Effective group work in the classroom comes when teachers have a specific purpose, supported by the right resources.
On Episode 77 of The Teacher’s Toolkit for Literacy hosted by Sharon Callen, leading educator Diane Snowball talked about the best methods for grouping students according to their needs and providing the best learning opportunities.
Planning group work for a specific purpose
Teachers shouldn’t get stuck in the trap of making group work just a weekly routine. Instead, it needs to have a specific purpose and provide students with an entry point into strategies and learnings that the rest of the class are engaging in.
“I actually think it’s the planning that sometimes gets in the way. You know, there’ll be a permanent plan, rather than thinking about what you are trying to achieve with your students and what would be the best way to do that. And the extreme of that will be when a teacher has rotation activities. So they’ll plan the week, think about dividing the class up into groups, and one day put some students with a group while the others do the other planned activities, and then that just rotates through the week. So when you get yourself locked into that sort of planning, it’s not necessarily going to be very effective for the children’s needs,” Diane said.
“So there has to be a purpose for pulling a particular group of students together. And then you need to decide, well, who are those students? How do I know that? And what will I do in that small group time that’s going to support them? What is it they’ve missed out on, that they need?
“So your general planning might include, even on a daily basis, that you’re going to do some whole class work, and then you are going to have some time for groups. And even when you do that, you’ve got to think about what will the other kids be doing that’s really worthwhile, or it could be a waste of their time.”
Taking time to notice student learning
Having the time and ability to notice student behaviours and learning will ensure the right groups can be formed for a particular reason.
“To have our eyes on students at all times, whether it’s during our explicit modelling of strategies or independent practice, is so important. You can’t really make proper decisions about your small group work until the students are doing something independently and you’re able to observe how they’re all going,” Diane said.
“With reading, the most effective time for that is going to be your reading conferences during independent practice. And it could be to find out how they’re going with what you’ve modelled, but you can also find out other things about your students that may have nothing to do with what you’ve been currently modelling. And so then you are keeping some sort of record, and from that you can say, well these students need more help with this aspect of reading.
“So in fact, at the beginning of the year, it probably means there’s very little group work that you can do, unless you know enough about your students to really know who would be better off in groups. Even at the start of their first year at school, if you were aware of perhaps which students have not been read to at home, then after shared reading you could move into small group work, which would allow the students to make comments and ask questions much more than they would if it was the whole class.
“And you might say, well I already know from interviews about their lives in preschool that those kids are going to benefit from group work. But unless information’s been passed on from the year before, then you will need to start doing some work with your students and noticing them. So it might be several weeks into the school year before you actually know what those groups are.”
Selecting resources for a group
The purpose of a group session will guide the resources, texts and authors that educators select to support the teachings.
“The last thing you need is a book of activities or some sort of program that presumes that all they need is this, but that may not be what the whole group needs. So, when you work with a specific group, you’ve got more chance of selecting the right sort of (tantalising) text to help them. And because you know their specific needs, it can be a text that will actually help them work at this,” Diane said.
“Say with comprehension strategies, you could just say these kids have weak comprehension. But what’s causing that? So you need to dig deeper and find out which strategy they’re struggling with, whether it’s the vocabulary or the fluency. Then, you can select the right material to read that will help them.
“For example, I might find a group of kids in my class who don’t visualise when they read. So I’m thinking now, what sort of text would enable lots of kids to visualise? And in fact, I find a lot of poetry enables visualising. So I’m looking for something very descriptive that I might read aloud to them, because some of them might be able to read it independently, but some might not.
“So it can be all different kinds of things. It might even be some kids are not reading enough non-fiction and we need to work on that as a group and look at how you read non-fiction and make sure you’ve got some non-fiction books to read to practise.”
Enabling students to transfer group work into their own
While some teachers can struggle with getting students to transfer learnings from their group work into their own work, Diane said a solution is to begin a session by informing students why they’ve been grouped together.
“I’ll tell them that I’ve decided to work on that together because you all have the same sort of need. And quite often I’ll even say, I’ve chosen this text because it will help us work on that. So I’m letting them in on the whole deal – the truth behind what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how the whole reason is so that they can do it independently,” she said.
“And at the end of the session, I’ll say, now how will you be able to use this to help your reading? And we might even specifically look at, let’s say if they do have their own book boxes, we could look in their book boxes and say, well you have to make sure you’ve got something in there to read that will actually help you work on what we’re working at.
“So if I’ve got a group of kids who are having trouble writing dialogue, then I want to pull them together with some books written by authors who write a lot of dialogue. I’ll say, let’s investigate how those writers do that and why they do it. Do they always tell us who is speaking? And if they don’t, how are they able to get away with that? And it’s much easier to do that in a small group and then to have them go back to where they’re trying to write dialogue and have a go at it in their own writing. But again, I would say, I’ve noticed you are having trouble with this. Let’s investigate it, And then let’s see how you go at trying that in your own writing. So there’s that follow through and that transfer is going to happen.
“It’s not not just, well here’s a session, but they don’t even know why. I find that, even though you’ve done this work and you know the reason you’ve done it is for transfer, if you don’t tell that to some kids, they don’t realise that’s why you’re doing it. So we’ve got to be very explicit about those sorts of things.”
Join our literacy community on Facebook.