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Simple Steps to Effectively Group Students for Small Groups

At the beginning of the school year, teachers are usually busy buzzing around their classroom getting everything ready so students can efficiently move around the room. When students come into our classroom, we work on routines and expectations at first. However, there comes a time when we need to start using small group instruction. Before you start small group instruction, you have to effectively group students. 

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Why Use Small Group Instruction? 

Small group instruction is an effective tool for all teachers to use in their classrooms. In small group instruction, you can focus on the needs of just a few students which makes it easier to differentiate. This is also true for creating groups for centers. However, that all depends on how you decide to group your students. 

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To Effectively Group Students, BEWARE of the Label 

Many teachers (myself included) like to group their students by their reading level. Now, that’s fine. However, when you do this, your students are going to figure it out because your books are usually color coded by level. Once students figure out who is struggling, it can cause bullying. You could always just pull your struggling students back to work with during small group instruction, but again, your students will figure this out quickly. If they don’t feel like they are “better” because they aren’t struggling, they might think you don’t like them because you never call them back to your teacher table. 

So, how do we combat having these “labels” put on students? We effectively group students using these various techniques. 

Use Your Data! 

I know when I say use your data to effectively group students, you might all be thinking, didn’t you just tell me to beware of what groups this would create? Yes, I did. However, you don’t just have to reach for your students’ test scores from the previous year or for the assessment you gave them at the start of school. Instead, ask yourself some of the following questions: 

  • Why am I grouping these students? 
  • What’s my learning goal?
  • What are my students’ academic levels?
  • What are the students’ needs?
  • What are their weaknesses? 
  • What kind of personality do they have? 

While academic success can be a good way to group students, it isn’t the ONLY thing you should reach for. Your personal observations are going to be far more accurate than a snapshot test given at the end of the last school year. 

Effectively Group Students by Documenting

Once you have gathered some data, write down what you know about all the students. You can consider this a little social media profile you have to effectively group students? I personally like to use notecards to group my students because you can easily move them around like you're a judge on America’s Got Talent. Now that you have all the data in front of you, you can decide HOW you’re going to group your students. 

Use Academic Level 

While you want to be careful how you present this because you don’t want to cause friction or animosity in your classroom, it can be an effective way to group your students. You can use your students' scores from a standardized test. Another form of assessment you can use is a diagnostic you gave them at the beginning of the year. For example, if you gave your students a reading assessment, you can group them in that range. 


Now, I know what I said before about labeling. It can be bad. However, it does make my small group reading instructruction more effective because many of my lower level students have the same deficits. While it makes my life easier, that stigma we talked about before can become a problem. There are a few ways I combat this label. One way is to change the order I see my groups in.  Another way is to take an activity from a higher level group and differentiate it for my lower level group. 

Effectively Group Students by Finding Common Ground

Another way you can effectively group students is to take a poll at the beginning of the year and find what their interests or strengths are. By doing this, you can group students together that have similar strengths or you can group students together who have complementary strengths. For example, if you have one student who is great at comprehension and understanding the text and another who is great at writing, you can group these two students together so they can help each other grow in their weaker areas. 


Group Students Flex Style 

Using this style of grouping is all about being flexible and moving students around based on their needs. Now, this is my preferred method. However, it is not for everyone. I like to use this because I am not always teaching the same skills in my small group instruction. Therefore, my groups can’t always stay the same because my students' skills fluctuate. While this can be overly complicated, it doesn’t have to be if you keep it stinkin’ simple. I sit down and look at what I will be focusing on every week in my small groups. This might be a standard from math or literacy centers that are easy to see using the table of content provided. Then, I move my students around as needed based first on academic level. Then, if I need to do some rearranging for group size, I will do that too. 


I prefer this method because students are not one size fits all in terms of their ability. Plus, it gives you the ability to switch things up a little bit so students can never create that label. Sometimes the flexible grouping has to happen because of a personality conflict. When this happens, I always move a student down to a lower level so they aren’t struggling in their group. I have also put my higher level students in a lower level group so they can help push their fellow classmates further. 

If you are using my Centers Made Easy Framework, you’re going to want to wait to use this flexible grouping style until your students have a firm grasp on center procedures in your classroom.

So Which Grouping Method is Best? 

It’s not easy to effectively group your students because it’s never going to be the same! While I love the flexible grouping method, this isn’t going to work every single year. I suggest to always start by looking at the academics and then go from there. Trust your teacher instincts and if it’s not working, don’t be afraid to pivot. 

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As you get started with your small group instruction this year, there are a million ways to effectively group students. I told you a few of my tried and true ways that worked for me. However, this is in no way an exhaustive list. While my methods worked for me, you might have to put your own twist on them to make them fit your group dynamics. Above all, trust those teacher instincts and never be afraid to make a change. As long as you do those two things, you’ll effectively group students. 

Until Next Time Keep Being Educational Rock Stars 

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