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Is grouping a good idea?

Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.

Grouping is one of those topics that has some very negative connotations associated with it.  Often we hear people refer to "ability grouping" as though it was a dirty word, and when we use the generic term "grouping," sometimes people leap to the conclusion that what is meant is "ability grouping."

It seems that what made ability grouping so distasteful was the way that children were dumped into a group that never changed.  Once a child was labeled a "blackbird," the child was always a "blackbird."  Children in different groups read from different primers, and followed a different curriculum throughout the whole year, and there was little opportunity to move to a different group.  Ability grouping also ignored the complexity of reading acquisition -- all children who had difficulty learning to read were placed in the same group even though the underlying causes for their difficulties may have been quite diverse.

The qualifier "flexible" usually sets people at ease when talking about grouping.  With flexible grouping, children move in and out of groups depending on what the lesson is.  A child in a group receiving intensive phoneme awareness instruction may not be in the group receiving intensive language development instruction.  Children are moved from group to group based upon their individual instructional needs.  Unsworth (1984) described the hallmarks of effective flexible grouping, which included:

  • Groups are not permanent
  • Groups are periodically created, changed, or disbanded to meet changing student needs.
  • At times, there is only one group, consisting of all students in a class.
  • Group sizes vary depending upon need and purpose.
  • Students in groups should understand how the group's work relates to the overall program or task.
  • Students in groups should know how to evaluate their own progress.
  • There should be a clear strategy for supervising the group's work.

This form of flexible grouping can be very effective because children can spend more time getting instruction in areas where they need the most support from the teacher.  So why isn't it universal?  Why isn't flexible grouping what we see in every classroom?  The answer is twofold.

First, in order to group students effectively, teachers must be adept at giving and interpreting ongoing reading assessment.  Children -- especially young children -- are growing and developing new skills constantly.  Teachers must therefore constantly assess and respond to the child's knowledge and skills.  A child who does not have phoneme awareness today can literally have full phoneme awareness tomorrow.  Children must be assessed often, and their placement in groups should always be based on the most recent assessment information available.

Second, in order to have confidence about moving children from group to group, the teacher needs to have a very sophisticated understanding of how children learn to read.  There are some behaviors that appear to the untrained eye to be insignificant, but which speak volumes to a knowledgeable teacher.  It is like the doctor in the emergency room deciding what sort of attention each patient needs.  One patient may come in with what appears to a layman to be a terrible trauma, but which the doctor's knowledgeable eye recognizes as a superficial injury.  Another patient may appear to be reasonably healthy, but the doctor may move them in for immediate attention.  That sophisticated diagnostic skill is the key that underlies both good medicine and good reading instruction.

So how do teachers gain that level of sophistication about reading acquisition?  Their college education is the best place to start.  It is common across this country to certify teachers who have had very little formal education in reading instruction.  Teachers in some states can be certified for elementary education with as little as 6 credit hours of "reading" coursework, and often 3 of those hours are courses in children's literature.  A "psychology of reading" course is almost unheard of.  A course that focuses on how children learn to read (rather than on instructional activities or reading curricula) is also a rare find.  Teachers clearly need to have some instruction in good instructional practice, but that instruction should be complemented with a critical examination of reading as a cognitive process.

To help teachers gain a more sophisticated understainding of reading acquisition, Dr. Sebastian Wren developed a cognitive framework of reading acquisition for the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.  This reasonably brief document provides an overview of what years of research has revealed to be the essential cognitive foundations of reading acquisition.  A graphic that conveys the interrelationships that exist among the various cognitive elements helps teachers to visualize how the various knowledge domains (such as knowledge of the alphabetic principle, phoneme awareness, background knowledge, etc.) fit together to support reading comprehension.  You can download a copy of his framework here (in PDF format), or you can explore his framework and related resources on-line.

There are also a host of books and web-based resources which can help teachers to develop a sophisticated understanding of reading:

Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print by Marilyn Jager Adams.  This book should be in every elementary school teacher's professional library.  If there is one book that is a "must read" this is clearly it.

Best Practices in Literacy Instruction by Linda Gambrell, Lesley Mandel Morrow, Susan B. Neuman, and Michael Pressley.  This book is a collection of articles written by various reading researchers, and many of the articles describe research related to flexible grouping.  I would especially pay attention to the chapter by D. Ray Reutzel titled "Organizing literacy instruction: Effective grouping strategies and organizational plans."

What Really Matters for Struggling Readers by Richard Allington.  This book describes effective, individualized instruction that helps students make rapid gains in achievement.  This book also describes the importance of well-trained, highly qualified teachers (see I is for Instruction, and H is for Highly Qualified Teachers.)

Classrooms that Work by Richard Allington and Patricia Cunningham.  This book, and its companion book, Schools that Work describe effective classroom instruction, and focus on the importance grouping and individualized instruction.

Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science (PDF document) by Louisa Moats.  This is a very brief overview written for the Amercian Federation of Teachers that summarizes what every teacher should know about how children learn to read.

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Last Updated 8-7-03