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Read About Best Practices in Small-Group Reading

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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.

What is Small-Group Reading?

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.

Selecting Appropriate Texts

To select appropriate texts for each group, teachers should know:

  • their students (interests, independent and instructional reading levels, background, etc.)
  • available texts, including nonfiction
  • text gradient and difficulty (text supports and challenges)
  • the reading process—which will help teachers choose a focus for the lesson

Knowing The Students

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.

Available Texts, Including Nonfiction

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.

Selecting Appropriate Texts

Text Gradient and Difficulty

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
K/1 D
1 F
2 J

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:

  • Book and print features (fonts, boldfaced words, layout, nonfiction text features)
  • Language (literary, figurative, and dialogue)
  • Vocabulary features (multi-syllable words, available context clues to determine word meanings)
  • Sentence Complexity (punctuation, complex sentences, compound sentences, length)
  • Content (topics, organization)
  • Text Structure

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 Reading Process

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.

Putting It All Together

Once teachers have gathered all information, use the following questions to guide your choice. (Dorn, et al. 1998):

  • Are the concepts and vocabulary used in the book meaningful to children?
  • Does the book allow students to use their current strategies so they can monitor and fix-up their reading?
  • What are the supportive features of the book?
  • What are the challenging features of the book?
  • Are there more supportive features than challenging features?

Small Group Lesson Sequence

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:

  • Build Background Knowledge or Link to Prior Knowledge
  • Introduce the Book
  • Teacher Modeling (if necessary)
  • Silent Reading for a Purpose
  • Teacher and Students Debrief—students explain how they used the strategy and/or teachers comment on how they saw students using the strategy
  • Informal and Ongoing Assessment—After the lesson, teachers jot down observation notes in student portfolios and the group’s small group reading folder. These notes will be used for further instruction.

Build Background/Link to Prior Knowledge

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:

  • Quick Write—Students are asked to write for two minutes regarding everything they know about the topic of the book. Then students debrief their thinking with the teacher and group members.
  • KWHL Chart—The group completes WHAT THEY KNOW about the book’s topic, what they WANT TO KNOW, and HOW THEY ARE GOING TO FIND THE ANSWERS to their questions. After the book is completed, the group completes WHAT THEY LEARNED and possibly draws conclusions or makes inferences from what they learned.
  • Pose a Question—Ask students to answer a question related to the book topic. For example, the book is titled “All About Bugs.” It is a book about some very strange bugs. The question posed is What is the strangest bug you’ve ever seen? What did it look like? Did you know what it was? Did you try to catch it? Then debrief with students.
  • Visualize—Place a thought in students’ heads concerning the book topic. Ask them to visualize what they see and then draw a picture of it. Share pictures with the group. For example, the book is From Pyramids to Skyscrapers. Say: Close your eyes and picture the most interesting building you’ve ever seen. The building may be one you have really seen or a picture of one from a book. Now open your eyes and draw what you saw. Debrief with students.
  • List-Group-Label—This activity requires that the group generate a list about the book’s topic. Once the list is complete, students group the listed items into categories that make sense. Finally students label each category or group with a heading.

Book Introduction

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:

  • Preview the chapters using the Table of Contents and chapter headings. Have each student or pair skim the book and locate a picture, which intrigues the student(s) the most. Ask why that picture was chosen, and if they have any questions about the picture. Ask: From the pictures we’ve looked at, what do you think this book might be about?
  • View the Table of Contents and have pairs of students choose one chapter to skim. Allow time for them to share their findings with the group. Ask: From the pictures we’ve looked at, what do you think this book might be about?
  • Preview the book using the Table of Contents and chapter headings. Have students skim through the book. Ask: What will this book be about? How do you know? What pictures might help you determine what the book will be about?
  • Read the back cover and ask students what they think this book is about. Then move to the table of contents and identify two chapters to view as a group. Ask: Rethink your earlier prediction concerning what the book was going to be about. Were you right? What changes would you like to make to your thinking now that we’ve looked at a few chapters?
  • Have students locate the Table of Contents, choose a chapter, find the chapter, locate a bold-print word, and locate the word in the glossary. Ask: From the important words we’ve located, what do you think this book is going to be about?

At the end of a book introduction, offer a short synopsis of the book.

Small Group Lesson Sequence

Teacher Modeling

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)

  • Ensure that students understand what it means to identify cause-and-effect relationships. Say: When I read, I look for information that tells what happened and why it happened. The reason why something happens is the cause. What happens as a result is the effect. It isn’t always easy to identify cause-and-effect relationships. I have to look carefully to determine what information is the cause and what information is the effect.
  • Pass out the graphic organizer Identify Cause-and-Effect Relationships.
  • Explain that as they read, the group will complete the first three rows together. The last two rows will be completed independently.
  • Have students look at the book and follow along while you show them how to extract cause-and-effect relationships from chapter 1. Write the information on the graphic organizer as you find it. (You may want to make a chart-size copy of the graphic organizer or use a transparency.) Read page 3 aloud. Say: This page tells about the value of gold. It explains why gold is so valuable, stating that gold is highly valued because it is rare and hard to find. I know this is a cause-and-effect relationship because one of these events caused the other event. To determine the effect, I ask myself, “What happened?” Gold became very valuable. I’ll write that in the Effect column. To determine the cause, I ask myself, “How or why did it happen?” Gold was very rare and hard to find. I’ll write that in the Cause column.

Identify Cause-and-Effect Relationships

Chapter Cause-Why did it
1; page 3

page 5
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    
  • Read page 5. Say: I can also determine a cause-and-effect relationship from the text on page 5. If I ask myself what happened, I can learn that people left their jobs and families. They traveled to the places where gold was found. I can write this in the Effect column. If I ask myself why it happened, I can see that people hoped to strike it rich. I can write this in the Cause column.
  • Say: Sometimes an effect has more than one cause. Sometimes a cause has more than one effect. How else were people affected by wanting to strike it rich? (They brought their families to new places and increased the population of unsettled areas.)

Identify Cause-and-Effect Relationships

Chapter Cause Effect
1; page 3

page 5
There isn’t much gold
and it is very hard
to find.

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.

Silent Reading for a Purpose

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.

Teacher and Students Debrief

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.

Before/During/After Reading

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.

Day 1-Activate Prior Knowledge

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.

Day 2-Chunk 1 (Chapters 1 and 2)

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.

Day 3-Chunk 2 (Chapters 3 and 4)

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.

Day 4-Chunk 3 (Chapters 4 and 5)

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.

Day 5-After the Book is Complete

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.

After—Debrief 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?

Flexible Grouping

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.

Teaching for Comprehension

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:

  • Think about what they read while reading
  • Use context clues
  • Make connections
  • Make inferences and draw conclusions
  • Synthesize and summarize information
  • Ask questions
  • Visualize the text
  • Determine what is important versus what is interesting
  • Know what to do with the important information to better understand what they read
  • Use fix-up strategies such as writing in the margins, rereading, highlighting important information, drawing graphic organizers on the side in the margins

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:

Main Idea and Supporting Details

Page or
Main Idea
Supporting Details

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.

Teaching for Comprehension

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.


Single cause-and-effects

Multiple cause-and-effects


Webbing is an excellent way to explain events.

Comprehension Prompts

Teacher prompts used often enough and at appropriate times become independent student prompts.

Making Connections

  1. This reminds me of a time when I …
  2. I know about this topic because I …
  3. The setting of this book is just like…
  4. This book is something like …
  5. What’s going on in this book is just like what’s happening in the ________ area of the world.

Ask Questions

  1. I wonder why…
  2. What does this word mean?
  3. Why did ____________ do that?
  4. What questions do I have before, during, and after reading?
  5. What is going to happen next?
  6. Why did the author put that part in there?

Visualizing/Creating Images

1. The author gives me a picture in my mind when he describes…

2. I can really see what the author is talking about when he …

3. I can draw a picture of what the author is describing.

Make Inferences

  1. The author says this, but means …
  2. If I read between the lines, the author is telling me that…
  3. The clues to prove my inference are…
  4. Because of what the author said, I know that …
  5. From the clues or information the author gives, I can conclude that…
  6. I think that ____________ will happen next because the author says ____________.

Determine Text Importance

  1. I know these parts of the story are important because they match my purpose, which was…
  2. I think the author thinks ____________ is important because…
  3. I think the author’s opinion about _____ is ______ because…
  4. In which text structure is this text written? (cause/effect, problem/solution, description, compare/contrast, sequence/steps in a process) Using a graphic organizer will help me understand. I can draw a graphic organizer in text margins.
  5. I think the author’s purpose for writing this was to …
  6. There is a lot of information right here. I need to identify which parts are important and which parts are just interesting.
  7. How does this graphic source (chart, table, graph, etc.) help me interpret this information?
  8. How do these text features (bold print words, font changes, bullets, captions) help me locate what might be important?


  1. This story or passage is really about… My views on this are…
  2. My opinion of _________ is …
  3. I first thought ________ about the topic. Now I think …
  4. I’ve read a lot of information. Let me stop and think about this for a minute.
  5. All of these ideas are important, but I think some are more important than others. I need to determine which ideas are the most important.
  6. Let me take the big ideas and summarize the text.
  7. My judgment of this information is …
  8. From this information, I can generalize that …

Monitor Comprehension and Fix-Up Strategies Prompts

Set a Purpose for Reading

  1. What has my teacher asked me to do?
  2. How should I look at this text?
  3. My question about this topic is __________. That means that I should be looking for information on ___________. If I don’t find it, I should look for key words or phrases.

I Need To Know When I’m Confused

  1. This is not making sense to me because…
  2. This wasn’t what I expected. I expected …
  3. This doesn’t make sense because my mind was wandering.
  4. Does this make sense?
  5. What is going on here?

I Need to Know What to do About My Confusion

  1. What do I think or feel about what I just read? I need to stop and think, write, or talk about what I’m reading while reading, not later on.
  2. I’m reading a nonfiction topic, and I really don’t know much about it. I think I should read more slowly. If I still don’t understand, I may need to reread or skim the text.
  3. What can I write or draw in the margins that might help me remember and understand what I just read?
  4. How does the graph (or any nonfiction text feature) on this page help me understand the text?
  5. Since I don’t understand this word, I may need to …
  6. Are there any text structure clue words and phrases that might help figure out what text structure I’m reading?

Informal Assessment

Teachers can and should keep observation notes of each child during and after small-group reading. These observation notes help the teacher determine:

  • “next steps” for the group's instruction
  • if a student should move to a different group
  • students’ progress with a particular strategy
  • students’ progress with the craft of reading

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.

Sample Lesson

Sample Lesson Plan

Introduce the Book

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.

  • What does the title tell you about the subject of the book?
  • Do you think the book is fiction or nonfiction? Why?
  • What do you know about ________________? Can you think of a time when you ____________________?
  • What questions do you have about ___________________?
  • What do you expect to learn from this book?
  • What kinds of special vocabulary words do you think you’ll find in this book?

Set a Purpose for 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.

Introduce the Graphic Organizer

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

Read the Text

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.

Focus on Comprehension

Discuss the Author’s Purpose

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.

Begin the Graphic Organizer

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.