How to Master Small Group Instruction

Whether you’re a seasoned educator or it’s your first year of teaching, it’s always helpful to gain tips on how to differentiate instruction. Use these free group management tools to accommodate your diverse learners.

How to Master Groups and Centers

Have you created an awesome lesson plan… only to realize that it wasn’t appropriate for all of your students? Have you ever had such a wide range of abilities within your classroom that you weren’t even sure how to address them all?

Teaching diverse learners can be tricky and is especially challenging with a larger group. Teachers can run themselves ragged, spending all their time finding ways to accommodate different academic lessons. Teachers get tired and stressed out trying to do it all, trying to teach every level in one classroom. It can seem like an insurmountable task.

But it doesn’t need to be that way.

A Self- Running Classroom with Differentiated Lessons

Imagine your school day if you were able to master small group instruction. Imagine calmly looking around your classroom, watching your students quietly working on tasks tailored to their individual needs. They move throughout the room, knowing exactly where to go, what to use, and who to work with. They don’t stop to ask you questions and they don’t require your assistance to complete their tasks. You can use this time to work with individual students, grade papers, email a parent, or take a well- deserved break.

Sound like a dream? I’m telling you, it’s possible and you can make it happen in your classroom. It requires some upfront planning and prep, but once you get the routine in place, things go on autopilot. I’ll share with you some tools I used to help me set up my small group instruction lessons. They’re free and you can download them to use any way you like.

Learn How to Differentiate Instruction:

So how do we do it? If you’re reading this, then you’re probably looking for tips on how to differentiate instruction. You’ve come to the right place. In this post, we’ll discuss differentiated instruction via small groups and centers. We’ll go over the following topics with a freebie bonus at the end:

  • Why We Differentiate Instruction

  • Tips on How to Differentiate Instruction

  • The Free Resource That’ll Help You Differentiate Instruction

Snag my FREE Small Group Instruction Tools to stay organized and master differentiating instruction.

Why We Differentiate Instruction

It’d be naive to think that an entire class of students would all be on the exact same academic level. We know that would never be the case. Just because students are in the same grade doesn’t mean they have the same skills.

Because students have diverse needs, we need to differentiate their instruction when we can. When we break students into smaller groups, we are better able to serve their individual needs. Click here to read more about teaching multiple levels in one classroom.

You don’t have to be a special ed teacher to differentiate instruction. I polled some of my favorite teacher friends to share their best tips on how to differentiate instruction. Click here to read my post, How to Differentiate Like a Pro.

Average Class Size by State Bar Graph

Larger Class Sizes Make Differentiated Instruction a Must.

Some experts argue that teacher effectiveness is more important than class size. But I think we can all agree that having a larger class size makes it more difficult to accommodate individual needs.

A quick peek at the data graph to the right reveals just how big classrooms are in the United States. This data is from the Schools and Staffing Survey by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). It shows the average class sizes by state at the primary level.

The graph doesn’t show self- contained classrooms or indicate teacher- student ratio. Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Wyoming are missing from the graph because insufficient data was available for these states. But it does give us a general idea of what is going on in classrooms across the nation. Most of these state averages are much higher than I would expect.

The Value of Small Group Instruction

By breaking classes into smaller groups, we can better accommodate their diverse academic needs. Students can work in groups to complete tasks on their level. The groups can all work on different versions of the same assignment or they can rotate through different tasks.

Implementing small groups does take some planning, especially in the beginning. But once you and your students become used to the routine and expectations, it becomes much easier. I prefer small groups in almost every subject and almost every grade level. I had my students in groups practically all day, every day.

One of my teacher friends said to me, “But my students are older. I can’t do centers or groups.” I politely disagreed. I now teach education courses at the college level and often break my classes into groups to work on tasks together. Once my groups are set up, all I need to do is keep a general eye on the class. This allows me to pull students aside for individual help if necessary or join a group. You can implement groups or even centers at any level.

Tips on How to Differentiate Instruction

      • Technology: Take advantage of technology if you have it. Allow students to play educational games or complete assignments online. You can even create quizzes on Google forms for students to complete on Chromebooks.
      • Independent Work: Have a group work on a review activity or something they can do independently. This gives them time to practice their skills while freeing you up to work more closely with another group.
      • Practice, practice, practice. Don’t expect students to know how to work in groups and move through centers without practicing it with you first. Spend a few days helping students get the hang of working in small groups. Once they can handle the routine of going to their station and getting to work on their own, you can start taking a group aside to work with them more closely. Practice common situations, like what to do when they have questions, need more materials, or have a problem.

How to Master Small Group Instruction

The Free Resource That’ll Help You Differentiate Instruction

Today, I’m sharing my Group Management Tools with you for free. I offer a paid version of it in my TPT shop that is editable for a more professional look. But you can snag this one and write in your own text for free! The Group Management Tools will help you with three things that every teacher strives to do:

      • Stay Organized

      • Promote Independence

      • Save Time

1. Stay Organized

      • Hold students accountable for their own progress with the Student Achievement Sheet. They will track which activities they have finished and will be able to see at a glance which centers they still need to complete.
      • Place Station Cards at each activity location so your students know exactly where to go… Without needing to ask for your help.
      • Display the Group Charts so students know which group they’re in and which activity to complete.

2. Promote Independence

My free Group Management Tools resource includes charts for 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 groups. Choose the Group Chart that suits your needs. There are two ways you can use the Group Charts. Use the Group Charts to display student names or to show centers/ activities.

      • Use the Name Cards with the Group Chart if you wish to keep track of who is in each group.
      • The Activity Cards can be used with the Group Chart to display which activities each group is working on.
      • Use the Group Schedule to keep track of which activities are offered and when each group will complete them.
      • Jot down details relating to each center/ activity, such as materials needed and location. This can be a handy reference for substitute teachers.

3. Save Time

All that time you used to spend running around trying to figure out who was going to work on what can now be spent on literally anything else. That time you spent explaining over and over where students were supposed to be will now be free time. Maybe it’ll give you a few minutes of an actual break during your prep. Or maybe it means you’ll get to go home a little bit earlier. Think of what you would do with an extra few minutes a day.

Spend the time planning and setting up your small group instruction routine and it will save you time in the long run. Take the time to plan it out. Think of how you will use my Group Management Tools and which options would work best for your classroom. Brainstorm what activities you can use for your independent work tasks and how often to rotate them. Come up with ways to differentiate your lessons and how best to address diverse learners. Consider how much practice your students will need before they are able to move independently through stations and get to work on their own.

Once the routine is in place, it will become an autopilot event. You will need to put that initial time and work in, but it will pay off. Then, the prep time will become minimal, barely more than whole group lesson prep. It will be worth it and you’ll be glad you did it. You can master small group management and differentiated instruction! Share your tips with us below!


An Editable Version for a More Polished Look

If you’d rather type in your own text, grab the Editable Group Management Tools Resource  in my TPT shop. It’s the same collection of pages as the freebie offered above, but this one is  editable to give it a more professional look. It’s a paid version, but still inexpensive. I know we’re all on a teacher budget.

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