‘Flexible & Differentiated Learning’

Jenny Vo earned her B.A. in English from Rice University and her M.Ed. in educational leadership from Lamar University. She has worked with English-learners during all of her 26 years in education and is currently the Houston area EL coordinator for International Leadership of Texas. Jenny proudly serves as the president of TexTESOL IV and works to advocate for all English-learners. She loves learning from her #PLN on Twitter so feel free to follow her @JennyVo15.

What is small-group instruction? Small-group instruction is when you teach the students in small groups ranging from 2-6 students. It usually follows whole-group instruction. There are many benefits of small-group instruction. It is effective because the teaching is focused on the needs of the students, with the goal of growing their academic skills.

Small-group instruction provides opportunities for flexible and differentiated learning. With the smaller number of students, students have more chances to participate. Teachers are able to monitor the students better, thus providing better and more individualized feedback and support. Small-group instruction can be used in all content classes and is beneficial for students of all levels.

How do you best set up and organize small groups? There are a variety of ways you can set up and organize small groups. How you do it depends on your objective and goal for the lesson or activity. Some ways you can group students include: by ability, strategy, expert/interest groups, cooperative tasks, and student choice The three setups I use the most are by ability, by strategy/skill, and by interest.

Grouping by ability: You can group your students by ability, such as by reading level or language-proficiency level. Having students of the same ability in the same group will allow the teacher to provide lessons and activities that are more focused and targeted to the needs of the students at that level. There is less pressure because the students know that they are on the same playing ground as the other group members. For English-learners at that same level, they will feel less intimidated to take chances to speak.

Grouping by strategy/skill: Strategy groups are great when you want to provide instruction on a specific skill or strategy. Let’s say you gave an assessment. Looking at the data from the assessment, you see that certain students need more instruction and practice with a certain skill or strategy. Instead of reteaching the whole class, you can group together students based on the skill they need to work on. You can have reading groups working on inferencing, main idea, or summary. You can have math groups working on multistep problems, graphing, or data analysis. Your science groups can be working on food chains/webs, force and motion, or adaptation. Strategy groups very much rely on data. Groups should be short term and should be very fluid.

Expert/interest groups: Grouping students by subject knowledge or interest is a great way to work with small groups for projects. These types of small groups are perfect for science and social studies classes. Because students are grouped based on areas of interests, they consist of students of varying ability levels. With these groups, it is best that there is a cooperative grouping structure where roles are assigned so that responsibilities are equally divided. In that way, one or two students are not doing all the work or taking over the project and not letting the others be involved. English-learners can benefit from being in this type of group because they can share their knowledge since they may know more about the topic than the other members. It also gives them opportunities to improve their language by hearing more advanced students speak.

What are the other students doing while I’m in small-group instruction? I hear this question a lot when there is discussion about implementing small groups. My answer is: They should be working on activities that you have planned where they can work by themselves, with a partner, or in a small group that will allow you to focus on the group you are working with. For the language arts block, they can be reading and responding to their reading independently or working on their writing. For math, you can set up different workstations with activities focusing on different skills for review. Workstations can also be used for science and social studies class. Giving students a menu of activities to choose from is also a very effective way to keep the rest of the class engaged while you do small groups.

If you have not implemented small-group instruction in your classroom, I encourage you to try it. You will come to see the benefits to the students with your own eyes. With anything new, do it in small steps. Try one way of grouping. Try it once a week and slowly add more time. It is a great instructional approach to add to your teaching toolbox!

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