Like many educational practices, the popularity of different instructional methods in teaching reading oscillates like the weather. It’s my belief, however, that both whole-class and small-group reading instruction provide a vital blend in any effective literacy program.
The whole-class approach of shared reading using rhythmical, rhyme, rich, and repetitive language that students read out loud together, is of utmost importance in ensuring all students feel successful, and it conveys a message about the joy of reading. Small-group instruction, when correctly implemented, is also of very high value. This method allows for a more intimate setting—plus, students can feel greater confidence in participating, and the teacher can focus more on meeting particular needs and observing students more closely. But what are the effective strategies that make this approach successful?
Before any strategies are effective, I believe there must be engagement. Research shows reading engagement is a key element in a student’s success. My question is, how can students really be engaged unless the text they are being exposed to captures their interest or curiosity and touches their heart?
An engaging text is the essential starting point to consider before diving into reading strategies. Once students are motivated by either the topic, title, characters, illustrations, or photographs, then strategies to enhance and advance their reading will be far more effective.
“An engaging text is the essential starting point to consider before diving into reading strategies.“
Effective Small-Group Reading Strategies
Effective strategies in small-group instruction are those that help develop comprehension skills, extend and enrich vocabulary, provide alphabetical code knowledge, and promote oral language along with social and emotional learning. All of these should be the focus of every small-group instruction lesson, authentically woven together in context. Here are three strategies to consider.
1. Ask Divergent Questions
One of my interests has been in the comprehension strategy of questioning and the importance of teachers asking questions that encourage students to dig deeper into the text. Rather than dominating the questioning by asking questions where the answer can be found right there in the text, I would ensure that I asked the questions that required students to use their background knowledge and the information the author has told them to come up with a logical answer or questions that require more inferential thinking.
Research shows that most questions teachers ask are convergent questions. However, the most valuable questions are those that require divergent thinking. Convergent questions have a more narrowly defined correct answer, while divergent questions require students to think more critically and have infinite answers.
I would ensure that a majority of questions I asked students were divergent questions that require students to dig deeper—questions that start with phrases such as:
- How do you know…?
- Find words that make you think that…
- What do you think…?
- Why do you think…?
- Where do you think…?
- What might happen if…?
- Do you think…? Why?
These are questions that don’t require a correct answer. Questions that always require a specific answer can cause students to become discouraged. The message the student receives is, “I shouldn’t answer the question unless I’m sure I have the right answer.” Students learn to believe that having a “right” answer is of greater value than thinking, and that’s simply not the case.
2. Encourage Students to Ask Questions
While a teacher asking the questions is important, I believe it’s equally important for students to also be the questioners. Every small-group instruction lesson should provide students with this opportunity. It’s essential to have less teacher domination and more student involvement.
For example, one student can assume the role of a character in the story, and other students can ask the character questions. Or if you’re using a nonfiction text, you should encourage students to ask questions about anything they need to clarify or would like to understand further. They should direct their questions to the other students in the group, not the teacher, who should only serve as a guide. The one doing the talking is the one doing the thinking. When students are more involved in the questioning, they think more deeply.
Students need to make meaning from their learning; if they don’t, the learning is soon forgotten. So, by ensuring there’s an opportunity for students to be the questioners in every small-group instruction session, you encourage more active engagement and deeper thinking and allow for them to practice oral language and collaboration skills with peers.
3. Prioritize Social and Emotional Learning
Another one of my passions in small-group instruction is the opportunity to highlight social and emotional learning. We know there is a greater need to prepare students with the emotional skills needed to cope with living in our complex world. Small-group instruction plays a valuable role. I have intentionally woven social and emotional skills into all the fiction stories I have written so teachers can expose students to these skills in context.
Peggy Albers, a professor in the College of Education and Human Development at Georgia State University, found through her research that children learn how to behave, think, and act through the characters that they meet in stories.
Our students face struggles and pressures daily. By using stories in small-group instruction, teachers can bring awareness to an emotion in a less intimidating way because the emotion doesn’t belong to the students, yet they can connect to it and learn from it by walking in a character’s shoes. The importance of using small-group instruction to launch social and emotional skills cannot be over-emphasized. Educating the hearts of students is just as important, if not more important, than academic achievement.
Effective strategies in small-group reading are many and varied, but to me, engagement in the text is the key to learning. Only when students are motivated by the text are they likely to make progress and achieve success.
There must be engagement when teaching reading in small groups to make your strategies effective. Questions that encourage deeper thinking engage students. When students are given opportunities to be the questioners, they are empowered to use stories to educate the heart, motivating them to gain skills that will help them navigate through life.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
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Education Research Director, Core Literacy & Early Learning