July 9, 2015

How to Organize Your Small Groups to PREVENT the Headache

Blog post on forming small groups and setting up a schedule that actually works! Especially helpful if you have guided reading groups. Tons of examples and all the forms are free, too! (The Thinker Builder)Imagine yourself on two separate trips to a popular tourist destination, let's say... to Paris.

Trip A is planned to the minute, maximizing your time, allowing you to see every landmark, statue, and sidewalk cafe recommended by your travel book. When you meet a few Paris natives who invite you out on the town for the afternoon, you decline because it doesn't fit into your itinerary.

Trip B is not planned. At all. You wander the streets all day shopping, soaking up the culture, and you sit outside all evening sipping wine and staring at the Eiffel Tower. On the last day of your stay, you realize you forgot to visit the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and the restaurant your friend recommended.

Do you see the pros and cons of both trips? Now let's look at the parallels between our Paris trips and organizing our Guided Reading Groups.

If we do it like Trip A, we are going to get a lot done. We're going to meet with the maximum number of groups possible. We're going to stick to the plan, come heck or high water. We're going to have a pretty-looking board that never changes because it's a house of cards. We're going to teach each group what's next on the plan, regardless of whether they are ready for it, and we're going to get stressed when an unscheduled school assembly pops up and dominoes start crashing all over the place.

But if we do it like Trip B, weeks will slip through our fingers like sand. We may not meet with our high groups until next week, because hey, they'll be alright. (And we'll likely say the same thing next week.) However, we will be responsive to our readers, teaching them what they need at that particular moment, partly because we've got nothing else planned. Soon we'll feel stressed because of the randomness and the lack of direction.

What we need is a balance of both.

We need structure to give us a big picture view and so our students know what to expect, but we also need flexibility to allow us to be responsive and to make changes without causing a flood of other problems.

I'm here for you. Let's walk through this together, so we can prevent the headaches caused by either extreme, and so we can get a system running that allows us to do what we were meant to do: guide readers.

Gather Data

Before we make any sort of weekly schedule for meeting with small groups, we need to gather enough information to feel comfortable with an approximate guided reading level for each student. I like to have multiple points to consider. These may include required district assessments and scores and levels from the end of the last school year, but definitely should include our own observations of each student reading, whether it be through a running record or an informal reading conference.

Form Groups

(Click for free download)
After two to three weeks of gathering data and listening to our students read, let's try grouping students. We'll start by placing every student on a guided reading level "spectrum," based on our data. If you'd like to use the planning templates I'll be using below, click HERE for a free copy. (Click HERE for a Reading Level Correlations Chart.)

I'll use a make-believe class of 27 third graders.

Across the top I labeled a spectrum of guided reading levels, from J to S in this case, and then I wrote each student's name underneath. You can see I felt like many students are split between two levels. That's okay.

Now let's group students with similar levels. Generally, we're looking for groups of 4-6 students, the lower level groups with the lowest numbers.

I broke my make-believe class into five groups. Let's just straighten it up a bit now:

Fill Slots

As a stepping stone to constructing a reading group schedule, next we're going to figure out how often per week we want to meet with each group. Remember that fair is not always equal here. We want to meet with below-grade-level groups more often than other groups, and our higher groups may do some of their reading "away from the table" to make up for fewer meetings.

I've assigned each group a color. Then I've drawn a box for each reading group "time slot" for a standard week. Use the literacy block schedule that you sketched out to help you determine how many time slots you'll have per day. (Need help making a literacy block schedule? Click HERE.) I'll use a 3-per-day model, which means I'll have 15 slots for the entire week.

Next we'll color in the rectangles to show how our slots will be filled. Here's one example:

I started with giving my lowest group five slots (one per day) and went from there. But now we need to remember the idea of balance. If a "standard" week has every slot filled, we are setting ourselves up for inflexibility and stress. So let's build in a few "flex" slots. We'll pencil-in a group meeting for these times, but we reserve the right to use them for other purposes. Here's an example with 3 flex slots.

Set a Schedule

Now we'll arrange our time slots into a weekly schedule. I keep a simple monthly calendar in a binder where each day is broken into three sections, one for each round of guided reading. On the board for display, I draw a grid for the weekly schedule, like below:

Did you also notice that the groups are all listed on the left? I put a colored strip of paper next to the names, to match up with the groups' colors, but I always write the names on the board itself (as opposed to writing or printing them onto the colored paper) to add flexibility. This way I can make adjustments easily by simply erasing names and rewriting them elsewhere. Also notice that I did NOT list the groups in the order of their levels. Let's not make it obvious, right?

Then we display in each time slot a colored card for the reading group with which we want to meet. Let's add in some extra flexibility too: let's plan to save 3-4 minutes of each slot for something else. I like to use these minutes to hold a brief individual reading conference. Just one, and just for a few minutes. We could also use these minutes to check-in with another reading group or extend the scheduled one if needed. Again, the point is, let's not make our "base model" all-filled-up. Below is a sample schedule:

Do you remember our three flex slots? Let's see what our schedule might look like if we incorporated them.

You can see three strategy groups in place of reading groups. These strategy groups are pulled together based on specific needs not necessarily related to reading level. For example, we notice Olaf, Mo, and Mark are having trouble understanding cause and effect, so we pull them together for a strategy group. Wow, there we go again, using the flexibility in our schedule to be responsive to students.

Displaying a full week's schedule of reading groups has its advantages. Another option, a little more towards the "Trip B" side, is to only display that day's reading group schedule. It could look like this:

Alternate Schedules

What if you plan to have two small group sessions each day instead of three? Why don't we walk through that scenario too. Here is one way to fill our ten time slots:

And then we create our weekly schedule, maybe like this:

Let's Change Classes...

If you feel good, let's call it a day. But if you want, let's take a different group of 27 kids through this process and see what changes.

Okay, we've gathered some reading data, and we place the students onto our spectrum:

You notice that overall, if this is a third grade class, we have more students reading below grade level than we did before.  Let's group them:

Did you notice Ravi way out there at level R/S? Sometimes that happens, where one student doesn't really fit with a group. What we'll do is go ahead and list Ravi with Pearl and Quincy's group, and he will meet with them sometimes, in order for him to have collaborative opportunities. But Ravi and I will also meet one-to-one (using our extra 3 minutes per time slot that we are saving) so we can use higher level texts.

Here are the groups straightened up:

We choose a color for each group, and we fill our slots. With more students below grade level, the sessions are spread a little more evenly.

Then we can put together a schedule. Notice how Ravi has three short individual conferences planned. And remember that a few of these slots can be flexible if we want them to be.

Just for good measure, let's create a schedule for a two-meeting-per-day week. Here is how we could fill our ten slots:

And here is a possible schedule:

*   *   *

Let's revisit the key point. Remember that in real "school life," there is rarely a perfect week. So when we set up our guided reading schedule with the expectation of perfection... absolutely no interruptions, perfect timing, and students soaking up our instruction like sponges: anything short of that begins to feel stressful. Can you sense the oncoming headache?

So let's design our small group schedule with enough flexibility that we can adjust our timing and teaching as needed. Maybe those perfect weeks will come, and if they do, we'll be ready for them, because we will be ready for anything.


  1. What a terrific post! Small groups can be such a headache and you are absolutely right when you say it's often because of the lack of flexibility. I love that your approach is both data-driven and well-organized, without being overly rigid. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas - very useful!

  2. Hi Michael!! I've been following your posts for a while now, and I always take away something useful. This post has been super helpful. I am curious, since your visuals are so beautiful, have you considered putting it up on your board via your projector? Thanks again!

    1. Hi Elizabeth! Thanks!
      I actually did use a "digital" board on my projector a few years ago when I had my rotation of reading groups back-to-back-to-back, and I could just leave the schedule up on the screen. But for the last few years I've been using Daily 5 in a way where we go from a small group session to a whole group session, back and forth, and since I was needing my projector for some of my whole group times, it was just an annoyance to keep switching it back and forth. That's really the only reason--trying to not annoy myself. :)

  3. Michael,
    Thank you for writing this article! I love how you shared visuals with each step in the process. I teach a 1st & 2nd combination class and use small groups and centers to keep myself sane as I tackle the huge range of needs. I've tried to make a visual for displaying my groups by color or name, but haven't found a system that worked. This one will work because it's fluid enough and doesn't pronounce "high" or "lower" levels.
    This will be a good resource for my readers also, so I linked to this article from my blog.
    Thank you again!!

  4. I just found you and I am in love! Is that okay to say? Your ideas are just what I need. I struggle with my ELA block every year and my small groups get away from me. I only wish you could come sit with me for a few hours and help me work through it all!

    1. I'm so glad it helps a bit! Please feel free to comment with a scenario you'd like some suggestions with, if you feel comfortable. I'd be happy to be a sounding board for you.

  5. Michael,
    First of all, you have an example child named Lila - which is my daughter's name & I NeVeR hear nor see it. Second, this seems like common sense, but it is so difficult for so many teachers. LOVE!!


  6. Wow! This is awesome! I like looking at it this way- so visual! Thanks for the explanation of how you make this work! I'm going to have to give it a try this year!

    Fervent First Grade Frenzy

  7. I'm about to start teaching 3rd grade for the first time. My school has an RTI block at the end of the day which is perfect for guided reading. This was a great way to set it up, it made sense, and I LOVED the visual. Thank you for making this so easy! I tend to overthink (and over schedule) my day, like Trip A :) Now I can find some balance.

  8. I just found your blog and I love it already. I teach third grade and I'm about to start my third year. I dread making the groups for reading because it is such a struggle. I love this template. Although how did you make yours so cute! Ha! I love the background. I want mine to look like that! The cuter it is the easier it is to plan....right?

    Halfway There

  9. Michael,
    Thank you so much! I have already shared your blog with several fellow teachers. I love the way you break up the planning process. I have been teaching for 8+ years, and I appreciate the simplicity of this system. The color coding speaks to the visual-learner side of me while the structure gives me some control. The past two years I have moved to more conferring and less small groups. Your system gives me the opportunity to combine the best of both worlds!

  10. This is fantastic! Great visuals to and a perfect balanced approach. Thank you!

  11. Michael,
    Wow! Thank you for all of your work. I love the way you put your thinking on the paper in a way that is so easy to see and understand. This work has helped me tremendously. (I lean a bit more toward the plan B-Paris-type person, because, plan A NEVER works for me...I'm somewhat spontaneous!)...I'm very excited to put this to good use during the all-too-soon, coming school year.

  12. Amazing! I'm so glad I came across this. Even though I will be departmentalized this year (math) I could totally use this. Thank you for sharing!

  13. Michael! What program do you use to make your visuals? Publisher? I would love to see a tutorial posts...Thank you!

    1. Hi Brooke,
      I use PowerPoint for everything. For all the visuals I used in this post, I inserted a chalkboard "digital paper" as a background, and then just inserted lines, rectangles, and text boxes. I don't mean to make it sound easy (it takes me hours to put them together), but at its core, they are really just a combination of those few elements. I definitely have picked up some tricks over time, which might be helpful... anything specific about one you are wondering about?

    2. I just found this post and am so excited to use this format this year and tackle grouping in my 7th grade classroom! Is there anyway I can get a copy of your powerpoint that you use so I can just modify it? I know you have put time into it I'm willing to pay for it!

  14. Hello :) I have never commented on a post until now...this was written PERFECTLY. I am in my 16th year and I struggle with this every.single.year. I try to use my data to drive my instruction to be planned for my groups, yet "school life" is never consistent! Thank you for giving me a resource to refer to, something to share with my colleagues, and for helping me feel more confident in my routines during reading time. Keep up the FABULOUS work!! :)

  15. Michael, Thank you for all the hard work you have put into this and sharing it with the rest of us. I am always grouping my student based on their needs, but this tracking system is fantastic! You have made my job 10 times easier!!! Thank you so very much!!

  16. Thank you for sharing your expertise in this article!! The visuals gave me a much better understanding of it all.

  17. We are required to have 3 different rotations....one for reading, one for writing, one for word study. So do you have three different calendars going?

  18. Would this work for Math Grouping too? If so, how would you go about it?

  19. Thank you for putting this out at the beginning of summer so we can read it and start implementing it in the "fall" or August!!!

  20. Love your posts and I really appreciate your "simplistic" way to do the grouping! Our school does ability grouping, so our students are already placed in "levels", but we all know that there is variety even in ability grouping! I also struggled with keeping good records, I just want to work with the kids! I love the other post of yours about using post-it notes, I am definitely going to be using that this next school year. Thanks so much for sharing all your knowledge, it is so nice to hear someone else say how they hate being bogged down with all the paperwork. Kudos to you for sharing your ideas and sheets! Best wishes for this next school year!

  21. Love how you broke this down into simple steps! Here's my conundrum: this coming year will be my 2nd year departmentalizing with 2 other teachers. I am the ELA teacher and struggled all last year with a 90-minute (and sometimes less) block of time to get everything in! (I was very jealous of the Sci/SS teacher's ability to fit all of her curriculum in!) Small group time seemed to be the component that was always left out. Do you have any suggestions for me?? I am Orton-Gillingham trained and love using it whole group as my phonics piece. Help, please!!!

    1. Hi Theresa!
      Wow, 90 minutes for ALL of the ELA components is just not enough, in my opinion, unless there is a purposeful effort to embed reading/writing into the content areas. But, working with the cards you're dealt, I think you should definitely read my post on organizing your literacy block. Here is the link:

      In that post, I give several scenarios, including one that works with a 90-minute block, but I also give some *hopefully* helpful advice on how to decide on what to spend your time and effort. There isn't much worse of a feeling than when you rush through EVERYTHING in order to "fit it all in" yet aren't able to do anything as well as you know you can.

      I hope that post helps you work out a good schedule!

  22. I am a visual learner and this is exactly what I needed! Thank you for simplifying my madness!!

  23. I loved this post! I have such a struggle with figuring out reading groups and timing them right. Thank you!!

  24. I would love if you could help me with my daily five groups. I always mess up on the grouping!

  25. I am beyond excited about this. I always have the hardest time creating schedules for my groups. I have created 4 level groups and a 5th group that "overlaps" and includes two of my much lower students who will receive special interventions that day. This has never been a simple process for me and I feel like a pro now. I could never have scheduled my groups with this much ease without your help. I also love that it gives me more accountability/ flexibility to incorporate my independent reading conferences! I am so grateful. Posting the link to this blog on my internal school page! I also sent it to my Assistant Principal. I am excited to bring their attention to the idea of "Flex time". Seriously, I cannot thank you enough, and for providing it for free! In this day and age that is almost unheard of. Thank you so very much!

    A grateful teacher :)

  26. I have been waiting my entire teaching career for this article. I start my winter benchmarking next week and I can't WAIT to try your technique!

  27. Micheal, I found this post by accident. I think it is part of what I have been looking for. I am a 7th grade ELA teacher with 60 minute classes. I REALLY need to figure out a way to do a version of the elementary model since our classes are heterogeneous (my inclusion class also includes my top reader/writer out of 111 students). We do not have flexible furniture, so I am further challenged by the physical nature of my room. Thank you for getting me started! The visuals are so helpful!

  28. Michael,

    This post is just wonderful and exactly what I needed to see to restructure my groups. I am a first year teacher and this helped me tremendously.

    Question, what program should I use to edit the template? I tried using the DocHub program which seemed like it would take alot of time since I need to insert a text box in every section I want to type. Any suggestions?


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