So often as teachers start with the Guided Reading Block, they will settle comfortably into a couple of formats in which they will have children read. Usually those frequently used formats are whole group approaches such as choral, echo, or shared reading mixed with partner reading. Partner reading seems to be the overwhelming favorite. Small group formats, however, can offer variety and can be much easier to manage than some teachers may imagine. This week we will discuss two small group formats that can benefit teachers and students alike.
First, before a grouping format is selected, the teacher must determine the level of support that the students need. If the students can practice the text without the direct support of the teacher, that is when the teacher chooses a small group or partner format where she is less instrumental. Whether the format selected is partner reading or small group, the teacher must still be sure that adequate support is offered within that setting for even the weakest of students involved.
The first of the small group formats is called a playschool group. The playschool group operates much the same way as the game of playing school among neighborhood children. All of the children in the class read from the same text. Prior to placing the children in small groups of four or five, the teacher delivers a whole group lesson that includes all of the elements of good guided reading instruction, such as connecting the children to prior knowledge about the topics, introducing a few vocabulary words, teaching a brief focused comprehension lesson, making predictions, and setting a purpose for reading. Then the children are placed in small groups that are likely to be heterogeneous, some high, medium and lower performing children in each. One child among the members of each group will be designated as the "teacher" for that day.
The "real" teacher must model and directly teach how the playschool group members will function in their group, especially the function of the "teacher" when it becomes their turn to take that role. The "teacher" will be responsible for some of the preliminaries for the group reading, asking such questions as; "Does anyone know what page we will start on today?" "Everyone turn to page __. What is the title of today’s story?" "Who is the author of the story?" "Today we are supposed to read to find out ... (whatever the "real" teacher has said is the purpose for reading)." "What page will we stop reading on today?"
No round-robin reading occurs during this format. The reading may be done in one of two ways: 1) everyone in the group reads chorally in a whisper voice with the "teacher" setting the pace of the reading; or 2) everyone reads silently and stops where the teacher has determined they should stop. The choice for which method of reading depends solely on how much support each group member needs. If the teacher feels that each group member can read the text adequately, then she may either dictate that the group should read silently or she can leave the decision up to the group members that day. However, if a group has members who can not negotiate the text, the teacher (the "real" one) should insist that the group read together with their whisper voices. Not all groups will have to read the same way. The teacher might say, "I want these two groups to read silently and these two groups to read together with your whisper voices today."
Once the text has been completed, the "teacher" in each group will lead the group to fulfill the task or purpose that the teacher established in the introductory portion of the lesson. After most or all of the groups have accomplished this task, the "real" teacher pulls the class back together in a whole group to follow up on how they completed their tasks.
One additional management tip for the playschool format is to place a "child of the day" in each of the groups---a Monday child in each group, etc. Then, whatever day of the week the playschool group is operating will dictate which student gets to be the "teacher" in the group that day. This is an impartial way to handle the assignments, giving each child a fair chance. Teachers will want to be sure that each child eventually gets a shot at being the teacher for a day. The students seem to enjoy both the teacher and the student roles in this format
Next, another small group format is the Book Club grouping. All kids love to belong to a club, so this format is particularly popular. Teachers at all grade levels can use this format, although the teachers at the upper grades tend to use it more frequently as they move kids into novels/chapter books. This grouping allows teachers to place students in different books that are read simultaneously group to group. Occasionally, teachers use this format for different groups to explore the same book, though, from different perspectives.
When different books are used for the small groups, the teacher usually introduces each of the titles to the whole class. She might do a "Reading Rainbow" type of book talk on each of the titles or might read just a "snip-it" of each to interest the children in what that book has to offer. Then, the books are placed on display in various places in the room. Usually about four different titles are offered to the class. An index card is given to each child with instructions to visit the displays over the next couple of days. As they visit the displays, they should make decisions about which books they would most like to read. On the index card, they should rank order their top three choices. The teacher assures the students that they will get one of their three choices, though not necessarily their top choice.
For this activity, the teacher makes decisions about book choices based on several considerations. First, she will likely pick four books based on the same theme---four non-fiction books on whales; four fictional books on kids who are problem solvers; or even two fictional books and two non-fictional books dealing with heroes of different types. The books may vary in readability levels; however, some students may not list the book that is most appropriate to their level as one of their three choices. So, the teacher has some flexibility in her assignments but some limits as well. The teacher will consider the support children will need to handle the books and will consider how much support the group members will need to offer each other to be successful.
Once the teacher makes assignments, placing equal numbers of students in each of the four groups, she sets up the room for Day 1 of the Book Club. Multiple copies of the same titles are placed in the four groups around the room with the chairs arranged in a group setting, or, if a teacher is comfortable with kids sitting in groups on the floor, that is workable as well. Charts showing group assignments are available so children can find their places.
For maximum effect, the teacher should still conduct an introductory whole group lesson with those same good elements—connecting to prior knowledge, introducing concept vocabulary, offering a comprehension mini-lesson, and setting a purpose for reading. Some of the elements can be handled by the group members. For example, each group may begin by brainstorming what they already know about a topic and completing the "K" and "W" on a KWL chart. Giving kids responsibility for their own learning is a very effective technique when facilitated skillfully by the teacher.
The teacher should also dictate how much each group should read each day in an attempt to keep all of the groups together as much as possible. Because the novels might take a couple of weeks, it would be problematic to have a group finishing a week before the others! One person in each group could be assigned to call a halt on a given page shared with that student by the teacher. The "student of the day" (the Monday, Tues., Wed., kids) can be the leaders or "teachers" in the groups to keep them on task.
The closure activities during Book Club days are truly rich when each group shares a little different perspective about the same topic. This shared diversity is a lesson in itself!
With practice, both the playschool and the Book Club formats can enrich the classroom Guided Reading Block and can be conducted with relative ease. Variety in each of the blocks should be a goal for teachers who are now in the implementation stage of refining the blocks. Both of these formats put responsibility on the students for their own learning, and students seem to embrace and enjoy that new role. Give it a try!