter break, I also launched book groups. Socially, book groups promote a sense of belonging as students relate to each other over a book. However, I was also aware of an instructional challenge that arises when book groups read an assigned text: What happens if readers aren’t interested in the book and disengage? Considering this possibility, I decided that we needed to incorporate an element of student choice.
My class selected texts such as Who Were the Navajo Code Talkers?, Who Is Colin Kaepernick?, What Was the March on Washington?, and Who Was Cesar Chavez? As in the partner work that my students did during our first trimester, readers were incredibly enthusiastic about the books they chose, and their discussion created opportunities for me to assess their learning through new modalities. For example, a student who is less comfortable writing down their thoughts about a text may be more comfortable discussing that text, meaning that I have to incorporate multiple modes of engagement to truly grasp students’ reading proficiency.
As book group discussions began to wind down, I reflected on my instruction as a reading teacher. I felt confident about the routines and strategies that my students were using and decided it was time to take a risk and stretch my teaching muscles. At the same time, I wanted to build more agency into the workshop process. Implementing seminars into our reading time seemed like an opportunity to give students a voice in their learning.
I was drawn to the concept of reading seminars after reading Teaching Reading in Small Groups: Differentiated Instruction for Building Strategic, Independent Readers, by Jennifer Serravallo. Serravallo describes seminars as opportunities for students to sign up for a strategy group of interest.
Examining my notes, I noticed three strategies that my students needed to learn. I put them on an anchor chart and explained the sign-up process. “What if I want to sign up for two seminars?” a student inquired eagerly. “Then you will participate in both seminars,” I responded, smiling.
Building Lifelong Readers
Teachers are given the opportunity to inspire students. Just like making a footprint in the sand, we are leaving our mark on the hearts and minds of our readers. It is therefore important to remember the “why” behind literacy instruction and to study and understand students’ reading behaviors in the classroom.
Small group instruction invites students to associate reading with positive relationships and to engage authentically with texts that speak to them, igniting interest in reading that can last a lifetime.