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3 Steps to Keeping Students’ Anxiety Low and Engagement High

Kickstarting Small-Group Reading Instruction

September 1, 2023

by: Dr. Nancy Akhavan

5 mins


Pop quiz! Teaching reading in small groups can:

A. Make teachers break out in hives

B. Lead to self-medication with grande caramel macchiatos

C. Accelerate students’ reading 

D. Jumpstart a warm, inclusive classroom culture 

The answer: All of the above. 

I won’t sugarcoat it—getting groups up and running takes time and confidence. And like so many things in life, what confidence does is help us start small and be fine with that. In this blog, I focus on three—just three!—first steps. The mantra to keep in mind throughout is: You are creating flexible, short-term experiences for students. Anything you do, you can tweak week to week. 

1. Assess. The first step is to assess your students’ reading ability. Generally, what you are discovering is: How many students this year are on grade level? Above grade level expectations? Below grade level? Knowing this information helps you think about whole-group instruction relative to small-group instruction. You may be giving a set of assessments based on direction from your school or district in September, but remember, the most important use of this data is determining how to group students and then deciding on your first targets for instruction. The key is to prioritize. For example:

  • In grades K–3, you may be assessing phonemic awareness knowledge, letter-sound knowledge (phonics), decoding ability and fluency, and comprehension. Giving several assessments can be overwhelming, so keep focused on your purpose.
  • If you are teaching pre-readers, you will want to assess phonemic awareness ability and letter-sound knowledge. Kindergarten students require an alphabet assessment as well. 
  • If you are teaching students who have begun reading, you will want to assess letter-sound knowledge for all letters and letter patterns that make up the sounds in the English language. Look for a high-quality, comprehensive spelling assessment. You also need to assess students’ decoding ability while reading and check their comprehension after they finish a short book or text. 
  • If you are teaching students in grades three and up, you will want to assess their ability to decode multisyllabic words, their fluency rate, and, most importantly, their comprehension. And to tease out the comprehension further:
    • First, you want to know if they can pronounce all the words in the text; that is, how to measure their ability to decode multisyllabic words. 
    • Next, focus on their comprehension of the text and see if they can do a simple retelling and answer a handful of questions that go deeper than a recount. Fluency is important, but there really isn’t a magic answer to the rate – what is important to keep in mind is students’ fluency needs to be at a pace where their minds are free to focus on comprehension, not just decoding. 

2. Group. The second step is to group students. Group students in a way that makes the most sense for meeting your students’ needs and your schedule. Group students in a way that provides the opportunity to teach the students the skills and strategies they need next; don’t focus on grouping solely by levels to teach sets of books at a given level.  Also consider:
You will want to meet with each group for 20-30 minutes several times a week.

  • For reading groups at the start of the school year, you will have groups for students below grade level, on-grade level, and above grade level to best target skill gaps but keep the short-term, flexible mantra in mind. Data from progress monitoring help you shift group membership and:
  • Kids are kids, so I encourage you to use their wonderful bounty of social-emotional needs, cultural bonds and diversity, personality, friendships, participation styles, and so on to help you form groups that thrive.
  • English Language Learners in reading groups and any group develop along a continuum of language acquisition. Be familiar with it and make grouping decisions in light of that. Children acquiring English as an additional language need lots of time to listen and lots of oral language experience when they are ready. 
  • Small-group instruction is a “lower-stakes” supportive setting compared to whole-class instruction, so make grouping decisions based on the premise that teaching reading is just as much about inviting talking, listening, and writing during the small-group time. When students feel safe and supported, all four language domains develop. 

3. Plan. The third step is to plan instruction. Small-group reading lessons need to be strategic and data-based. Whether you plan a lesson to provide additional demonstration and practice of a skill introduced in whole-class instruction or to give you a chance to assess, take heart that you are always being strategic; you are always using up-to-the-minute knowledge of your students to zoom in with just-in-time instruction.  By using the data you collected early in September, you can set up small-group lessons that include the following actions:

  • Phonemic awareness activities and games focused on segmenting and blending sounds.
  • Letter and sound activities focused on students learning the sound-symbol connections and then combing letters into words that they can decode fluently.
  • Heart word/sight word activities that help students read words they are not yet ready to decode because they have not learned all sound-symbol patterns.
  • Language development opportunities are built around texts that students are reading.
  • Comprehension discussions that lead to writing opportunities about the text read.

No matter how carefully you plan your groups, you may still run into some bumps. Some students may not be comfortable participating in group activities. They may express their anxiety with disruptive behavior as you set up expectations for how the group will work together. There are some common triggers for emotions that students might experience during groups, and you can take different actions to help all students be successful and supported while at the reading table. 

Tips for Easing Student Anxiety

Common Triggers for Negative Emotions  Try This...
Students are grouped with peers they don’t know or are intimidated by. 
  • Use flexible grouping. 
  • Occasionally group students with other students who are also language learners so that the focus can be on discussing and using language in ways that are comfortable for the multilingual learners. 
  • Always group students with buddies who make them feel comfortable or who can help them.
  • Occasionally group students by reading acquisition level to support the reading level or reading strategy being worked with.
Students feel pressure to speak.

When students are beginning to learn English, minimize the pressure.
As students acquire language, encourage them to speak up but never demand that they speak. If they don’t want to speak, find other ways to express themselves, perhaps whisper talking only with you or a friend, or by writing down their thoughts.

Students feel pressure to read aloud.
  • Focus on having students read aloud only to themselves (when others are simultaneously reading aloud to themselves), so students realize no one will be listening to them) and invite them to read aloud to you or whisper read (perhaps using a whisper phone), or do not have them read aloud at all if they are becoming fairly fluent readers and need to work on pronunciation and vocabulary “in their head”  before saying it aloud. 
  • Be accepting of errors and encourage students to talk. They don’t need to say things perfectly. Instead of correcting orally, model by restating what the student said, but say it the correct way. In writing one-on-one, pick one or two points and teach the correct way of writing the word or sentence, but don’t address everything. Be positive about errors; the more students talk and write, the more their errors will naturally decrease. 
Composition of the group at the table  Supportive groups are the best. It doesn’t matter if they are heterogenous or homogenous. What matters is you develop a classroom culture of respect for all students, not only students learning English. 
Presentation of language Focus on comprehension + just a little bit more. Use realia—pictures, diagrams, videos, and so forth, to ensure language is understandable. Using hands-on manipulatives, whiteboards, virtual whiteboards, flashcards, sentence strips, writing journals, laptops (for multimedia), magnetic letters, magnetic word tiles, and other tactile tools supports students as they learn language.

Researcher John Hattie has shown that small group instruction has an effect size of .47. which puts it in the category of a highly effective practice. So don’t wait too long before starting reading groups! You can begin to differentiate instruction as soon as you have established your classroom culture and welcome students to begin their reading journey. 

About the Author

Dr. Nancy Akhavan has spent more than 30 years as an educator and consultant. Dr. Akhavan is the founder of Nancy Akhavan Consulting, Inc. She recently retired from Fresno State as an Associate Professional in Educational Leadership. Dr. Akhavan has been a bilingual teacher, principal of three schools, and a district administrator of a large urban district for ELA, math, social studies, science, and world languages. She also served as Assistant Superintendent Secondary Division in a large urban school district.

Dr. Akhavan is recognized for her expertise in teaching literacy practices and has published thirteen books that focus on literacy instruction that increases student achievement. She has worked with districts and county offices in multiple states and internationally to increase student achievement in reading, writing, and in content areas. She continues to provide professional development for leaders and teachers in early literacy, content area literacy, and English language development.

Nancy Akhavan, Ed.D.

Small Group Reading With Multilingual Learners: Differentiating Instruction in 20 Minutes A Day (2023)

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