Organize students into groups of three or four.
The research and our experiences indicate that this is the best group size for teaching reading. And this makes a lot of sense. The best learning activities are based on cooperative learning principles, which means there have to be several students in a group. On the other hand, if more than four students are working in a group, those same activities will leave out some students or, at least, reduce students’ need to fully participate.
The students do not have to be at the same reading level. They do need to be fairly close, say within a grade level. One value of the small group setting is that all students in the group can provide valuable input into the process and can learn from each other.
The more advanced students can learn from the less advanced students in a small group. For example, when working on comprehension skills, students may discuss a variety of questions about the text. Once students have a basic understanding of the content, they can discuss responses to those questions whether they are stronger readers or not, and each student lends a unique perspective to help develop greater understanding among all students.
The final reason for small groups refers to the learning climate: a safe environment for participating, making mistakes, trying new skills, and getting support. Students in small groups are not alone. They are not the only ones who are having difficulty with reading. They do not get singled out as less capable than their peers: their peers are right there with them in the reading group.
For classroom teachers: Most likely, you have more than four students in your classroom. You can not ignore the rest of your students in order to work with a single group of three or four students. On the other hand, you can restructure your students to work in various learning stations, participate in small groups, and collaboratively engage in reading activities. You may need to work with the class as a whole to learn how to engage in the various activities, but then student groups can work semi-autonomously while you monitor and provide support as needed.
Or, you can work intently with one group of students while the rest are engaged in other types of cooperative or independent lessons. Think creatively about how you design your learning experiences so that students can work in this optimal group size.
For reading interventionists: In many cases, reading interventionists work one-on-one with students who are struggling to read. Those students are pulled, one at a time, out of their regular classrooms and taken to another place where the reading specialist provides intense support for twenty or thirty minutes.
First, think about this approach from a student’s perspective. Conducting reading intervention this way tells the student, “You are not as smart as the rest of your friends. You don’t deserve to be with the rest of your classmates.” From the onset, pull-out intervention creates an emotional barrier to learning. The student does not want to be singled out from his or her classmates and put into a foreign environment that does not have the comfort and security of a classroom full of peers and friends. It may even seem like a form of punishment.
Of course, this is not the intention. Reading interventionists know that many students struggle with reading, but the student only knows that he or she needs extra help. If a student is pulled out of class as part of a small group, however, the student will recognize that he or she is not alone in struggling to read better. There is safety and a sense of camaraderie that allows learning to occur.
Second, as mentioned above, the most effective reading activities are conducted in groups of three or four. So there is that reason for small-group intervention, too.
For homeschool teachers: If you have one child, then that is what you have, and you go with it. If you have more than one, even at different ages, you have a bit more flexibility. The older children can help the younger children, which strengthens all their reading abilities. On the other hand, and if it is possible, work with other homeschool parents / teachers to bring children together to make the optimal group size of three or four students. This is a tricky one for homeschool parents, but it will produce the best gains in reading ability.