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
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
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:
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.
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."
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.)
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.
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