Flexible grouping allows students to work in differently mixed groups depending on the goal of the learning task at hand, then to break apart once the task is completed. Here are a number of flexible grouping options and ways to assemble children, to facilitate the teaching of reading.
I'm convinced! Good fortune is sometimes disguised as misfortune. Take, for example, an experience I had a few years ago that led me to examine flexible grouping for reading instruction.

Prior to my arrival as a reading specialist in an elementary school, the staff had decided to teach children with additional learning needs within their classrooms rather than in a separate setting. As part of this plan, specialists came into the classrooms and worked with the teachers and students using a newly adopted literature based basal reading program. Teachers were to have all students read the anthology designated for their grade level instead of having them read the texts that corresponded to youngsters' actual reading performance.

I questioned how teachers would be able to meet students' needs this way. My attempt to find an answer led me to reexamine ability grouping - which I found to be based on faulty assumptions, such as that children can be grouped by ability. For one, researchers have noticed that innate ability is difficult to determine and that children are grouped, instead, according to achievement. The result is that students with different needs may be placed in the same "homogeneous" group because of their total reading scores. For example, children may take a reading test composed of two parts - vocabulary and comprehension. The test will provide a total score, but a closer look will show that the scores are achieved in different ways. Some children will be strong in vocabulary and weak in comprehension, and vice versa. Thus, depending on the focus of the group-say, vocabulary or comprehension - a child may have difficulty. In other words, some differentiated instruction must occur if all children are to be successful. Most often, one plan does not suffice. Flexible grouping is needed.

Flexible grouping allows students to work in differently mixed groups depending on the goal of the learning task at hand, then to break apart once the task is completed. When I think of flexible grouping, I picture working with sand castles that the tide will wash away. I think of ability grouping as working with concrete to build permanent foundations meant to withstand change. Most often, as mentioned, ability groups reflect children's overall reading achievement. In contrast, flexible grouping fulfills a variety of purposes, from enabling students to use their strongest modalities and promoting group interaction to the teaching of specific skills. After lessons are learned, the group dissolves.

First-grade teacher Susan Anderson explains it this was: "When you have children ranging from mildly mentally handicapped to gifted in one room, it is important for each child to feel as much ownership of the material as possible. When a beginning reader holds, tracks, and reads the same material as a more experienced reader, the message is powerful. We don't all learn to read at the same pace, but there are many reading experiences we can share and from which we can learn. Using flexible grouping enables everyone to feel empowered."

Grouping Options

Here are a number of flexible grouping options, ways to assemble children, to facilitate the teaching of reading:

Random: This is creating groups arbitrarily, which you can do in a variety of ways, such as picking names from a hat. Random grouping is good when forming groups of equal size or when you'd like students to get to know one another.

Social, or cooperative: Consider grouping students according to specific social skills when they need to function in different roles, such as leaders and followers. Students can learn different roles form one another and work together to complete a group task.

Interest: Assign students to a group or have them assign themselves to a group based on interest in a topic, such as a favorite animal. Use this when student interest is the main motivation for learning about a topic.

Task: Group together those children who are successful at completing certain types of activities when you want students to use their strongest modality to show understanding. For example, when having students dramatize a story, ask those who are artistic to paint a theatrical backdrop and those with musical talent to play an instrument.

Knowledge of subject: Group together students with knowledge of a certain subject or hobby when you want them to recognize similarities among one another and to share information.

Skill/strategy: Group together students who need help with a particular skill or strategy, such as using context clues.

Student choice: Students can group themselves according to a category, such as author or genre. For instance, if your class is studying Beverly Cleary, you can have students list their favorite books by Cleary on an index card and then group by choice. Use this approach when you want to create literature-response groups in which students take the lead

Teaching Strategies
RandomXX X  
Social or Cooperative XXXXX
Interest  XXXX
TaskX XX  
Knowledge of Subject   XXX
Skill/StrategyX X  X
Student Choice   XXXX

Teaching Strategies

Different grouping options lend themselves to different Teaching Strategies. To implement flexible grouping successfully to teach reading, you will have to use a wide range of Teaching Strategies and know which ones work best with which grouping options.

For a detailed description of helpful strategies, refer to the chart above. The chart illustrates which Teaching Strategies are most effective with which flexible grouping options.

The following examples demonstrate how grouping options and Teaching Strategies work together. As you will see, the literature you are teaching will also play an important role in helping you select grouping options and strategies.

  • Students read Laura Numeroff's Two for Stew. Paired reading would be a good teaching strategy because the story is a conversation between a customer and a waiter. Random grouping might be a good option because you are concerned primarily with having groups of equal size.
  • Students read Robert Sneddens's nonfiction What is a Bird? Because you will have to provide support for several readers, you may choose the cooperative reading as your teaching strategy. Cooperative grouping would be would be a useful option because the text appears in six chunks, or passages. Each group can read a different chunk and report essential information to the rest of the class.
  • Students read a common text, such as Lois Lowry's Number the Stars. Recognizing that the book is too difficult for some students, you may choose the single title, varied-mode teaching strategy and group students by task because this approach will enable them to read the text using their strongest modality.

Flexible Grouping in Action

Flexible grouping, can of course, take place throughout the school day to facilitate learning in all subject areas. But as it relates to reading instruction, flexible grouping is utilized when the teacher is reading aloud, providing support to students (guided reading), or facilitating independent reading or shared reading. Generally speaking, I liked to begin and end a lesson with the whole class in order to build a sense of community.

To show you how flexible grouping works in classroom teaching, let's take a good look at how Mary, a third grade teacher, and I combined a flexible grouping method and teaching strategy to develop a lesson plan.

First, as past of a larger unit on folktales, Mary and I chose three objectives: to develop students' reading fluency; to enhance their listening comprehension; and to teach them the characteristics of folktales. The book we selected was Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain, by Verna Aardema. We decided to use the cut-apart teaching strategy and the random flexible grouping action.

Before reading: We started with the whole class to help build community. We talked about the elements of folktales, provided background for the story, invited students to preview the book, and introduced key vocabulary. I also printed the entire story on chart paper, using different colors for each different verse and black for repeated verses.

During reading/flexible grouping: The cut-apart strategy allowed students to practice reading a numbered selection of text to themselves. Following this, each student contributed to the class read-aloud by reading his or her section. We then randomly grouped students into sets of four. Each group was given one page of the chart-paper version to practice reading. Afterward, the chart pages were put on display.

After reading: We had each group read aloud its part in turn, using the charts. The whole class joined in to read the words in black print. In this way, students could see clearly that the text was cumulative.

Together, all three phases -before, during, and after - provided a thorough lesson that helped students become stronger readers.

Reading for All

Perhaps most important, when using flexible grouping in the classroom, know that you are not always teaching for mastery. What you are attempting to do is expose all students to the same grade-level content. You are giving all students the opportunity to learn to read by reading with necessary support from others. In a sense, you are teaching the reader rather than the reading.

Teaching Strategies to Use With Flexible Grouping

Linked with the proper flexible grouping options, the following Teaching Strategies provide for children's individual differences. The goal: to help your students experience success and, so become better readers.

Cooperative Reading Activity (CRA). This strategy involves chunking, or dividing informational text into passages. It enables groups of learners to read a passage and report important information to classmates.

Cut-Apart. Dividing a story into enough sections so that every student or small group has a part to read. This strategy enables all students to read a single story successfully, develops fluency through repeated reading, enhances listening comprehension, and provides for purposeful oral reading.

Genre Study. Students read different titles related to the same genre, enabling all learners to contribute to the same theme regardless of achievement levels.

Single Title, Varied Mode. Students read one title in several ways, such as independent reading, collaborative reading, or using recorded versions. This strategy provides the varying levels of support that different children need.

Text Sets. These are sets of books related to a common element or topic. Each student may read a different book related to the topic. Like genre study, this activity enables all children to read about the same topic regardless of their achievement levels.

Paired Reading. Students work with partners to read a text. Paired reading provides students with meaningful oral reading practice and helps develop fluency in a nonthreatening way.