Differentiated Instruction

How to Implement Small-Group Instruction in the Classroom

8 Min Read
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With a tightly-packed teaching schedule, how do you find the time to address the needs of all students? In my time as an elementary teacher, I’ve found that small-group instruction is a surefire way to carve out time for individualized instruction in my classroom. Through small-group instruction, I’m able to address my students’ needs through focused and targeted lessons that help them confidently master new concepts and skills.

In this article I’ll explore the benefits of small-group instruction and focus on small-group instruction for the English Language Arts (ELA) classroom. I will also make note of strategies for grouping students, tips for classroom management, steps for implementation, and best practices for small group. I’ve even included a lesson plan template for small-group instruction to support you in implementing this powerful teaching approach in your classroom.

What Is Small-Group Instruction?

In small-group instruction, the classroom teacher pulls a small number of students aside to teach a particular skill or concept. The group size can range from two to six students. The teacher will bring students to an area in the class designated for small-group instruction. Typically, teachers will seat students at the teacher table, which may be a kidney-shaped table where the teacher sits at the center of the table while the students are seated around the table. In this area, the teacher might have manipulatives and instructional tools, like pointers or dry erase boards, readily accessible to use during a small-group lesson. The image below shows a possible small-group area set up.

As the teacher is leading the small-group instruction, the rest of the class is engaged in independent work or centers. A small-group lesson can be anywhere between 15-45 minutes long depending on grade level and students’ needs. Small-group instruction usually takes place after whole-group instruction. A teacher can meet with multiple small groups in a day and have the small-group instruction be part of the daily center rotation. Small-group instruction can be implemented during the ELA block as well as during other subject areas, like math. In some instances, small-group instruction may serve as Tier 2 intervention in the RTI process.

Note, having students engage in group work is not the same as small-group instruction. During group work, students are working collaboratively while the teacher oversees the activity. Small-group instruction, however, is teacher led and directed.

How Does Small-Group Instruction Help Students and Teacher

The structure of a small group provides more opportunities for differentiated instruction, therefore offering numerous benefits to both students and teachers.

For students, small-group instruction can be a confidence booster. During a whole-group lesson, some students may feel intimated to share a thought or ask a question, especially if they aren’t understanding the concept at hand. A small-group setting can make students feel more at ease to participate.

Small-group instruction allows teachers to observe and work with students more closely. Due to the smaller teacher-student ratio, teachers have more time to evaluate strengths and challenges and provide tailored lessons to meet students’ needs. Additionally, small-group instruction makes it possible for teachers to pre-teach and reteach concepts or skills, plus provide extra practice to students who need it.

How to Group Students for Small-Group Instruction

When planning small-group instruction, you might be thinking “How should I group my students?” For grouping students in the ELA block, I use literacy assessments for phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, or reading comprehension to identify students’ specific literacy needs. Form flexible and fluid small groups based on formative and summative assessment data, grouping students based on academic interest or needs. But allow students to move in and out of these groups using observational data from your lessons as well. Some students may be focused on word recognition skills like phonemic awareness or phonics, while others are working on becoming more fluent with these skills. Your more advanced readers may be working on vocabulary and reading comprehension.

When determining where to place students in small groups, identify what students need and create goals by thinking about how students progress in the following areas, which are ordered in the process of how students learn to read:

  • Phonemic awareness (K-1)
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

Tips for Classroom Management During Small-Group Instruction

Effective small-group instruction calls for effective classroom management. Consider the following classroom management tips when implementing small-group instruction in your class.

Set a Schedule

Create a schedule that supports differentiation in the classroom. You want to make time for both whole- and small-group instruction. Allocating time and resources for small-group instruction is an obstacle for many teachers, and by building a schedule with time built in for grade-level whole-group instruction, and opportunities for differentiated small-group instruction, you are setting yourself up for success. Generally, elementary ELA classrooms have anywhere between 90-120 minutes for ELA instruction. Below are sample schedules to use with HMH Into Reading that support ample time for whole-group and small-group instruction, as well as time for students to work independently and collaboratively. Remember that being flexible with timing is important as some days a specific instructional component may warrant more time and attention.

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Establish Expectations and Routines

The first six weeks of school is an ideal time to set classroom expectations and establish instructional routines for whole-group, small-group, and independent work time. Plan and discuss how students will move within the classroom, how they will access materials, and even how they will interact with other students. You’ll want to think through all the moments in your ELA block, and how you want that to look in your classroom. Remember to include routines for whole-group as well because if your entire ELA block runs smoothly, you’ll have sufficient time for small-group instruction. Doing so will ensure you foster an environment where students are actively learning throughout your ELA block, including your small-group instruction. Some examples of routines and procedures to implement during the first six weeks of school to ensure effective and efficient small-group instruction are:

  • How we meet at the carpet for whole-group instruction
  • How to gather and return dry erase boards for whole-group instruction
  • How to come to attention
  • How to turn and talk with a partner
  • How to move from center to center during center rotations

Steps for Implementing Small-Group Instruction

Setting up for small-group instruction requires having a plan of action. After all, you need to be ready to meet the needs of each group. I’ve detailed seven steps to help you smoothly run small-group instruction.

Step 1: Assess Student Needs

To be able to provide targeted instruction, you need to first and foremost know where students are. Make use of pre-assessments and formative assessments to identify students’ needs and to determine how you will support your students.

Step 2: Establish Learning Goals

Each student will have a unique set of needs. Utilize the data recorded to establish clear and measurable learning objectives for each student.

Step 3: Plan Instruction

Develop targeted lessons and activities that align with students’ learning goals and cater to students' needs and abilities. Further down, you can find a lesson plan template to use to plan your small-group instruction. When you are planning instruction, make note of any supplies you may need,such as letter tiles for students working on phonics or dry erase board and markers for students working on comprehension.

Step 4: Group Students

The data you’ve recorded will also help you group students. Refer to the grouping strategies mentioned earlier to organize students into small groups.

Step 5: Provide Instruction

Deliver focused and differentiated instruction to each group, targeting the skills students need support with.

Step 6: Monitor Progress

Be sure to continuously assess student progress; this can be done through formative assessments. Adjust instruction as needed and provide students with personalized feedback.

Step 7: Reflect and Refine

Regularly reflect on the effectiveness of small-group lessons. You can even ask feedback from students to adjust and improve upon future lessons.

Small-Group Instruction Best Practices

Follow these best practices to successfully implement small-group instruction in your classroom.

Be Flexible

Flexibility is key to successful small-group instruction. Lessons may need to be adapted to best meet students' needs. And, as mentioned before, groups may change based on how students improve throughout the year.

Take Notes When Teaching

Small-group instruction is a perfect time to observe and learn about your students. When teaching, be sure to jot down notes on how students are progressing and what areas they need more support in. You could also collect information when students are engaged in a small-group instructional activity, like word building. In these moments, students might reflect on their learning and give additional insight on what to include in future small-group lessons.

Assess Students Regularly

The data you collect is vital to small-group instruction and will guide what skills to cover and how to group students. So, take the time to periodically assess students. Use different types of assessments, like quizzes, exit tickets, or a benchmark exam, to gather evidence of student learning. From there, you can best provide targeted instruction to your students.

Find additional small-group reading strategies here.

Lesson Plan Template for Small-Group Instruction

When I’m planning small-group instruction, I use data to drive decisions, define clear goals for each small group before planning instruction, and align these goals with grade level specific literacy outcomes. I specifically draw from Anita Archer’s explicit instruction model as well as the gradual release of responsibility model, also referred to as “I Do, We Do, You Do.” Using these models, I’m able to give students the opportunity to see me model, participate in guided practice, and practice a skill with my feedback. Check out this small-group lesson plan template that I use, which supports explicit instruction and incorporates the gradual release model.


By integrating best practices, classroom management techniques, and drawing upon evidence-based strategies, we as teachers can create a classroom setting that fosters student growth through agency and empowerment. Our end goal is to create skilled learners who can make meaning and build their knowledge of the world around them. Effective small-group instruction will empower our students with the necessary skills to succeed.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


HMH Into Reading has everything teachers need in one place to facilitate systematic and explicit whole- and small-group reading instruction.

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