Since the early 1980s, educational practices have come under increasing scrutiny; those that deliver measurable results have remained, while those that do not have disappeared.
One practice that has withstood the test of time, across a variety of grade levels, is the reading group. Reading groups are usually composed of between two and six students who meet with the teacher to focus on developing reading or related skills.
Creating a classroom environment conducive to reading groups requires three tiers of organization by the teacher: the teacher must organize and occupy the students who are not in the reading group, the teacher must determine the structure of the group, and the teacher must plan and deliver small group lessons based upon learning objectives. Each will be examined in turn.
Managing the Classroom
The teacher must keep the remainder of the class busy while working with a reading group so that her focus may remain on the reading lesson. Managing the behavior of the class hinders the effectiveness of the lesson. In the primary grades, students often work at centers while the teacher is meeting with reading groups.
During center time, children work their way through a series of self-directed, independent literacy activities, freeing up the teacher. In creating centers, it is important for the teacher to develop routines and procedures for each and invest several days or more teaching their proper use. Misuse of any center requires immediate intervention. Centers can be completely or partially assigned through a task board, or students can choose from a list of approved activities.
Beyond the primary grades – and occasionally even in the primary grades – teachers use two other methods of occupying students: seatwork and reading workshop. By using seatwork, the teacher keeps students at their seats working on literacy assignments – this often proves much easier to manage than centers. A major disadvantage is that seatwork is rarely of much interest to students.
The second method, reading workshop, is applicable through middle school and possibly beyond. A reading workshop involves all students in reading for a predetermined amount of time, commonly called DEAR or SSR. Some teachers begin the workshop with a small lesson on reading skills before sending students to read. The teacher then meets with reading groups while other students are reading independently.
Creating the Group
Teachers face a number of considerations when determining the composition of their reading groups. Reading groups can be formed on the basis of reading ability, specific strengths and needs with respect to reading skills, or even based upon student interest.
Typically, early childhood educators form their groups on the basis of reading ability, choosing leveled books that students can read with 90% or greater accuracy; accuracy greater than 95% indicates the student should move up a level to more challenging texts. Measures such as the DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment) or benchmark books are useful in initial determinations of groups. These measures are revisited several times throughout the year and groups are adjusted accordingly.
Reading groups may focus on specific needs of small groups of students. A teacher may, through the use of assessment, determine several of his students are struggling with comprehension, although their ability to decode words varies greatly. In this case, the teacher may create a multi-ability group, focusing on teaching comprehension strategies over the course of several lessons. Assessment will dictate the necessity of student participation in future groups.
Finally, a teacher may create reading groups based on interest. The teacher may offer a limited number of spaces to read a text that may be of interest to only a few students, regardless of reading ability. It becomes the task of the teacher to use appropriate scaffolding strategies to ensure every reader in the group understands the text.
The Reading Group Lesson
Reading groups typically convene between one and five times per week. Advanced students require less instructional support; struggling students require more. Lessons usually run between 10 and 20 minutes. Reading group lessons usually consist of an introduction to the text to activate prior knowledge; this often includes phonics and vocabulary mini-lessons. Next, the teacher listens for a few moments as each student whisper reads, offering cues to help the readers when they struggle. When all students are finished, the group usually responds to or discusses an element of the text.
The teacher must make several decisions long before the lesson begins. These boil down to learning objectives, assessments, and materials. Reading groups are most successful if the teacher has clearly defined objectives to begin each and assessment to ascertain whether or not students are progressing towards these objectives. Important assessment measures include measures of fluency and comprehension, running records, and spelling inventories.
Keep in mind that the focus of reading groups is to assist students in becoming better readers. To do so, they must be actively engaged in reading instructional level text. While the use of additional materials may prove a useful supplement, the selection and use of instructional level texts is the crux of reading group instruction.
Reading groups are an instructional practice that has withstood intense scrutiny. By ensuring that all students are actively engaged with independent activities, the teacher is able to focus on instruction. The use of various assessment measures points to objectives the teacher may wish to address during reading group instruction. By constantly planning lessons to meet these objectives and measuring progress towards them, a teacher will quickly gain the skills and confidence necessary to successfully teach reading.