We’re nearing the end of our phonics series, and it’s time to get down to the nuts and bolts. What exactly should phonics lessons look like in your classroom?
Today we’ll look at how to meet the needs of all your students using small group instruction.
My first year of teaching first grade, I was required to use a very explicit, scripted phonics program.
It was a fail.
Full disclosure: At the time I was a balanced literacy teacher and didn’t see the value in explicit phonics instruction. However, even if I had believed in the value of the content, teaching it to the whole class just wasn’t practical.
I had one student who didn’t know all her letters, two students who were reading fourth grade chapter books, and 15 students whose skills were somewhere between these two extremes.
The whole class lessons were useless to my advanced readers, who needed a much bigger challenge.
Meanwhile, the lessons moved too fast for my struggling readers.
Teaching phonics to the whole class wasn’t working.
Why teach foundational skills in small groups?
In a Reading Rockets article researcher Timothy Shanahan writes, “Small group instruction tends to be more effective than whole class teaching. In small groups, it’s easier for kids to stay focused, for teachers to notice error or inattention, and there is more opportunity for interaction and individual response.” (Source: Do We Teach Decoding in Small Groups or Whole Class?)
In the article, Shanahan refers to studies that looked at small group teaching; the studies concluded that kids who had small group phonics teaching had bigger outcomes than those who had just whole group phonics teaching.
To be clear, Shanahan seems to refer to the practice of teaching the grade-level skill to the whole class first, and then differentiating in small groups on an as-needed basis.
But to me, It just makes sense to teach these crucial skills in small groups to start.
In their book, How to Plan Differentiated Reading Instruction, Sharon Walpole and Michael C. McKenna write that the benefit of this approach is that “no students who have already mastered foundational skills for their grade level will receive redundant, time-wasting instruction.”
When this topic was brought up in a large Facebook group, one person didn’t feel that it’s a problem for advanced readers to receive redundant teaching. “Is it really so bad to be bored for 20 minutes a day?”
I don’t think boredom is the issue. The issue is not giving students what they need.
Students who have limited phonics knowledge need focused time with their teacher to master it.
Students who are farther along need instruction on more advanced skills.
Intentional small group phonics lessons are the key.
Common questions about teaching small group phonics lessons
You might be thinking … how am I going to fit these into my day? I can teach the whole class phonics lesson in 30 minutes, but small group lessons will take longer since I’ll be seeing multiple groups.
Other common questions include:
- How should I form my groups?
- How many groups should I have?
- How often should I meet with each group?
- What should I do with each small group?
- What are the rest of the students doing?
- And what should the rest of my reading block look like?
How to form small groups for phonics lessons
- Give your students a phonics assessment that includes nonsense words (because nonsense words will help you know if they’ve truly mastered the phonics skills). You can grab mine below.
- After reviewing the results, put students into small groups based on what they’re ready to learn next. If you are a single teacher teaching all groups, I recommend a maximum of four groups because this will be easiest to manage. To be clear: your students will not fit neatly into four groups. That’s just not how real life works. Don’t feel bad about having some students back up a little bit for review so that they can fit in a group. It’s far superior to lumping everyone together for whole group phonics lessons.
- Decide how you will label your groups. I prefer to label groups by color because you can easily color-code their center activities. (Just be careful to use friendly colors like blue and green for your lower groups rather than “caution” colors like yellow or red. Just my opinion!)
- Get ready to implement small group teaching after the first 3-4 weeks of school. In that first month, you’ll be teaching phonics routines to the whole class and teaching your students to work independently at centers (more on that next week).
How to determine a small group teaching schedule
The reason I recommend four groups maximum is so that you can meet with each group as much as possible with a 3-group-a-day schedule.
There are many ways to set this up, but here’s one to try:
As you can see, with three 20-minute groups a day you will need an hour for daily small group phonics instruction.
With the above setup, you would meet with your lowest group every day, your second lowest group four times a week, and your top two groups three times a week each.
What to do with your small groups
If you take 3 days (a total of one hour) for each new skill, your 20-minute lessons could look like this:
The warm-up could include:
- Visual drill of previously learned sound-spellings (flash cards)
- Auditory drill of previously learned sound-spellings (writing in sand)
- High frequency word review
- Quick phonemic awareness activity
Teaching the new skill should include:
- Explicit teaching of the new concept (whether this is alphabet knowledge, a new grapheme such as ai, or a syllable division strategy)
Blending/Word work could include:
- Blending lines
- Word building with letter tiles
- Word sorting
- Word ladders
High frequency word instruction could include:
- Introducing new words by focusing on the phonemes and graphemes
- Giving attention to the “tricky part” of each word
- Practice writing the new word(s)
The connected text portion of the lesson could include:
- Reading lists of words that feature the new sound-spelling
- Reading a decodable passage or paragraph that feature the new sound-spelling
- Reading a decodable book that features the new sound-spelling
The dictation portion of the lesson should include:
- Dictation of words with the featured pattern; students can write on paper or on dry-erase boards
- Checking the spelling and helping students fix errors
- Dictation of sentences with the featured pattern
- Helping students check their sentences for accuracy
What should the rest of the reading block look like?
If you can set aside two hours for reading instruction, it might look like this in a first grade classroom:
10-15 minutes: Whole Class Phonemic Awareness/Sound Wall Activities
60 minutes: Small Group Phonics Lessons
15 minutes: Fluency Building
20 minutes: Whole Class Vocabulary/Comprehension (through interactive read aloud)
10 minutes: Independent reading practice (for some students, this will be practice reading their decodable books)
The above schedule is a possible schedule for first grade. It would look slightly different in other grades. For example, your kindergarten lessons might be shorter – if you meet with three groups for 15 minutes each, you’d only need 45 minutes for small group lessons.
Fluency building would not be necessary in kindergarten; you could spend that time doing more whole group instruction instead, such as shared reading.
As for second grade, if your students are mostly on-level, you could abbreviate the whole class phonemic/awareness sound wall activities and have a longer independent reading time. During that time it shouldn’t be a free for all; students should have a bag of books at their level to practice reading. For some this may still include decodables; for on-level and advanced students it will likely include short and longer chapter books.
Whew … that was a lot!
But one question remains.
What are the rest of the students doing while you teach small groups?
We’ll cover that next week in the final post of our 10-part phonics series!
Get your quick guide to planning small groups!
Check our the rest of our phonics series!