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The Use of Multiple Grouping to Improve Student Achievement


By Cathy Puett Miller

Guided reading groups, ability-based instruction, flexible groupings, peer dyads, needs-based units -- those terms all refer to multiple groupings -- sub-environments where students you can use to help students come together to improve their literacy skills. Why should you consider such an approach in your reading instruction? Multiple groupings are an effective way to deal with diversity in interests, abilities and learning styles: No child learns in only one way; no two children learn in the same way.

Before you can begin to effectively use small groups in your reading classroom, however, you need to focus on where your students are. The simple exercise below can help:
Create a spreadsheet entry for every student. (Your school might have a computer program for entering the data.) Column headings should include the National Reading Panel's five keys to effective reading instruction, as well as other potential grouping topics. A segment might look like this:

PA* Phonics Vocab Fluency Comp Writing Interests Other
2 2 3 2 4 3


4 4 4 4 4 3 Rockets Introvert
3 3 4 2 2 2 Animals ELL

*Phonemic Awareness

When you have an entry for each student, use a 0 to 5 scale (with 5 meaning mastery of grade-level standards) to chart students' current skill levels in each of the first six columns. The last two columns can include any additional information you consider pertinent. (For easiest sorting, use consistent words for those columns.) When the spreadsheet is complete, sort by any column to build groups based not only on skill level, but also on interests, strengths, or scheduling.

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Expand your thinking beyond static ability-based groups: Mix it up while keeping in mind specific reading goals for the class. Dr. Jeanne Paratore of Boston University's School of Education recommends groupings that give children "access to grade-level concepts and ideas, and that guide them toward strategies necessary to become self-sufficient and self-directing readers."

The questions below will further help you structure groups:

  1. Why are we doing this?
  2. What will students accomplish?
  3. How long will it take?
  4. How do we (teacher and student) deal with problems or questions? Will the teacher float or be uninterruptible? What tools can help students solve their own problems?
  5. How can I most effectively group my students to meet the objective(s)?
  6. Which combinations of students will bring out the best in each student?
Introduce guidelines to groups based on your answers to questions1-4. Consider your answers to the last two questions when selecting students for groups.

Finally, consider opportunities for working with individual students within this more flexible classroom structure. Coordinate with your reading specialist and other staff to provide struggling readers with intense, frequent mini-lessons within the group or outside of it. It might be the layering they need.


Ready to try a multiple grouping in your reading classroom? This K-12 idea is courtesy of Wendy Raymond, a 6th grade language arts teacher at Michigan's Tappan Middle School.

Select 10-30 thematically related books (matched to your students' range of ability). After an initial introduction, let each student choose one or two books and group those who are interested in the same title. Identify the core objective and teach students how to function in a literature circle. (For more information about literature circles, see the Education World articles Literature Circles Build Excitement for Books! and Literature Circles Strategy of the Week.)

In K-2 classes, you might invite parents or support staff to float among groups, helping students become discussion directors, connectors (making connections to things in the real world), illustrators, literary luminaries (pointing out great figurative language), and vocabulary enrichers (identifying words that most students might not know). Rotate jobs and regroup students with each new book they read. Teams of older students can help by developing book summaries to share with the class, or designing tests to check understanding.

Opening a new world where struggling readers can contribute and learn takes vision. "There's no question that it's a big challenge," says Patricia Woodin-Weaver, facilitator of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development's network on differentiated instruction, "but there's no bigger challenge than trying to insert kids in a one-size-fits-all [classroom] and then having to deal with the spillover of emotional and behavioral reactions. If kids are not in a place where they can learn, they let us know loud and clear."

Using multiple groupings to engage every student in learning can be the motivator struggling readers need. Let that concept seep into content areas as well. It provides a structure easily connected to curriculum goals and standards and sends the consistent message that there are many ways to learn.

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To expand your use of multiple groupings and literature circles, check out the additional resources below:
* Round Robin Post It Review Plan
* Write a Round Robin Story
* You Be The Editor
* Opitz, Michael F (1999), Flexible Grouping in Reading Grades 2-5, New York: Scholastic.
* Radencich, M. C., and L. J. McKay, eds. (2001) Flexible Grouping for Literacy in the Elementary Grades. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon
* Tomlinson, C. (1999). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding To The Needs Of All Learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

About the Author

Known as the "Literacy Ambassador," Cathy Puett Miller uses her library science degree from Florida State University as the foundation of her work. With more than ten years experience as an independent literacy consultant working with teachers, parents, librarians, and non-profit family-friendly organizations, she has conducted research initiatives and best practice studies in the areas of beginning reading instruction, emergent literacy and volunteer tutoring. She currently is listed on the U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse Registry of Outcome Evaluators.
Cathy's freelance writing appears in such print publications as Atlanta Our Kids, Omaha Family, and Georgia Journal of Reading, and online at Literacy Connections,, Education World, Family Network, the Reading Tub, The National Education Association, and BabyZone. She also reviews children's books at Children's Literature Comprehensive Database. Her signature is her passion for connecting children and families to positive, powerful experiences with reading; she believes there is a book for every child.
Cathy lives with her husband, Chuck, eighteen-year-old son, Charlie, and lots of friendly, ferociously read books in Huntsville, Alabama. Visit Cathy's Web site at The Literacy Ambassador.