A Sneak Peak at Re-Inventing Small Groups

Old Way, New Way

I’m off to Ohio later today to participate in this year’s Dublin Literacy Conference along with authors and educators Ralph Fletcher, Louise Borden, Kate Messner, Sara Kajder and Jarrett Krosoczka. Organized by the Dublin City Schools—where teachers, authors and A Year of Reading bloggers Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn work—the Conference’s motto is “Capture the Joy of Literacy”. And here I’m offering a sneak peak at one of the sessions I’ll be leading tomorrow on Re-Inventing Small Group Instruction in the Age of the Common Core.

At their best, I believe the Common Core Standards offer us a unique opportunity to reflect on our current practices and consider how they do—or don’t—help students become the independent thinkers, readers and meaning makers we all desperately want them to be. And as I look at some of the popular practices involving small groups in classrooms, I’m not sure I always see how they directly help students think more critically and deeply about the texts they’re reading, let alone the more complex ones the Standards expect them to read.

Comprehension StrategiesIn strategy groups, for instance, students are asked to bring their independent reading books to the group for a lesson on a particular comprehension strategy, which they are then asked to practice whether or not that strategy is needed to get more out of the particular page of the particular book each student is reading. In this way, I think we teach strategies more as habits of good readers than as tools that allow readers to dig deeper. Some strategies, in fact, like predicting and connecting, can actually pull students out of the text instead of drawing them closer. And as I looked at in a recent post, it’s possible to use a strategy like visualizing and actually miscomprehend because you haven’t attended to the textual clues needed to ensure that the movie in your head reflects the words on the page.

Beyond Word SolvingIn traditional guided reading, on the other hand, the teacher introduces the text and often offers additional supports, such as background knowledge, vocabulary, and with younger students, picture walks. Then the students are asked to read the text by themselves, with the teacher sometimes listening in to check for fluency or word-solving strategies. The students’ comprehension is then checked during the post-reading discussion—not as they read, which is, in fact, when they’re actually constructing whatever meaning they’re making of the text. In this way, traditional guided reading has us assessing our students’ comprehension instead of helping them build it beyond the word-attack level. And while the kinds of complex texts the Standards want students to read are, indeed, filled with vocabulary challenges, they put plenty of other demands on students, especially the need to infer almost everything from a character’s name or situation to the significance of imagery to the theme or author’s message.

Because of this and the vision of reading for meaning that Dorothy Barnhouse and I map out in What Readers Really Do, I like to use small groups to give students the opportunity to practice the kind of complex thinking they’ll need to engage with complex texts. And this has several implications on both what and how I plan and say in those small group settings. In terms of planning, it means that I don’t just go to the book room and pluck a text from a guided reading level bin. I look instead for texts that operate in a particular complex way that I think certain students will benefit from wrestling with. Here, for instance, is the opening page from Peggy Parish‘s No More Monsters for Me!which I recently chose for a small group of second grade students who all seemed stuck at Level J.


As you’ll see, Parish throws us into a scene without any background information, relying us to figure out exactly what’s going on. It’s a literary technique that readers frequently encounter as they read more complex books; in fact, it even has a name: in media res, which means “into the middle of things.” Here the characters are in the middle of a conversation that may have happened before (and which we, as proficient readers, might infer has something to do with pets or bringing wild creatures into the house). If we take away the supports we might provide in a typical guided reading lesson—no introduction that would reveal the main character’s name and predicament, no picture walk that would all but give away the whole arc of the story—we open the door, instead, for students to wrestle with a kind of thinking they’ll need to keep growing as readers.

In a different vein, here’s an excerpt from Tony Johnston‘s Any Small Goodness, which uses figurative language and imagery to convey the main character Arturo’s feelings and thoughts on his first day of school in America. A small group of students engaging with this passage would have the opportunity not just to identify the figurative language (which is sometimes where our instruction has ended), but to think about its possible meaning within the context of the story—i.e., what might the writer be trying to show us through her choice of similes and images. And this thinking work is directly related to the Common Core’s Anchor Reading Standard 4 and is needed to understand many complex texts.

Any Small Goodness Excerpt
Mindset-Fixed-vs-GrowthIn terms of implementation—the how—I combine  Peter Johnston and Carol Dweck‘s ideas about the importance of helping students develop growth- or effort-based mind-sets with the notion of ‘productive struggle,’ which is becoming increasingly popular in math. Both Johnston and Dweck have concluded that we serve students best when we allow them to see what they can accomplish through effort and hard work rather than relying on innate talent or intelligence. This means that we must create opportunities for students to potentially succeed through hard work and effort, which is the basis for the productive struggle approach in math, which sets students up to problem solve with a minimum of modeling or guidance.

Importing these ideas into small literacy groups means letting students wrestle with the texts I’ve chosen specifically for their problem solving opportunities with as little intervention as possible—until the end when I wrap up the lesson by naming for them what they were able to do and how. For the second graders reading No More Monsters for Me! that meant not only figuring out what the mother and daughter were fighting about (which they inferred from the word ‘yelled’) but what the words ‘Minneapolis Simpkin’ referred to. It took them six pages, much conversation and much poring over the text to reach a consensus about both of those, but along with way they learned many things about how texts operate. And they left the group with a sense of accomplishment that I believe will help them enormously grow and develop as readers.

Deep Thinker Fortune Cookie

22 thoughts on “A Sneak Peak at Re-Inventing Small Groups

  1. Wow, Vicki! This is an awesome description of not just the process of grouping, and the instructional “goal” (a deep dive and supported struggle to build meaning-making), but also the theoretical “why” for doing it (the Dweck – Johnston connection.) This unrepentant big-picture “why-guy” really loves that theoretical part!

    I am so jealous that you will be in Dublin (OH). I’m a huge fan of Franki and Mary Lee, and wished I could be there. I’ve never met them (or you!) but have benefited so much from all of your work. Thank you. Have fun. And bring back stories to tell.

    • FYI: I’ll also be presenting at a one-day institute that Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris have organized for the I.R.A. convention in San Antonio this April, along with Dorothy Barnhouse, Mary Lee Hahn (whom I met for the first time in person in Ohio) and Barry Lane. I have no idea whether you could get your district to spring for something like that, but I’m sure we’d all love to meet you, too!

      • Thanks for the information! This sounds like an “all-star” cast. I love Barry Lane’s work, too. During a recent Iowa Writing Project Summer Session, one of my self-selected projects was a close look at some of Lane’s work! You’re right, though, a trip to San Antonio probably won’t be in my future…sigh. I get to do maybe one like that every other year or three. The CCSS are taking up all of the away-from-the-class time, and only for local (Iowa) trips. Not quite San Antone; not much traffic, either. 🙂

        On a serious note, I’m really fortunate to be teaching at a time when so much good thinking and conversation (like your blog) are available to teachers even in the hinterlands. (Though narrow, sclerotic, and parsimonious the intertubz reach this far!) Burkins and Yaris are talking about feeding the teacher soul this week. That is so much easier to do now than even five years ago. Reading is one thing, but writing and talking are (at least) two more!

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  3. I have about 4 boys who arent thinking about their reading, at all. Do you or anyone have any good suggestions of books for fourth grade boys to get them thinking? It seems easy to find books for girls…thanks. Also, upon reflecting about these boys, I am thinking now is the time to do a bit more modeling here.But without leading their thinking….help. Thanks.

    • Fourth grade, right, Sherry? I guess the first question is, are they enjoying what they’re reading because I think that has to come before anything. If they are enjoying something—Time Warp Trio, Flat Stanley, Geronimo Stilton, whatever it is—the first step could be to get them anticipating more or making text-based hunches that keep their thinking ahead of the characters (sort of like solving the mystery before the detective in a mystery). If they’re just going through the motions or pretending to read, you might want to take a look at a list like this that is specifically targeted for boys: http://odysseybks.blogspot.com/2010/03/book-recommendations-for-3rd-4th-grade.html. To move beyond those books, you could look at something like Suzanne Collins (of The Hunger Games fame) Gregor the Overlander, the first in The Underlander Chronicle series, which has a character that develops and changes and grow while have all sorts of fantasy adventures. And two issue-driven realistic fiction books that I’ve done with 4th grade boys are J.T. by Jane Wagoner and The Jacket by Andrew Clemens. These both look at social issues (stealing, peer pressure & bigotry), which kids often have lots of thoughts about, and both have boy protagonists. Me being me, I’d be tempted to do the first page or two in a small group and invite them to go slowly and figure things out (like I did with the 2nd graders). They might just need to be hooked by both the book and a sense that they can ‘see’ more if they go a bit slower. And I’d definitely invite them to read the same book so they can talk about it.

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  5. Oh, how I wish that I could have been in BOTH of your sessions at DubLitCon! It was fabulous to meet you, and I’m sort of getting goosebumps because I came over here straight from Steve Peterson’s blog! Man, would it be amazing to sit at a post-conference dinner table with BOTH of you!

    Off to re-imagine what I’m doing with small group work…

    • Hello Mary Lee! It was so wonderful to meet you, too! And thanks so much for the post on the conferring session! I tried to entice Steve to come to San Antonio but I think there’s no funds available from his district for that kind of trip. But he’s doing such amazing work, and I think we’ve both kept each other going in these challenging times. NYC’s Department of Ed just announced that they’re ‘recommending’ two ELA packaged programs—i.e.,basals, one of which is from Pearson—for next year, and no one knows how much pressure they’ll put on schools to adopt them and abandon balanced literacy and workshop altogether. Ugh! But it did make me appreciate the Dublin schools all the more—and the priceless network of colleagues online that work so hard to keep real reading alive.

      • Hi Vicki,

        I will be at that institute! I know Kim and Jan a bit. So looking forward to a day with all of you and so happy Mary Lee will be there, too!! Did you read my posts on Tomasen’s blog? I am beyond upset about the NYC adoptions and hope that they do allow choice. And workshop! Did you see the NYTimes article about problems with reading in Mexico on my wall and my comments? I found it thanks to Jane Yolen. YOu might want to take a look. It is really something. Where are you located Steve? (I’m Janet Clare on FB)

      • Between my work load and the new NYC DOE ‘recommendations,’ Janet, I’m afraid I’m behind on my blog reading & responding, but I actually did catch that NY Times pieces on Mexico, which seemed to speak volumes about the US as well and what we’re actually preparing children for. I’ve also just caught up with the TC and Balanced Literacy bashing that’s started in the wake of NYC’s decision—which I hope won’t have a negative effect on our turn-out in San Antonio where I’m very much looking forward to seeing you, too. I think the bottom line is that any program—whether it’s Pearson or TC—is problematic if it doesn’t provide time for teachers to deeply understand and own what they’re being asked to teach in ways that also invites them to revise and make critical decisions based on both that deep understanding of the content and their understanding of their students. But no one’s giving teachers enough time to do that these days, which is such a shame.

      • Janet,
        (Sorry to clutter your blog space, Vicki!) Great to meet you via Vicki’s blog and Burkins and Yaris, too. Who and where am I? I live in hilly northeast Iowa, otherwise known as the Switzerland of Iowa. 🙂 I’m just a regular ol’ third grade teacher who likes to think and has discovered a wonderful community. I’ve learned so much from Vicki’s work and very much appreciate the way she generously shares her thinking with others like me via this blog! 🙂 Best to you, Janet! Jealous of your trip to S.A.

      • No worries about cluttering blog space. This is a bit like throwing a dinner party with great conversation but no dirty dishes!

  6. Oh my. Our district is using Pearson next year because the price was just too good to pass up (really?). I got to go to the big overview meeting. There is one component that I think might be ok…this type of magazine called Sleuth that has quick, mostly non-fiction reads. I am hoping that this piece will benefit the kids and be something they can get into.

  7. I love the idea of “productive struggle” because it lets kids construct their own meanings and gives them confidence. I work with young students who struggle with reading, and I’ve read so much about using explicit instruction for kids who struggle. I feel that my struggling students also deserve the chance to grapple with meaning, but I think they also need explicit instructions sometimes. I’m just not sure when. I think a lot of depends on the text we’re reading.

    • I’m a big believer in never saying never—which means that you want to keep explicit instruction along with more constructivist approaches in your toolkit at all times. There’s some research out there that says that even if kids aren’t able to solve whatever problem they’re struggling with, they retain the experience and learning more than those who haven’t undergone that struggle. I think that means they also at that point might be more receptive to explicit instruction, so I tend to pull that move out of my toolkit after I’ve given them a chance to wrestle with whatever I’ve set them up to try. And if the text is too hard, my impulse is always to move them to a more accessible text to let them get a feeling for the thinking then step back up to the harder one to see if they can transfer the thinking, having succeeded in doing so before. That, of course, takes more time than explicit instruction does, but it ups the chances of students retaining what they’re learning and it gives them a sense of agency they can then bring to the next text.

  8. Hi Ms. Vicki,
    My school does guided reading 4 days a week and a strategy group 1 day a week. Do you have any thoughts about this? Should all guided reading be based on strategies?

    • What I’ve been recommending to teachers lately is to think of small group work as a flexible way of targeting students needs. That means that sometimes you may want to do strategy work, sometimes you may want to focus on fluency or decoding, and sometimes you may want to just let student talk about what meaning they’re making of the text. I tend to do more of the latter than the former, especially as students get older, and again and again I find that if we give students the time and space to talk about what they’re reading, they automatically reach for strategies without us explicitly needing to ask them to. That is, they reach for a connection if it will help them understand something and they’ll ask a question if they’re curious or confused. To help them see this, I do always have them read the text in chunks, and I try to name for them what they’re doing, especially if it’s let them to an ‘aha’ moment where they understand something that they hadn’t before.

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