More schools are using running records to ­tailor instruction to the needs of children. This is especially important during guided reading, say Deborah Corpus and Ann Giddings, authors of Planning & Managing Effective Reading Instruction Across the Content Areas. But all children — those in grades 3 and up especially — need to be grouped in different ways.

Debbie's Thoughts

Unfortunately, in our culture, only those in the best group consider themselves good readers. In the old days, we'd privately give euphemistic names to reading groups: the "cardinals," the "bluebirds," and the "buzzards." Only the "cardinals" thought they were good readers. The other children decided they weren't good at reading and stopped trying. Inflexible grouping can demotivate students. But there are alternatives: flexible groups of varying sizes.

Here are some patterns:

Interest groups: Group three to four students based on interest in text sets (books on many reading levels on a theme or genre; e.g., basketball, mysteries, books in a series). Show them how to compare and contrast what they read through graphic organizers.

Book Buddies: Pair students who are reading the same book and give them big questions to discuss.

Skill Focus: Invite students to join a special group you are leading on how to handle issues that arise for older readers; e.g., how to track multiple characters, how to remember multiple plot lines across chapters, how to figure out who is speaking in dialogue.

Ann's Thoughts

There are many students who are able to think at levels higher than they are able to decode fluently. These children need the intellectual challenge and interactions found in groups based on their interests and level of social-emotional development. One way to do that is through flexible groups. But how can teachers organize the classroom schedule to accommodate these flexible groups?

Some possibilities:

Schedule Switch: Meet with assessment-­based guided reading groups on a "two weeks on/two weeks off" rotating schedule. Groups or pairs of students can meet during the two weeks they are not meeting for guided instruction.

Morning Reading: Use unstructured time at the beginning of the school day as children arrive and get settled. This can be a good time for book buddies to meet and discuss what they are reading.

Transition Time: Give students the option of meeting with their interest groups during those odd transition times before or after specials or while you are working with a guided reading group.

The Bottom Line

Just as you enjoy different groups of friends with various interests, your students will learn to enjoy the interactions offered through flexible grouping. You will find more information on grouping in some of our favorite professional books: Franki Sibberson and Karen Szymusiak's Still Learning to Read; Michael Opitz's Do-able Differentiation; Regie Routman's Reading Essentials; and Laura Robb's Teaching Reading in Middle School. Happy reading!