Blog Post

Small Group Instruction: How to Make it Effective

By Susan Van Zant and Nancy Volpe, Senior Educational Services Specialists, CORE, Inc.

All teachers want their students’ achievement levels to increase. Small group instruction and cooperative learning have a significant impact on student achievement (Hattie, 2009) and are widely used in elementary classrooms. Many middle and high school teachers are increasingly using these structures in other content areas. However, prior to implementing small group instruction teachers often have questions to be answered.

Interested in more great professional learning resources for educators? Check out this CORE webinar: What Does Good Instruction Look Like for Students with Dyslexia: A Systems and Classroom View

When should small group instruction usually occur?

Small group instruction usually follows whole group instruction to reinforce or reteach specific skills and concepts and provides a reduced student-teacher ratio. Small groups typically range in size from four to six students.

What are the key benefits of small group instruction?

There are four key benefits to small group instruction:

  1. Personalize InstructionSmall group instruction allows teachers to work more closely with each student. This type of instruction provides the opportunity to evaluate students’ learning strengths, locate gaps in the development of their reading or math skills and tailor lessons focused on specific learning objectives. In addition, small group instruction allows teachers to check for understanding, reinforce skills presented in whole group instruction, and/or change the pacing of a lesson (i.e., teachers may break down concepts not easily understood or quickly pass though lessons that students clearly understand).
  2. Provide Feedback: Small group instruction allows a teacher to monitor student actions more closely and to provide frequent and individualized feedback at point of use to improve specific reading or math skills.
  3. Reteach or PreteachSmall group instruction is an opportunity for teachers to provide additional teaching and practice often needed for struggling students to master important skills or understand key concepts (e.g., phonemic awareness skill of manipulating ending sounds, or operations with whole numbers or rational numbers). Through the use of diagnostic assessments, a teacher can determine skills or concepts for which students may need more instructional support. Small group instruction also provides an opportunity for teachers to pre-teach specific vocabulary, challenging text structures, or other prerequisite knowledge to English learners or any students who may experience difficulty in upcoming lessons.
  4. Build Confidence Through CollaborationSmall group instruction can provide a comfortable environment and boost the confidence of students who might not otherwise participate in a lesson or activity. Small group instruction encourages teamwork as everyone in the group is working toward achieving the same goal.

How are small groups organized?

Based on frequent, on-going progress monitoring (and some diagnostic) assessment, students are often grouped and regrouped by a shared skill deficit. However, from time to time a teacher may form a cooperative group of students with diverse abilities to work collaboratively during independent work time. In this instance, the teacher may choose to place a higher achieving student in the role of peer supporter.

What about the students who are not working directly with the teacher?

The challenge of small group instruction is the management of other students who must be engaged in meaningful assignments during independent work time while the teacher is working with a small group. This time should be used to solidify understanding of key literacy or math skills and strategies and develop responsibility for completing assignments. Organizing engaging and differentiated assignments and activities designed to reinforce skills taught during whole group instruction is the key to managing successful independent work time.

For independent work time to be effective, assignments and activities should be selected that are designed to directly reinforce concepts taught during whole group literacy or math instruction. These activities and assignments should be meaningful and not just “busy work” and should be updated and changed as new concepts and skills are taught to allow different practice opportunities. All materials should be organized and supplies easily accessible. To ensure that materials remain organized and that students are able to return materials to assigned locations, the teacher should label materials and their assigned storage spaces and teach students the expectations for managing and returning those materials.

How should independent work time be introduced and organized?

Prior to establishing small group instruction teachers must first teach expectations and provide practice routines for independent work time. This methodical teaching and practice will ensure better success for all students. Each assignment or activity should be introduced one at a time. The teacher should model what students are expected to do and how they should behave at each work station. Procedures for who visits the work station, how to use materials and what to do with finished work should be practiced and well established before another activity is introduced. To effectively manage independent work time a teacher may want to access the CORE 21-Day Small Group Instruction Planner found on CORE’s website.

Making small group instruction work may not always be an easy task, but with commitment and consistency teachers will find that this structure is a valuable allocation of instructional time. The preparation time and effort will be worth it when the teacher sees the powerful opportunities provided to each student as well as the overall increase in student learning. No matter the current level of achievement, well-designed small group instruction can make a significant difference for each student.


Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

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