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This module explores small-group reading and its benefits for grades 3–8. You will examine the many aspects of small-group reading: appropriate texts, small-group reading sequence, flexible grouping, and teaching for comprehension.
Small-group reading is an assisted literary experience in which the teacher supports and guides students on their instructional level before, during, and after reading. The instructional level of students is assessed through teacher observation and ongoing evaluations such as informal reading inventories. This flexible, small-group setting allows the teacher to match students’ reading abilities to appropriate reading materials, observe students’ reading behaviors, and model specific reading behaviors and strategies in context. Each small group consists of two to six students who are reading on the same level or have the same instructional need. The teacher helps students develop an understanding of the text and prompts them to apply strategies to monitor and improve their comprehension.
The goal of small-group reading is to develop independent readers who think about what they are reading and know how to use a variety of strategies to gain and maintain meaning before, during, and after reading. Small-group reading is a time for students to take on more responsibility for their learning with the teacher as a safety net. She scaffolds, supports, and challenges students’ learning through explicit use of instructional texts. Students read assigned text silently while practicing the strategy or strategies. Then they discuss their thinking, all the while becoming better readers and building confidence and self-esteem about themselves as readers.
To select appropriate texts for each group, teachers should know:
Students enjoy reading books about topics in which they are interested. They read fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and biographies. Conducting a reading survey at the beginning of the school year will help teachers learn more about their students’ interests. Teachers also need to know students’ reading strengths and weaknesses, which can be identified through informal reading inventories (IRIs). IRIs such as Flynt-Cooter, QRI-III, and DRA help teachers determine independent and instructional reading levels and specific reading behaviors.
Though often overlooked, an important factor when choosing appropriate small-group reading books is being familiar with small-group reading books on the campus. Many schools have literacy libraries or book rooms where all small-group readers are located. Teachers should take the time to become familiar with these books. Since book titles do not offer enough information as to the subject of the book or what strategies might be taught with the book, it is wise to skim as many books as possible with every book room visit. A quick way to get to know many books in a short amount of time is to split the book room into section with each teammate reviewing a different section of the room; then debrief together and talk about what was found. Ask each other questions such as: What level of books did you review? What supports and challenges did the books have? Did the book contain boldfaced words with definitions in context? What comprehension strategy could you teach with the books? Did the books have skills guides? What were the content-related topics connected with the book?
Many schools do not have a literacy library due to space. If this is the case, locate where small-group reading books are housed and become familiar with them.
Though intermediate teachers can teach fiction, the push for nonfiction is greater in the intermediate grades than it is in the primary grades. Intermediate students are learning more complex content and must acquire the necessary skills and strategies to access difficult nonfiction text. With fiction, the storyline keeps readers engaged. One part of the story leads to another part of the story and so on. With nonfiction, the connection between concepts even within the same content is often difficult for adults to grasp. For example, in science class the concept is space exploration. Within space exploration are any number of connected sub-concepts. Intermediate students do not necessarily see these connections. Using nonfiction during small group reading can assist students in seeing the concept’s bigger picture.
Many students also struggle with nonfiction vocabulary. They may learn and practice content-area vocabulary in isolation during social studies and science, but when encountered in nonfiction text, they struggle. Small-group nonfiction readers scaffold vocabulary for students within context.
Students also need practice interpreting nonfiction text features such as graphs, charts, timelines, and labeled diagrams. Teachers can plan specific small-group reading lessons for particular nonfiction text features.
A gradient of text (Fountas and Pinnell, 2001) is the ordering of books to a specific set of characteristics. Gradient means ascending or descending in a consistent way so that each gradient is defined in relation to each other. As the gradient increases, text becomes more difficult. As the gradient decreases, text becomes easier. Many companies identify each level of gradient with a letter, others use a number, and others use both. Some companies simply correlate their books to grade levels. For example, Benchmark Education Companyâ„¢ has the following text gradient.
|Developmental Category||Grade Level||Letter Level||Numeric Level|
Warning—It is very common for teachers to identify students’ reading levels and correlate them to text gradient levels. Remember that levels are a starting place when selecting appropriate small-group reading material. Students cannot be identified merely as a level P or S. All factors, including the book's supports and challenges, text structures and features, and student interests must be considered before choosing any book. Bottom line—students must be able to access the text; otherwise the book is inappropriate.
Text difficulty is measured by its internal structure factors such as:
Teachers choose books that match students’ strengths and abilities using these internal factors. Text difficulty can also be divided into text supports and challenges. A support is anything in the text that offers support for the reader. A challenge is anything in the text that the student will probably need assistance with. A support for one child may be a challenge for another child.
The final, and possibly most important, part of choosing books is knowing the reading process. Teachers who know the reading process are better equipped to choose appropriate small-group reading books because they understand how students learn to read. These teachers set a focus for lessons (comprehension strategies, vocabulary strategies, writing strategies) because they understand reading behaviors over time and supports and challenges that will benefit each group. See the module on Reading Process and Reading Behaviors Over Time for more information.
Once teachers have gathered all information, use the following questions to guide your choice. (Dorn, et al. 1998):
Just like a lesson sequence, small-group reading has a very distinct sequence with each component building off the others. The small-group reading sequence is:
Students should know something about the topic they are reading or have knowledge built into their schema. There are many activities to build background and link to prior knowledge. The following are a few examples:
In the intermediate grades, introducing a small-group reader does not necessarily mean conducting a book walk. It can mean having students browse the book looking for something specific assigned by the teacher. The following are a few examples of book introductions for intermediate readers:
At the end of a book introduction, offer a short synopsis of the book.
After the building background knowledge/activating prior knowledge, teachers can model the strategy or strategies that students will use for that lesson. It is easy to assume that students do not need to see the teacher model the strategy because it may have been modeled during read aloud and/or shared reading. Keep in mind that many students need to see the strategy(ies) modeled through a teacher think-aloud in a small-group setting.
A modeling lesson might look something like this: (From Gold Rush, level R/40)
Identify Cause-and-Effect Relationships
|Chapter||Cause-Why did it
|1; page 3
|There isn’t much gold
and it is very hard to
|Gold is highly
|2; page 11|
|3; page 19|
|4; page 23|
|5; page 26|
Identify Cause-and-Effect Relationships
|1; page 3
|There isn’t much gold
and it is very hard
People hoped to strike it
|Gold is highly valued.
People left their jobs
and families and
traveled to places
where gold was found.
They brought their
families to new places
and increased the
population of unsettled
|2; page 11|
|3; page 19|
|4; page 23|
|5; page 26|
After modeling, students are prepared to find cause-and-effect relationships in pairs and on their own.
When the group next meets, the teacher reviews the lesson from the previous day, assigns the next chunk of text, and provides a purpose for reading which connects to the strategy: a cause-and-effect relationship for this book. Students read the assigned text SILENTLY, (not whisper read nor round robin). Students use self-stick notes or reader’s journals to jot down ideas connected to the purpose.
When students have completed the reading assignment, the teacher debriefs with the students. Students share how they used the strategy and what questions they have. The teacher can make comments about how students were using the strategy. The teacher may also help students complete a section of the graphic organizer. By the end of the book, the graphic organizer has been completed and teachers can show students how to make inferences or draw conclusions from the information.
Just as the lesson sequence has before, during, and after components, so does the small group reading sequence. Every time students meet in their small group, the teacher guides them through before, during, and after activities. Before and after activities can be as simple as reviewing and debriefing. During activities can be build background/activate prior knowledge lessons, book introductions, or actually reading chunks of the book. See the sample schedule below to better understand before, during, and after activities.
Before—Offer information about the book’s topic.
During—Provide Activate Prior Knowledge activity.
After—Debrief student responses from activity.
Use a book introduction activity.
Before—Offer information about the strategy.
During—Model the strategy using a graphic organizer if applicable.
After—Debrief the strategy modeled. Teacher and students can ask questions about the strategy. Jot down questions to review during the next lesson.
Before—Review questions and comments from yesterday. Also review the strategy and offer a purpose for reading.
During—Ask students to read the chunk silently using self-stick notes or the reader’s journal to write thoughts to place on graphic organizer.
After—Debrief with students about how they read for a purpose. Complete graphic organizer section for that chunk.
Before—Review strategy and tell students that they will read silently for a purpose and use the strategy. Provide purpose.
During—Students read silently following day 3’s format.
After—Debrief with students following day 3’s format.
Before—Review the strategy and book by using the graphic organizer. Assign an after reading activity and remind students how to complete the activity.
During—Students complete after book reading activity.
Note: The activity may take more than one day to complete.
Notice that every day’s lesson has before/during/after components. The book, too, has before/during/after components. Build Background/Activate Prior Knowledge (Day 1) occurs before the book. Reading the book (Days 2–4) occurs during the book. After the Book activity (Day 5) occurs after the book.
Finally, at the end of every day’s lesson, teachers jot down what they are seeing their students doing during small group reading. They should ask themselves questions such as:
Before the Book: What do I think this student already knows about the topic and strategy? What do his responses to this activity tell me about what he knows? What more do I need to do to help him understand the topic?
During the Book: How is he progressing with this strategy? What questions did he have? What do those questions tell me about this student’s knowledge of the strategy?
After the Book: What evidence do I have to support the conclusion that he does or does not understand this strategy? If there is a problem, what can I do about it?
As the teacher observes and documents the progress of her students, she may occasionally move a student from one group to another based on the evidence she’s gathered during small and whole group instruction, as well as independent activities. This type of flexible grouping allows the teacher to adapt instruction to meet the needs of each student rather than having a group of students follow the same path. A teacher should trust her instincts about a student whom she wishes to move. Try the move. If the new group’s work is too hard or easy, return the student to his former group.
In intermediate grades, many students are considered “good readers” if they can read aloud with few or no mistakes. Though fluency is a part of reading, if students are not gaining and maintaining meaning, they are not reading. They are word calling. Good readers:
Good readers use all the above strategies to comprehend text. Comprehending text requires taking it apart (analyzing) and putting it back together (synthesizing) to create meaning that is specific to the student. Teachers can assist students’ comprehension of text by using graphic organizers and prompts during small group reading lessons. A few sample graphic organizers are identified below:
When used in a small-group setting, this graphic organizer provides the teacher with information on how well students process information. Some students can generate a main idea but cannot identify the supporting details. They may write any detail on the graphic organizer because the detail was on the page. Clearly those students do not know the difference between supporting details and just any details. Teachers should ask themselves the following question. If a student cannot identify how he determined the main idea, then how does he know that he is right? The answer is he does not know if he is right. If this problem arises, the teacher should conduct a few mini-lessons on supporting details versus any details.
All of the graphic organizers shown below are excellent ways to analyze both science and social studies content such as the Civil War, Westward Expansion, space exploration, and conservation.
Webbing is an excellent way to explain events.
Teacher prompts used often enough and at appropriate times become independent student prompts.
1. The author gives me a picture in my mind when he describesâ€¦
2. I can really see what the author is talking about when he â€¦
3. I can draw a picture of what the author is describing.
Teachers can and should keep observation notes of each child during and after small-group reading. These observation notes help the teacher determine:
A simple way to manage observation notes is to make a file folder for each group. As the teacher observes the group during small-group reading, she writes brief notes in the folder. Students do not know what or whom she is writing about. The information is confidential, but is a wonderful source of information for parent conferences, principal conferences, ARD meetings, or GT meetings.
Draw students’ attention to the front cover of the book. Read the title together. Turn to the back of the book and read the blurb and author information. Examine the table of contents. Page through the book, looking at the illustrations. While previewing, pose the following questions to encourage students to think about the text before reading.
Explain that as they read, students will be encouraged to make personal connections with the text. They will need to incorporate new ideas with prior knowledge to gain insight and draw conclusions.
Provide each student with a copy of the Drawing Conclusions from Key Ideas graphic organizer. This reading exercise will challenge students to synthesize information as they read. Their objective is to identify key ideas in sections of text, then concisely explain the meaning of each idea they decide is important to list. Instruct students to write the key idea in the first column. The second-column responses may include a variety of ideas, but you’ll want to encourage readers to synthesize the information using all their reading comprehension strategies so that they can draw conclusions.
Note: different graphic organizers will be used for different skills
Use the following prompt to set a purpose for the reading: As you read, think about the information the author is presenting. What does she want you to know? What is the author’s purpose for writing this book?
Ask students to read the chapters independently. Invite them to use self-stick notes to flag sections of the text that support their ideas about the author’s purpose. Also ask them to highlight key ideas for their graphic organizers, as well as any unfamiliar words they encounter. When the group has finished, use the activities below to focus on skills, strategies, and text and graphic features of the book.
Invite student to share their ideas about the author’s purpose. Invite them to point out examples from the text that helped them figure it out. If students have difficulty, use a think-aloud to model how a good reader thinks through author’s purpose.
Reading the introduction really helped me understand the author’s purpose. First she explains what a/an ______________________is. Then she lists the things she is going to cover in the book.
Ask students to reread or skim and scan the text to locate information for the graphic organizer. Help students get started by modeling the first key idea. Read the introduction together. Explain that when you can’t infer meaning from the title, you can read the first few sentences to determine the key point. Students should recognize that the main topic is ______________. Model the thinking process by asking: Why are _____________ important? What does the author tell you and what personal knowledge do you have about emotions? What meaning can you take away from this text? Students should put their responses in the second column.