SECTION 5: Small group instruction

SECTION 5: Small group instruction

Small group instruction is an opportunity for teachers to group children according to their stage of development as readers and writers. It affords teachers the opportunity to focus on a small number of children and to ensure that their learning is progressing, including noticing any difficulties and responding in a timely manner. 

The primary focus of small group lessons in the early stages of learning to read will be mastering the written code for reading and writing, that is, mastering the knowledge and skills for word recognition. This requires students to master knowledge of the alphabetic principle so that they can instantly connect sounds and letters (phonemes and graphemes), which then allows them to blend to decode and segment to spell. These skills are essential for automatic word reading. Small group teaching also provides opportunities for building language comprehension, as students check that what they have decoded makes sense. Teaching in small groups should be explicit and carefully scaffolded.

In this section

Structuring a small group lesson

Here is an example of how to structure a small group lesson:

The lesson planThe principles of instruction in action
• Review knowledge of letters or graphemes as per the scope and sequence (read and write)
• Review high utility words taught previously with quick corrections as necessary
• Review of previous learning
• Check responses of all students
• Record any issues or content to re-teach for individual students
New knowledge
• Explicit teaching of new knowledge as per the scope and sequence
• New knowledge can be at letter and word level (such as high utility words to be taught)
• Limit the amount of material covered in each lesson
• Chunk learning into small steps giving opportunities to practise each step
• Provide clear, detailed instructions with explanations
• Provide systematic feedback and corrections
• Reteach as needed
Apply knowledge to skill
• Blend to decode words
• Segment to spell words
• Progress as per the scope and sequence
• Practise automatic reading of these words
• Think aloud and model steps
• Use models to show the new knowledge and skills
• Provide high levels of active practice
• Guide students as they begin to practise
• Check the responses of all students
• Provide systematic feedback and corrections
• Re-teach as needed
• Prepare students for independent practice
• Ask students to explain what they have learned
• Provide multiple examples
Apply skills to reading and writing tasks
• Use skills to read and write text
• Monitor students while they engage in independent practice

Videos to watch

Please note, when the video plays, you can use the controls at the bottom of the player to expand the video to full screen.

Fullscreen icon

Small group instruction sequence at Cashmere School

Carolyn explains how she puts together a series of activities during a small group literacy session.

Small group instruction sequence at Hokowhitu School

Tracy explains how she puts together a series of activities during a small group literacy session.

Rapid review

The role of daily review is to strengthen previous learning and to enable fluent recall. Immediate recall of letter-sound or grapheme-phoneme correspondences is vital for being able to blend to read a word and segment to write a word. In early lessons, rapid review involves single letters and the associated phoneme. More advanced rapid review involves graphemes of letter groups (such as oa, igh, ou). 

Rapid review: read

Rapid review (read) is an opportunity to embed the knowledge of seeing a letter and associating the correct sound. The letters have been taught in previous lessons. The main aim of the rapid review is to develop automaticity and speed. 

Rapid review read: using a card pack

A letter pack is used for the sounds the children have previously been taught. By placing a letter card in front of each child, the teacher is able to immediately assess children’s progress, recording any difficulties for later re-teaching

Rapid review read: using manipulatives

Magnetic letters are used to give children the opportunity to identify the letter connected to the sound said by the teacher. The children organise the letters into alphabetic order so that they are also learning where the letter is located in the alphabet.

Rapid review read: using cards (advanced)

The teacher shows how rapid review takes place once the children have advanced to more complex graphemes (e.g., ou, igh, i_e).

Rapid review: write

Rapid review (write) involves the immediate recall of letter formation. Immediate recall is important for later fluency in writing words and sentences. This part of the lesson provides learners with the opportunity to master this skill accurately. The review builds on previous teaching but also gives teachers the chance for any corrections.

Rapid review write

Anna Blay from Hokowhitu School explains how she uses individual small whiteboards to support students with writing, including the skills of moving from sound to symbol and correct letter formation.

Rapid review write: using pencils

The children use exercise books and pencils. Pencils provide resistance, a form of feedback as they form the letter. The teacher observes closely to ensure children are forming letters correctly and takes time to assist those having initial difficulty. The teacher will record that this child needs more time to master these letter formations.

Teach new knowledge

This section of the lesson focuses on the explicit teaching of new knowledge according to the scope and sequence. Teachers have the opportunity to ensure new knowledge is systematically and cumulatively taught, and to notice and respond to children’s learning efforts. At first, the new knowledge will be recognition and formation of single letters. More advanced learning includes graphemes of two, three, and four letters (such as sh, oa, igh). 

New knowledge: read and write (early)

Students are introduced to the new sound /p/ and the letter ‘p’. The use of pictures and objects provides concrete examples for the abstract concept of phonemes. The children are shown the letter we use for the sound /p/ on a letter card and the teacher then demonstrates how to form that letter by hand. The children then attempt the new letter by themselves.

New knowledge: when a child has difficulty

The teacher explicitly teaches a child who has difficulty securing letter knowledge. She takes time to show and explain the new sound /o/ and the letter ‘o’. She uses large movement and multi-sensory activities to help the learner embed the learning.

Blending and segmenting

The skills of blending and segmenting are the crux of learning to read and store words. Blending involves seeing the letter and saying the sound. Segmenting involves saying the word and identifying the sounds and the letters for each sound to write the word.

Word skills: Segmenting using letter tiles

Students use blocks to identify the phonemes in a word and then find coresponding letter tiles. They then read and write the word they have made. This allows children to both segment and blend a word, plus reread their list of words to practice for automaticity.

Word skills: segmenting using sound blocks

The children use ‘sound blocks’ and ‘phoneme fingers’ to identify the sounds in a word the teacher says. The teacher models how to listen for the sounds and write the words, with participation from the group. The teacher then assigns a word to each child for them to write on their whiteboards. 

Word skills: using manipulatives

A sound swap approach is used whereby children segment a word, find the letters that make up the word, and read the word, before listening for a new word and changing the letters to make the new word, and finally blending and checking that they have made that word – for example, starting with the word ‘met’ and changing it to ‘men’.

Word skills: teacher modelling writing

The teacher employs a sound swap exercise using their whiteboard. The teacher changes the first letter of a c-v-c word and asks the children to decode the new word. The children have multiple opportunities to decode words and to embed that orthographic pattern.

Word skills: segmenting using whiteboards

The teacher says a word and the children identify the sounds with support. The children write four c-v-c words and find the words as the teacher calls them out. Children can also read the words in their list to practice for automaticity.

Word reading: c-v-c word focus

Children apply decoding skills to read c-v-c word on pieces of paper in front of them. Often the children can automatically read the word, although at other times they blend to decode it. There is also an opportunity for the teacher to ensure children know the meanings of the words.

Word reading: using newly taught patterns

Children turn over a card and read the word on it, which relates to the target spelling pattern. The children are blending the sounds to decode but the aim is that the children will eventually read the words automatically.

New knowledge: when a child has difficulty

The child was not successful with decoding the v-c word on the card, so the teacher supports them by giving letter cards to physically move and ‘scoop’ the sounds together. She returns the child to cards using the embedded alphabet that has supported him with letter-learning. The clip shows the success the child has as the teacher increases the support and then hands over responsibility to him.

Automatic word reading

Once students can blend to decode a word, they need opportunities to see that particular word pattern multiple times so that it can be read automatically. The aim is for students to see the word and immediately say it. Some students need longer than others to confidently secure these word patterns.

Word reading: developing automaticity (advanced)

Children have multiple opportunities to read words with the orthographic patterns they have been learning. While this primarily is a speed-reading task, the teacher takes the opportunity to check in on the spelling rule and the meaning of the words.

High-utility words

There are some words that are outside the spelling patterns for the main orthographic focus, at any point of a scope and sequence. For instance, the words ‘I’, ‘my’, and ‘the’ cannot be explained with c-v-c knowledge but are needed in everyday reading and writing at an early level. Children can learn to read these words off by heart and they are often called ‘heart’ words or ‘sight’ words.

Learning heart words

Dr Helen Walls explains what heart words are and why it is important that children learn these off by heart, and also demonstrates an effective method for teaching students’ heart words in a small group lesson. 

Apply skills to text (read and write)

The ultimate purpose of teaching discrete knowledge and skills through the small group lesson is so that children can apply these independently when reading a book or writing a sentence. This section of the lesson gives the students the chance to apply the skills learned in that particular lesson as well as previous lessons.

For reading, the books will be carefully chosen to support the teaching in the lesson. At first, the books will have no ‘tricks’, meaning that the students have all the skills they need to read the book. 

The main focus when reading the text is for children to read the sentence by accurately decoding each word. Once the words are decoded, children should check for meaning.

Decodable texts – teacher perspective

Liz Longley from Hokowhitu School explains how and why she uses decodable texts during small group instruction. 

Reading a text – teacher perspective

Kate Smith from Nayland Primary School explains the role that reading a text plays during small group instruction and how they approach reading decodable texts. 

Apply skills to reading a text: focus pattern ‘sh’

The teacher has chosen a text that uses the target spelling pattern ‘sh’. The children read in unison while the teacher checks for accuracy as well as children’s meaning-making after they have read a page. On some pages, the teacher asks the children to find words with the target pattern.

Apply skills to reading a text: decode and check meaning

This is the second day this text is being read. The children decode and read each sentence using unison reading and whisper reading. The teacher monitors progress and provides feedback. After reading each page, the children check the picture and the teacher instigates a short discussion. Having read the book, children choose their favourite picture and explain their reasons. This enables the teacher to scaffold oral language beyond a single-word answer.

Apply skills to reading a text: focus pattern ‘ou’ and ‘ow’

The teacher has chosen a text that uses the ‘ou’ and ‘ow’ pattern regularly. The children read in unison with the teacher probing around words with the specific spelling pattern and checking for meaning by discussing a page after it has been decoded.

Writing a text

Writing a text is a controlled task. The teacher designs a sentence that uses the skills and knowledge appropriate to the scope and sequence. The sentence may be one from the book that the students will read. The teacher dictates the sentence and closely observes as the students write.

Apply skills to writing: writing c-v-c words

The teacher has designed sentences for the children to write, using the pattern taught during the lesson. She says the sentence and the children listen for the sounds and write the words in their books. The children then have the chance to read the sentence they wrote.

Apply skills to writing text: using the digraph ‘sh’

The teacher says a sentence taken from the book the children read that day. The children have the chance to write the dictated sentence, which includes words featuring the target pattern.

Apply skills to writing text: writing multiple sentences

The teacher dictates one sentence at a time, using the target spelling pattern. The children read aloud the sentences after writing.

Did you find this article useful?

If you enjoyed this content, please consider making a charitable donation.

Become a supporter for as little as $1 a week – it only takes a minute and enables us to continue to provide research-informed content for teachers that is free, high-quality and independent.

Find out more >

Close popup Close
Register an Account