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Science of Reading: Small-Group Instruction Strategies

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WF1880715 Shaped 2024 Blog Post Science of Reading Small Group Reading Instruction Hero

Teachers can teach and increase students’ achievement efficiently and effectively by incorporating small-group instruction into their classroom routines. In fact, research tells us that small-group instruction is a teacher’s most effective tool. Instruction in small groups of three to five students has been found to be more effective than whole-class instruction or one-on-one instruction (Gersten et al., 2008; Vaughn et al., 2001) when teachers apply the following guiding principles of effective instruction.

What Is Small-Group Reading Instruction?

Small-group reading instruction focuses on differentiating instruction by teaching specific skills to support students who have been identified as needing targeted instruction. Small groups are appropriate in all tiers of instruction and are a foundational part of multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) and response to intervention (RTI).

Small-group reading instruction supports teaching new skills and allows supervised guided practice of the essential components of literacy: oral language, phonological sensitivity, phoneme awareness, phonics, spelling, fluency, vocabulary and morphology, comprehension, and written expression. Instructional content is guided by expectations of the grade level, reading curriculum, and/or state standards and should integrate science of reading strategies.

Benefits of Small-Group Reading Instruction

Teaching reading in small groups is beneficial for students in all tiers:

  • Tier 1: Whole-class instruction
  • Tier 2: When students need more targeted skill instruction
  • Tier 3: The most intensive instruction and intervention
RTI tiers image
The multi-tiered system is traditionally visualized as a pyramid, with the wide base representing students receiving Tier 1 core instruction, the middle part representing students receiving Tier 2 support, and the narrow top representing students needing Tier 3 intervention (Lebensburger, 2023). (For more details on the complete MTSS model, visit

All students benefit from small-group instruction. For example, students who have accelerated reading skills could work on advanced phonics or comprehension skills. Students who need more practice and direct instruction on a fundamental skill can be grouped together to focus on a targeted skill. Students who are multilingual benefit from support in small groups in which they have more opportunities to practice speaking and writing.

There are many other benefits of small-group instruction. Teaching in small groups provides more opportunities for each student to respond and be heard by the teacher. Increased practice, active participation and engagement, and immediate feedback are components of effective instruction and are successfully implemented in small groups. Teachers can better differentiate reading instruction when working with a small group at times rather than the whole class all the time. Remember, small-group instruction supplements but does not replace whole-class instruction.

How Does Teaching Reading in Small Groups Align with the Science of Reading?

The science of reading includes structured and systematic instruction in the essential components of literacy development, detailed below. Instruction on these essential skills, while applying the features of effective instruction in small groups, supports learning in all contexts and is essential for striving readers.

Phoneme Awareness

Reading instruction needs to begin in kindergarten and first grade at the phoneme level. Teachers screen students to determine their level of phoneme awareness, such as the ability to identify the initial, final, and medial phonemes (sounds) in words. By playing with words and sounds and using multisensory techniques, such as writing the graphemes (letters) while saying the phonemes, students develop the awareness required to read and spell. Learning to segment and blend individual phonemes in words is a prerequisite skill for becoming competent readers. (Honig, 2018; Hougen & Smartt, 2020; Smartt & Glaser, 2024).


Decoding effortlessly is the goal of learning to read. Instruction begins with learning letter sounds and names and evolves to the alphabetic phase, when students can blend and segment phonemes and know the graphemes that represent the phonemes (Ehri, 2005). Orthographic mapping refers to the automatic recognition of words, in which almost every word is a sight word, a word one can read accurately and quickly. The most important aspect of phonics is to teach the letters and sounds systematically and sequentially, from easier (consonants, frequently used vowels and patterns), to more challenging concepts (syllable types, high-frequency irregular words, morphemes). Most reading programs provide a systematic and sequential order to teach phonics.

Note: It is important that the teacher pronounces the grapheme sounds accurately and clearly. For example, there should be no schwa sound after any letter sounds: it is /b/, not /buh/. Several online resources model the correct pronunciation of the sounds, including Reading Rockets.

Vocabulary, Fluency, and Comprehension

Some students may require small-group instruction in vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. However, these areas also can be addressed effectively in larger groups or with partners. Vocabulary should be taught all day in all content areas, using effective strategies, such as direct instruction, using words often, attention to meanings, and deliberate practice. Fluency largely depends on developing basic phonics skills and orthographic awareness, and it addresses reading accurately and quickly, supporting reading comprehension. If a student does not reach a level of accurate and fluent reading, comprehension is compromised, and additional assessments should be administered to determine what specific skills the student needs to master.

Oral Language Development

Oral language development at the youngest ages supports comprehension skills. When beginning reading, students learn to determine if a passage makes sense, starting at the sentence level. More advanced skills include knowing who or what a passage is about and what is important about those key elements. Learning to summarize the content of a passage is a challenging and necessary skill. Listening and language skills generalize to reading comprehension skills when decoding skills are effortless.

Note: It is important to look closely at assessment data to understand if comprehension skills should be the focus of targeted instruction and interventions. Some assessments for students in the upper grades do not assess specific phonics skills. However, phonics instruction and word study may still be needed by older students. For example, when data suggest comprehension skill deficits, additional diagnostic data on phonics skill development is useful. The research evidence concludes that lack of proficiency in phonics and decoding hinders improvements in fluency and comprehension.

Most reading programs include myriad resources to teach these skills. Most importantly, teachers must know which students need what skills so that they can provide targeted, systematic instruction in small groups and thus address the individual needs of each student.

How Do You Group Students for Small-Group Reading Instruction?

One of the most important components of small-group instruction is grouping students based on assessment data. Students are grouped based on their need more intensive instruction on the same skills. Screening assessments, including curriculum-based measures (CBMs), are often sufficient to plan how to group students and to identify which students may need additional diagnostic assessments to determine exactly what skills to target. When creating small groups and planning for intensive instruction, a data-based individualization (DBI) process can be used (Lemons et al., 2014). Progress monitoring, collecting data every two to six weeks, depending on the instructional tier, is essential to determine if the instruction is effective for each student. As the students master the targeted skill(s), the group may be reconfigured, thus the term flexible grouping (See Gersten, 2008 and Smartt & Glaser, 2024 for suggestions and examples of assessments).

Small-Group Reading Strategies: Features of Effective Instruction

Small-group instruction allows teachers to implement the features of effective instruction—strategies that improve the achievement of all students (Hougen & Smartt, 2020; Archer & Hughes, 2010; Hougen, 2020).

  1. Promote Active Student Engagement and Participation: Students give answers individually, as a group, or to a partner, and each student is heard by the teacher. The more active students are, the more they attend, participate, and learn.
  2. Explicit Instruction with Modeling: Teachers explicitly model the targeted skill. One common practice is “I do, we do, you do.” The teacher models the skill (I do), students join the teacher and practice the skill together (we do), and then the students practice the skill independently (you do).
  3. Systematic Instruction with Scaffolding: The teacher follows a sequence of instruction, providing scaffolding as needed. Examples of scaffolding include teaching skills in a specific order (e.g., easier to harder), breaking the task into smaller parts, and providing more examples and models.
  4. Multiple Opportunities for Students to Respond and Practice and Receive Feedback: The teacher provides multiple opportunities for students to respond and practice new skills. The teacher also provides immediate, corrective, and affirmative feedback. Students need to practice the new skill to make their learning permanent (Archer, 2010).
  5. Frequent Progress Monitoring: Teachers assess the students to determine the effectiveness of the skills instruction. The assessment should measure a targeted skill. Options for progress monitoring include informal assessments such as observation and formal, reliable, and valid progress monitoring tools (see Academic Progress Monitoring Tools Chart from the National Center on Intensive Intervention), as well as curriculum-based measurement (CBMs). Some reliable progress monitoring assessments are completed in little time, such as listening to a student read for one minute to evaluate their rate, accuracy, and expression.

Download our resource “From Good Teacher to Great Teacher” to read more about the features of effective instruction.

Planning for Small-Group Reading

When incorporating small-group reading strategies into your classroom, remember to have patience with yourself and your students. In the primary grades, it could take several weeks to establish a routine that incorporates small-group instruction strategies. Students are taught how to work in pairs, small groups, and independently while the teacher is working with the small group. Each element of this independent time must be anticipated and taught. For example, students can be taught how to work in assigned centers, when and how to ask for help from another student or the teacher, and what to do when they finish a task. Every aspect of classroom management must be addressed.

Given what research tells us about the benefits, it is well worth the time to incorporate small-group instruction. We have included additional resources below to support small-group reading instruction and planning.

Suggested Websites for Research, Instructional Strategies, and Student Materials

Florida Center for Reading Research

International Dyslexia Association Structured Literacy

The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk

National Center on Intensive Intervention

Reading Rockets

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


To experience the benefits of small-group instruction in reading, HMH Into Reading, our literacy program for Grades K–6 that provides everything teachers need to facilitate systematic small-group instruction.


Learn more about our science of reading curriculum, an evidence-based approach to teaching a child to read. Plus, ensure teachers have the tools they need to build proficient readers through our science of reading professional development.


Archer, A. L., & Hughes, C. A. (2010). Explicit instruction: Effective and efficient teaching. Guilford Publications.

Ehri, L. C. (2005). Learning to read words: Theory, findings, and issues. Scientific Studies of Reading, 9(2), 167–188.

Elbaum, B., Vaughn, S., Hughes, M., & Moody, S. W. (1999). Grouping practices and reading outcomes for students with disabilities. Exceptional children, 65(3), 399–415.

Fuchs, D., Fuchs, L. S., Mathes, P. G., & Simmons, D. C. (1997). Peer-assisted learning strategies: Making classrooms more responsive to diversity. American Educational Research Journal, 34(1), 174–206.

Gersten, R., Baker, S. K., Shanahan, T., Linan-Thompson, S., Collins, P., & Scarcella, R. (2007). Effective Literacy and English Language Instruction for English Learners in the Elementary Grades. IES Practice Guide. NCEE 2007–4011. What Works Clearinghouse.

Gersten, R., Compton, D., Connor, C. M., Dimino, J., Santoro, L., Linan-Thompson, S., & Tilly, W. D. (2009). Assisting students struggling with reading: Response to Intervention and multi-tier intervention for reading in the primary grades. A practice guide (NCEE 2009–4045). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education.

Gersten, R., Haymond, K., Newman-Gonchar, R., Dimino, J., & Jayanthi, M. (2020). Meta-analysis of the impact of reading interventions for students in the primary grades. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 13(2), 401–427.

Honig, B., Diamond, L., & Gutlohn, L. (2018). Teaching Reading Sourcebook. Consortium on Reading Excellence. Novato, CA: Arena Press.

Hougen, M. (2020). From good teacher to great teacher. In HMH Into Reading’s Foundational Skills and Word Study Studio (xv–xvi). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Hougen, M. & Smartt, S. (2020). Critical Components of Teaching Structured Reading. In Hougen, M. & Smartt, S. Fundamentals of Literacy Instruction & Assessment, Pre-K–6. 2nd Ed. (pp. 19–33). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Kosanovich, M., Ladinsky, K., Nelson, L., & Torgesen, J. (2007). Differentiated Reading Instruction: Small Group Alternative Lesson Structures for All Students. Guidance Document for Florida “Reading First” Schools. Florida Center for Reading Research.

Lebensburger, A. (2023). Understanding MTSS, PBIS, and RTI in education. Shaped. Retrieved April 12, 2024, from

Lemons, C. J., Kearns, D. M., & Davidson, K. A. (2014). Data-Based Individualization in Reading: Intensifying Interventions for Students with Significant Reading Disabilities. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 46(4), 20–29.

Smartt, S. M., Glaser, D. R. (2024). Next STEPS in Literacy Instruction; Connecting Assessments to Effective Interventions, 2nd Edition. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Smith, H. H. & James, S. (2020). Moving Forward: The Role of Reflection in Planning Literacy Instruction. In Hougen, M. & Smartt, S. Fundamentals of Literacy Instruction & Assessment 2nd Ed., (pp. 332–349). Baltimore, MD: Paul Brookes Publishing Company.

Vaughn, S., Gersten, R., & Chard, D. J. (2000). The underlying message in LD intervention research: Findings from research syntheses. Exceptional children, 67(1), 99–114.

Vaughn, S., Hughes, M. T., Moody, S. W., & Elbaum, B. (2001). Grouping students who struggle with reading. Reading Rockets. Retrieved March, 2024, from

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