As soon as I walked into the kindergarten classroom, I could feel the buzz of little children working as harmoniously and diligently as honeybees tending their hive. They were working in pairs and small groups at several learning stations around the room. All were focused on their group learning tasks, chatting enthusiastically as they engaged in the important work before them.
Some of the children formed letters with playdough, then wrote them on a whiteboard as they sounded them out. Others were drawing and writing in their journals, helping one another to form letters, generate ideas, or pick just the right crayon color. Still others were selecting books from the classroom library and sharing the stories in them, pointing to the rich illustrations and characters as they enacted the roles through dialogue.
Did I mention that these were 5 year olds and that this was at the end of the first month of school?
I looked around for their teacher and found her at the back of the room, working with a group of four children. As she held up letter cards, the children said the sounds they made. She glanced up and greeted me with a big smile and then masterfully scanned the room to ensure it was buzzing appropriately before turning back to her small group.
“I used to be in a fixed center,” she told me later, as we observed the children in their learning stations. “But then I wasn’t able to differentiate the learning for the children. Now, I’m not a part of a center, so I can pull small groups together based on what they need. I can also observe the children as they are working at their learning stations.”
To form differentiated groups, she uses her early learning progress monitoring assessments (for print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, writing, and oral retelling of stories), and field notes she keeps in her observation journal. These tools help her to re-form the groups when children’s learning needs shift.
I am fortunate to be able to visit many classrooms each year, and I see a lot of stellar teaching and learning happening, similar to what I saw in this kindergarten classroom.
Sometimes, though, I see whole-group instruction where small-group instruction would be more powerful, and vice versa. For example, when I see whole-group phonics and decoding instruction in kindergarten and first grade, I notice that, while some of the children are completely engaged in the task, others seem to be “faking it,” or playing along. This might be because the level of the text is not quite what the student is ready for or too easy for them.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of whole-group teacher read-alouds, chorally reading big books, chanting poetry together, playing language games, and other types of whole-group learning tasks. However, when it comes to learning how to “crack the code,” small, differentiated reading groups based on assessed needs is really the best way to ensure that time is used efficiently and that children get the “personalized” learning that will help them accelerate and thrive.
On the day I visited this wonderful kindergarten class, at the end of the small-group reading and learning stations block of time, the teacher asked the children to join her at the carpet. There, she facilitated a debrief conversation about the learning stations that day, first by asking the children to reflect on their own engagement in and learning from the tasks. She praised the children for following the norms that had been established for the learning stations and for working so earnestly on their own learning. The children agreed that it was both fun to learn new things and rewarding to be responsible for engaging in the tasks independently. Clearly, these children were owning the learning.
To read more about setting literacy stations and small reading groups, see our new White Paper, Developing Foundational Reading Skills in the Early Grades: Teaching Decoding Skills Through Small-Group Lessons.