How to Modernize and Reimagine K-12 Small Group Instruction

Reimagine K-12 Small Group-min

In today’s classrooms, educators face a constant challenge: differentiate instruction to meet the needs of a diverse group of students. Small group instruction has emerged as a popular solution, promising a way to provide more individualized attention. However, many uncertainties remain:

  • How can we effectively integrate this structure into our lessons?
  • Should small group instruction completely replace whole-group instruction?
  • How do we balance using small groups with the ever-increasing demands of state standards?

The key to unlocking the true potential of small groups lies in a crucial shift in perspective. Instead of viewing them as a rigid schedule or organizational tool, we must recognize them for what they truly are: a strategic approach to learning.

Effective small group instruction implementation hinges on aligning small groups with specific learning goals and the individual needs of students within each lesson. This adaptability is paramount. Planning for small groups becomes a fluid process, responsive to the ongoing needs of your class.

There’s no pressure to force daily or weekly small group activities – the power lies in using them strategically when they can have the most significant impact. This flexibility empowers teachers to make instructional decisions according to where students will derive the most benefit. 

What Does Small Group Instruction Look Like? Common Structures

Imagine the last five times you utilized small groups in a lesson or observed five teachers using the organizational structure. What did those groups look like? Most likely, the groups were organized in one of two ways:

  1. Station Rotation: A popular structure among many educators, station rotations set up a series of activities for students to progress through aligned with the lesson’s learning objectives. Students may complete these stations collaboratively or independently. The teacher monitors students’ progress and provides feedback as needed, if not directly conferencing with students. Often observed in secondary classrooms, students can take greater responsibility and ownership of learning.
  2. Teacher-Directed / Student-Led Groups: Students meet with a teacher for small group instruction or intervention and then spend the time away from the teacher participating in other activities, such as adaptive review (online) or sustained silent reading. The teacher leads the small group lesson while monitoring the other students or enlists the aid of a resource teacher or second classroom teacher. This method is frequently observed in elementary classrooms, where teachers strive to meet their younger students’ wide range of needs.

On the surface, small groups seem like a promising way to promote better student learning outcomes. After all, smaller settings increase the likelihood of more support, attention, and opportunities for feedback. However, many in education have pointed out that small groups pose a challenge for student learning: time away from the teacher. 

Whole Class vs Small Groups

As explained by Timothy Shanahan in his article, “Should Reading Be Taught Whole Class or Small Group,” Shanahan makes the salient point that small groups often fail to measure up to the amount of time and learning students receive in whole group instruction.

He argues that small groups are ineffective as a permanent daily structure, where groups meet regardless of whether there is a purpose to warrant it, which may yield a loss of valuable instructional time.  Another challenge is planning proper differentiation for students across all these rotations and groups. The core of differentiation is anticipating where students will struggle and ensuring that a scaffold or more accessible option is provided while maintaining the grade level learning expectation. This type of planning is complex and made all the more difficult when daily differentiation for multiple groups is required. It’s no wonder that small groups often start to become stagnant, without much change in their organization or tasks, as teachers try to keep up with the amount of planning needed for this level of differentiation.

3 Small Group Benefits and Purposes

As a classroom teacher, how can we overcome these challenges? It starts with recognizing that there are multiple purposes for small groups. These include:

  1. Small Group Learning
  2. Small Group Instruction
  3. Small Group Intervention

1. Small Group Learning

Focused on facilitating flexible instruction, groups are comprised of 2-4 students, with the intention that students collaborate and add to one another’s learning. This may be a quick activity, such as a Think-Pair-Share, or it may be used to structure students’ interdependence through a Jigsaw or Partner Reading. These groups leverage learning best when used throughout daily instruction.

Small Group Learning Example: Secondary Math

  • NC.M1.A-REI.3 – Solve linear equations and inequalities in one variable. 
  • NC.M1.A-CED.1 – Create equations and inequalities in one variable that represent linear, exponential, and quadratic relationships and use them to solve problems. 
GroupLearning Goal Activity Prompt
VocabularyExplain the difference between equations & inequalities Provide a set of cards for each student to sort and classify into two groups: equations and inequalities. Students will partner to discuss the key differences between them.
Error Analysis and Writing JustificationJustify correct steps and solutions for equations and inequalities Students are given a set of solved equations and inequalities, some with correct justifications, some with incorrect justifications. Evaluate the steps and solutions presented. With a partner, discuss the logic and reasoning behind each step, and determine if the solutions are accurate. For each incorrect solution, write to justify the correct steps and solution. Partners may provide peer feedback if needed.

Notice that these activities build interdependence between students, where their learning is deepened and improved because of their collaboration and accountability in learning. 

2. Small Group Instruction

Focused on the differentiation of key skills aligned with a lesson’s learning goals, such as writing, language study, progress monitoring, and fluency. Students may be grouped during a learning activity to provide additional support. These groups are all working toward the same activity and learning goal as other students, but their tasks are adjusted to make them more accessible. Differentiation may not be necessary for every learning activity, so these groups are not provided as part of daily instruction.

Small Group Instruction Example: Secondary Science

  • SC.8.N.1.2. Design and conduct a study using repeated trials and replication. 
  • N.1.3. Use phrases such as “results support” or “fail to support” in science, understanding that science does not offer conclusive ‘proof’ of a knowledge claim. (Assessed as S.C.8.N.1.1)
GroupLearning Goal Activity Prompt
WritingWrite to justify claims from an informational science text. On Level: Read through the articles and identify specific claims; focus on the key claims within the text. After identifying the claims, students should individually or collaboratively write justifications for these claims; use appropriate scientific language, and provide evidence to support their justifications. Have students within the group review each other’s justifications. Discuss the strengths and areas for improvement in the justifications. More Support: Provide students with a pre-selected informational text with clear and concise claims highlighted. This could be done by the teacher or collaboratively within the class. Offer a graphic organizer with sections for each claim, justification prompt questions, and space for evidence from the text. The questions might include:What is the claim?Why do you think the author makes this claim?What specific details from the text support this claim? (Provide sentence starters like “The text says…” or “According to the passage…”)
More Challenge: After completing the On Level activity, assign students to do a Peer Review. Provide a rubric and a checklist with specific criteria for evaluating justifications. A checklist might include questions such as:  Is the claim clearly identified?Is the justification well-written and easy to understand?Does the evidence accurately support the claim?Are there alternative explanations considered?

Notice in the example that the tasks are similar, and all align to the same learning goal. The differentiation is in providing levels of access for students.

3. Small Group Intervention

Focused on meeting the individual learning needs of students, this teacher-led group meets to offer specific instructional support, such as Previewing, Remediation, or Reading Comprehension. As interventions are provided strategically, such as Previewing happening before a lesson begins or Remediation after students complete the lesson assessment, these groups will not need to meet as part of daily instruction.

Small Group Intervention Example: Elementary Reading

  • RL.K.3: With prompting and support, identify characters, settings, and major events in a story.
  • W.K.3: Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to narrate a single event or several loosely linked events, tell about the events in the order in which they occurred, and provide a reaction to what happened.
GroupLearning Goal Activity Prompt
Reading ComprehensionExplain the sequence of events in a storyAfter teaching a whole group lesson on sequence, students receive support according to their proficiency prior to the lesson assessment:Options for students who are learning sequence:Arrange pictures (3 or 4 pictures) in the correct order and add labelsAdd another beginning or end, or middle event to the sequence they are givenOptions for students who are struggling:Give students the first event and they have to put the other 2 in the correct orderGive them 3 pictures in a sequence and they have to create the last event

Notice in the example that the intervention is provided to two groups of students: those who are learning and need more practice and those who are struggling and need greater levels of support. These are not remedial assignments, as they happen before students are independently assessed at the end of the lesson.

Choosing Your Small Group Approach

After building an understanding of the purposes, the next step is to consider what these will look like in your content area and grade level. Use this chart during planning to help you determine how to best incorporate Small Groups into your lessons:

Planning ConsiderationsSmall Group LearningSmall Group InstructionSmall Group Intervention
PurposeIs my goal to promote collaboration and build on ideas?Do students need differentiated instruction for specific skills?Do students require targeted support to meet individual learning needs?
Grouping StrategyMixed abilities to promote collaboration and flexible instructionSimilar abilities to provide differentiation for student-centered, grade level activitiesTargeted, teacher-led support for students in need of instruction on the lesson’s Learning Goals
FrequencyUse frequently throughout daily instructionUse strategically when differentiation is needed for more complex Learning Goals in a lessonUse strategically based on individual student needs (e.g., previewing before a lesson, remediation after assessment). May meet outside of whole-group instruction.
ExampleIf teaching a lesson on adding and subtracting three-digit problems, use a Think-Ink-Share to share strategies: “There are many ways to solve addition and subtraction problems with three-digit numbers. Think about the strategies you already know for solving two-digit problems. Can you explain how you can apply those strategies to three-digit problems? Write down at least two different strategies you could use to solve three-digit addition and subtraction problems. Then, share your ideas with a partner.”If the goal is for students to improve their conventions and mechanics when writing a persuasive essay, students may be grouped by targeted skills:

Sentence fluency and word choice: Guide this group in brainstorming strong verbs, vivid adjectives, and transition words to enhance sentence fluency and overall writing style. Provide sentence starters or graphic organizers to help them scaffold their sentences within the writing activity.Grammar and mechanics: Review key grammar and mechanics concepts relevant to the writing activity (e.g., comma usage, subject-verb agreement). Provide them with a checklist of common grammar and mechanics errors to reference while writing.
If Previewing before a lesson on mitosis and meiosis, provide students with compare and contrast support for this goal. 
Introduce the Anchor Chart: Explain that it’s a visual tool for learning about mitosis and meiosis. 
Review Key Words: Pre-write “mitosis” and “meiosis” on the chart. Review vocabulary (cell division, chromosomes, daughter cells, etc.).
Similarities Brainstorm: Ask what they know about cell division. List their ideas under “Similarities” on the chart.
Differences Prediction: Explain mitosis and meiosis have differences. Ask them to predict the differences. List their predictions under “Differences” on the chart.

Ideas for Where to Begin

In many elementary schools, teachers are expected to use small groups to provide targeted, teacher-led support for specific learning needs. As this is similar to Small Group Intervention, they may want to refine their current practices or layer another type into their lessons, such as Small Group Instruction during whole group instruction. By leaning into this purpose, elementary teachers may be able to provide more time in whole group instruction, while meeting students’ learning needs. 

For secondary teachers, Small Group Learning offers an accessible first step for anyone who has yet to try small groups during instruction. Teachers may want to begin by self-evaluating how often they use it during whole group instruction and creating action steps to increase its frequency or variety of structures. 

A Final Thought

No matter where a teacher starts with small groups, the ultimate goal is to weave all three purposes (Small Group Learning, Small Group Instruction, and Small Group Intervention) together throughout lessons. However, this should only be done if the small group work directly benefits student learning.

Remember, the teacher is the most important resource in the classroom, so small group activities should only be used when the benefits outweigh the time spent away from whole-class instruction, which remains vital for student learning.

To learn more about how to use Small Groups effectively, contact us about professional learning opportunities for your school.


Shanahan, T. (2018, April 28). Should reading be taught whole class or small group? Shanahan on Literacy.

Important Small Group Questions to Ask:

  • How much time do you typically dedicate to small group instruction?
  • What types of activities or tasks do you use during small group work?
  • How do you ensure all students within the group are actively participating?
  • What strategies do you have in place for managing the rest of the class while working with a small group?
  • How do you decide which students will work in each small group?
  • Do you vary your grouping strategies based on the learning objective?
  • How often do you regroup students?

Summary: Actions to Take

  • Consider how you can gather student feedback on their experience in small groups.
  • Plan Small Group Instruction activities during collaborative planning with similarly assigned teachers.
  • Determine how you will formatively assess students during the whole group instruction in order to determine if Small Group Instruction is needed.
  • Evaluate your current lessons for how often you use Small Group Learning. Determine where you can incorporate additional activities that promote collaboration and interdependence among students. 

Lindsey Hampton

During her 20+ years in education, Lindsey has been an elementary and secondary classroom teacher, an instructional coach, and a specialist in teacher induction. She has collaborated with teachers and administrators nationwide to develop learning partnerships that focus on evaluating and implementing High Yield Instructional Strategies. Her instructional coach and specialist background have led her to the philosophy that improvement must be viewed as a continuum, a means to refine and adapt the improvement of instructional practices continually. She has presented this theme and many others on teaching and learning at numerous conferences in FL, KY, TN, NC, and PA. Her contributions to Learning-Focused include developing new resources and workshops, providing leadership and instructional training and coaching.

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