Grouping for Reading: A Discussion

Grouping for reading - a discussion

Grouping For Reading

When I surveyed teachers to find out what questions they had about reading, I received a range of questions related to grouping for reading. I’ve listed the questions below and added my thoughts and links to the relevant research. Please note: The context for these answers is year 3-year 8 classrooms. 

Before I answer these questions, just a friendly reminder: These are suggestions based on my research (see below) and personal experiences in the classroom. Take what you like and discard what you don’t! You know your students and what works for them. If you love having nine reading groups, mixed groups, or want to try whole class reading, and it works for you and your learners, then all power to you!

How many groups should I have and how big?

After trialing various numbers of reading groups in my classroom over the years, I suggest having three or four broad groupings to make it manageable for yourself. More groups can make life stressful and you will be constantly juggling to fit them in. Groups of around six students give you the chance to ‘notice’ each child and to teach to your students’ needs. If your groups are more than eight, students start to get lost and the effect becomes similar to whole-class teaching.

How do you keep reading groups practical and manageable?

One way to keep reading groups practical and manageable is to collaborate with another teacher. You might choose to take the children from both classes who need to work on inference skills while your buddy teacher takes students who are working on visualising what they read, and so on.

If it is just your class, here are some suggestions:

  • Remember you do not need to be rigid in how you group your students for reading; you could do mixed grouping and ability grouping at different times, in different contexts, to meet different needs.
  • Move students in and out of groups once you see movement so the students see the groups as flexible and temporary.
  • Send home leveled independent readers which don’t need pre-reading.
  • Mix in shared reading with two groups of your more fluent students to save time: sit in a circle with a text and read aloud. Stop and teach as you go. Have think-pair-share chats so everyone thinks and talks about the text. Focus on having a critical thinking discussion.
  • Use reciprocal reading (that has been modeled) for your groups so you can spend time with those who need more assistance.
  • Integrate your reading texts into your topic area to save time and create authentic contexts for reading for information.
  • Integrate your reading texts with your current writing genre so the reading becomes your model for writing.

What about mixed-ability reading groups?

There is a lot of research about mixed-ability grouping – some supportive and some opposed to its use. There is a school of thought in the research listed below where students from much lower groups benefit from working with more fluent students and there is evidence for and against this.

In my experience, mixed grouping requires some careful considerations so that all students can benefit. The lower students need some extra-targetted teaching to make sure they don’t fall behind or become frustrated. Research also shows that more fluent students can get annoyed with always being the helper, and not being able to ‘fly’ or feel challenged. If you are going to use mixed-ability reading groups, consider how you will cater to those higher-ability students.

Exposure to rich texts and vocabulary is another argument for mixed grouping as recent research highlights the benefits of vocabulary development for decoding and spelling. However, mixed-grouping is not the only way to achieve this. Building vocabulary can also be achieved during shared reading and reading to the class and having a discussion as you go.

One option is to try mixed groupings from time to time with a form of shared reading, supporting lower-level students by providing a video of you or more fluent students reading the text.

You could also give mixed-ability group members a differentiated text at more than one level. This means students with a range of reading levels can participate in group discussions and activities after reading the text at a level appropriate for them. See our NZ Disasters resource as an example of this differentiated passage approach (read more below).

How can you prevent the lower readers from developing low self-efficacy?

Work on changing the students’ mindset vocabulary from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’t, yet’. Turn ‘I can’t work out new words’ into ‘I can’t work out new words yet’, or ‘I am learning to work out new words.’  This can then become a co-constructed group goal: to read new words by saying the sound of each letter and blending them together. The explicit teaching of this goal, using an instructional text and making some small steps of success, is very motivating.  Also, take all the group goals and tracking sheets off the wall so you don’t inadvertently reinforce who are the ‘winners and losers’. As suggested earlier, consider using flexible groupings based on particular reading needs or also using mixed groups based on interests from time to time.

In addition, consider the power of differentiation. Look for ways for all students in your class to learn the same content, through differentiation. All groups will feel included and part of the learning. For example, our NZ Disasters Unit features passages on the same topic at a variety of levels. Multiple groups can learn about The Wahine Disaster, for example, with a passage that suits their stage. Higher-level students can complete multiple follow-up activities while your lower-level learners focus on one or two key tasks. This differentiation also helps to integrate other curriculum areas like social studies and science into your literacy programme.

New Zealand Disasters. Explore some of the most devastating disasters in New Zealand's history. In this New Zealand Disasters Unit, students will learn about eight historic and recent disasters and their effect upon Aotearoa. Through a range of activity options, students will extend their knowledge of these events, apply this knowledge by exploring digital links, and put their own design skills to the test with creative challenges. Passages are included for a range of ability levels so this resource can work with Year 4 to Year 8 and to provide differentiation.

Click here to see our New Zealand Disasters Reading Unit.

What does the research say about grouping students?

  • Planning and cross-grouping across classes can help; make 3-4 broad, flexible groupings of 3-6 students in a group; emphasise skills to be taught not rigid ability levels, changing groups often (Batt & Frencham, 2009, E.R.O., 2018, Fredericks, 2003, Hattie & Clarke, 2019, Scholz, 2004).
  • Group and teach at an instructional level for the most progress in reading especially up to Purple (Level 20) (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996, Ford & Opitz, 2011, Nelson, 2020 & Sumadi et. al., 2017).
  • Student’s self-confidence has the largest influence on reading achievement so be careful with names, displays, and vocabulary around groupings (Du Plooy, 2019, Hattie & Clarke 2019, Medina, 2019).
  • Lack of role models and exposure to rich vocabulary can disadvantage students in ability groups, and this can be remedied in many ways (Corkett et al., 2011, Donnelly, 2019, Du Plooy, 2019, Dymock & Nicholson, 2012, Gillon, et al 2020,  Gough & Tunmer, 1986, Sumadi et. al., 2017).
    • One way is to use mixed ability flexible groups which change often (Anthony & Hunter, 2017, Boaler, 2008, Medina, 2019).
      • Mixed ability grouping is more than just mixing students up and expecting them to be able to work collaboratively. It requires thoughtful grouping, specific teaching, shifts in teacher practice, and targeted professional development to be successful (especially student support, collaboration, and teacher/student discourse) (Pine, 2018, ERO 2018).
  • Mixed grouping needs to take into account the following:
    • It can give exposure to peer role models but can also be negative as lower ability students have more self-confidence as readers when they are not continually being compared to others (Lee & Jonson-Reid, 2016 & Loveless, 1998).
    • Higher-level students can become frustrated in mixed groups (Abbott et al., 2017, Cameron and Dempsey, 2020, Corkett et al., 2011, M.O.E., 2005, Radencich & McKay, 1995, Scholz, 2004, Tobin, 2008 & Vaughn et al., 1995).

NZ research into mixed-grouping:

  • Current NZ research into mixed grouping is mainly narrative or anecdotal, using small samples of upper primary and high school level maths and science classes, or interpreting statistics from international scores for Y5/9 science. You can read more of this here and here.
  • There are no statistically significant links between grouping practices (ability or mixed) and academic or self-efficacy outcomes in New Zealand (Medina 2019, Hattie and Yates, 2013).
  • There is some evidence that mixed grouping has a positive effect over ability grouping in self-efficacy in science and maths for lower ability students when it is accompanied by significant changes in teacher pedagogy and student support (Medina 2019, ERO 2021, Pine 2018).
  • Lower groups can be disadvantaged by low teacher expectations, low self-efficacy, and limited challenge in maths and science (Medina 2019, ERO 2021).

Summing It All Up

Students benefit from flexible groupings of students with similar needs and broadly similar leveled texts, moving in and out of groups depending on formative assessment.

Use mixed grouping if supported by fluent readers, differentiated texts, and explicit needs-based teaching. You could also do this as shared or reciprocal reading.

Older, less fluent readers need to feel confident about their reading ability, so work on their mindset vocabulary and take care with public displays of grouping data and names.

Accelerate students benefit from targetted teaching which develops a critical thinking discourse and more complex vocabulary development. They can become frustrated when working with students who cannot understand the concepts being developed.

Finally, ask yourself the question: “Why am I grouping for reading?” Make sure your grouping makes it easier for you to teach. Keep it simple. Does your grouping give every child the opportunity to learn and feel confident about their reading?

You can find the research links at the end of this blog post.

Our reading resources

We have a great range of reading comprehension resources that would fit nicely into your reading programme:

We have a great range of reading comprehension resources - both print-based and digital.

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A thrilling list of references for your reading pleasure

Abbott, R., Mickail, T., Richards, T., Renninger, K. A., Hidi, S. E., Beers, S., & Berninger, V. (2017). Understanding interest and self-efficacy in the reading and writing of students with persisting specific learning disabilities during middle childhood and early adolescence. International Journal of Educational Methodology, 3(1), 41-64.

Batt, J., & Frencham, R. (2009). A recipe for guided reading–powerful teaching of reading. Practically Primary, 14(2), 29-33.

Corkett, J., Hatt, B., & Benevides, T. (2011). Student and teacher self-efficacy and the connection to reading and writing. Canadian Journal of Education, 34(1), 65-98.

Donnelly, P. (2019). A new guide for guided reading: More guided, more reading. Practical Literacy, 24(1), 9-12

Dymock, S. & Nicholson, T. (2012). Teaching Reading Comprehension The What, The How, The Why.  N.Z.C.E.R.; Wellington

Duffy, G. G., (2014). Explaining Reading: A resource for teacher concepts skills & strategies (3rd ed.) New York; Guilford Press.

Du Plooy, L. L. (2019). The manifestations of the practice of within-class homogeneous ability grouping. South African Journal of Childhood Education, 9(1), NA.

Education Review Office, (2018). Teaching approaches and strategies that work. He rautaki whakaako e whai hua ana. Keeping children engaged and achieving in reading, Crown, Wellington, New Zealand.

Education Review Office, (2021) Using Mixed-Ability Reading Groups to Improve Achievement for Reluctant Readers, 03. Wellington: New Zealand Government.

Elbaum. (2001). Instructional Grouping for Reading for Students with LD: Implications for Practice. Intervention in School and Clinic, January 2001, Vol 36, No. 3. (pp.131-137)

Fountas, I & Pinnell, G. (2012). Guided reading: The romance and the reality. The Reading Teacher, 66(4), 268-284

Ford, M. P., PhD., & Opitz, M. F., PhD. (2011). Looking back to move forward with guided reading. Reading Horizons, 50(4), 225-240.

Fredericks, A. D. (2003). The ins and outs of guided reading. Science and Children, 40(6), 22- 27.

Hattie, J., & Clarke, S. (2019), Visible Learning Feedback. Oxen, U.K.: Routledge.

Ireson, J., & Hallam, S. (1999). Raising Standards: Is Ability Grouping the Answer? Oxford Review of Education, 25(3), 343-358.

Gillon, A., Scott, B., & McNeill. (2020). A Better Start to Reading. Christchurch; University of Canterbury.

Gough, P. and Tunmer, W. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6–10.

Lee, Y., & Jonson-Reid, M. (2016). The Role of Self-Efficacy in Reading Achievement of Young Children in Urban Schools. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 33(1), 79– 89.

Loveless, T. (1998). The tracking and ability debate. Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 2(8), 1-30.

Medina, E. (2019). How often are students organised into same and mixed ability groups? Education Counts: https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/series/insights-for-teachers/teaching-in-nz-ability-grouping

Ministry of Education. (2005) Guided Reading: Years 5 to 8.  2005 by Learning Media Limited

Nelson, T. (2020) Guided Reading: Effects of Ability Grouping on Reading Levels and Self-Efficacy. Master’s Theses & Capstone Projects. Northwestern College – Orange City.

Radencich, M.C. & McKay, L.J. (1995). Flexible Grouping for Literacy in the Elementary Grades. Pearson: USA

Robinson, R.D. (2008). Issues and Trends in Literacy Education, 4th EditionUniversity of Missouri : Columbia

Scholz, S. (2004). Ability groups: Ineffective or ineffectively used? Australian Primary Mathematics Classroom, 9 (N2), 29-31.

Sumadi, D., Waras, S., & Nyoman, S. (2017). Effect of Ability Grouping in Reciprocal Teaching Technique of Collaborative Learning on Individual Achievements and Social Skills. International Journal of Evaluation and Research in Education, 6, 216-220.

Tobin, R. (2008). Conundrums in the differentiated literacy classroom. Reading Improvement, 45(4), 159-167.

Vaughn, S., Marie Tejero Hughes, Sally Watson Moody, and Batya Elbaum. (2001). Instructional Grouping for Reading for Students with LD: Implications for Practice. Intervention in School and Clinic, January 2001, Vol 36, No. 3. (pp.131-137).

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