In The Heart of Literacy: Independent Reading, I promised to share ideas for quality strategic small group instruction and whole class instruction to accompany, not replace, independent reading.

Independent reading is the foundation on which the entire day, or year, is based. Without having that core, no other element will fall into place. And as I mentioned, it takes time. Be patient.

Here’s a quick review of my last post:

  • Independent reading is the foundation from which all other parts of the balanced literacy map (below) evolve. Every lesson and interaction with students is based on the ability of the class to be engaged in independent reading. If time is not invested in the beginning of the school year, more time will be wasted as the year progresses.
  • Research reinforces the obvious; if we are more interested in something, the more motivated we will be to learn it. When students have a choice in what they read and how they share what they read, they will want to read more. When students read more, they achieve more than those who don’t (Gunthrie, 2004).

These simple statements are the core of my belief and have been proven throughout my years in the classroom. Some students will come to you as fully engaged readers who are self-motivated, who apply strategies and are not distracted by what is around them. But many will not. Engaged readers need nurturing and encouragement. Unengaged readers must be developed.

What Does a Balanced Literacy Classroom Look Like?

Below is my concept of how a balanced literacy classroom looks from a bird’s eye view.

Balanced Literacy: Small group Instruction

Once independent reading is in place, volume reading, seen on the right of the diagram, continues year round, every day, without fail. It is the volume reading along with direct instruction that increases reading success (Fialding, 1994).

Small Group Instruction

Small group instruction provides a safe place for students to practice those 21st century literacy skills: cooperating, collaborating, critiquing and communicating. With a low student-teacher ratio, students are provided with more individual attention and guidance. Students have the opportunity to step up and develop leadership skills. Students learn to give and receive feedback and criticism. Teachers can scaffold information to allow for optimal success for all students.

Back in the day, groups were static. For example, if you assigned to group “Red”, you stayed in group Red. These groups were often labeled “high, average or low”, and the groups’ abilities were usually known by everyone in the classroom, and often by people outside the classroom.

Today, we need to work hard at creating smaller, more flexible groups. While we can still formulate groups based on reading levels and abilities, at other times we can focus on different criteria, such as personal interests or leadership skills.

Guided Reading Groups

When creating guided reading groups, readers are reading on the same instructional level. If you keep groups small, even guided reading groups can Small group instruction: Guided Readingremain fluid. This is the perfect time for students to work on mastering reading skills and the goal of increasing text complexity. Formative assessments, teacher observations, interactions and communications can determine success at each level.

Interest Groups

Because of background knowledge and connections, students can read at a higher level about a topic that interests them (Allington & Cunningham, 2007). This flexibility enables students to work with different classmates and increases confidence. Sharing with students and learning their interests and passions should be done throughout the year. Working with students who have a common interest gives the teacher opportunities to dig deeper into the text, model text comparisons, interpret diagrams and illustrations and everything else.

Book Clubs

Book clubs are also based on interest, but they are student run. By modeling questioning, connecting and critical thinking about different texts in class, and through small teacher guided discussions, students can develop autonomy and practice collaborating and cooperating on sharing and discovering information related to the text. Like independent reading, this takes time to develop. Students need a lot of modeling for book clubs to be effective, yet they are worth the wait. When students talk about a topic or a book, they further develop that love-of-book culture in the classroom.

Literature Circles

Literature circles are student run as well, but as a form of small group instruction they are somewhat more structured than a book club. Students within the group each have a role in dissecting and interpreting the text. For example, one student may be looking at character analysis, another at the setting and another still can be interpreting the illustrations. Lit circle participants are usually given a designated responsibility and a sheet on which they can note their ideas before sharing with the class.

The problem with lit circles structured in this way is that they can be somewhat limiting for students. They are reading for a purpose, but a very narrow purpose—one that can put restraints on students’ ideas and creativity.

Like book clubs, students need a lot of modeling through small group work with the teacher. They need to see the structure, hear the language and experience the social structure.

When working with these groups, it’s all about the instruction, guiding and questioning. It’s about getting students to think. It’s not about assessment. One of my favorite quotes is, “Spend time teaching students how to understand, not testing their understanding” (Fialding &Pearson, 1994). When that light bulb went off, everything fell into place.


Primary Grade Example:

Parrotfish by Lola M. Schaefer (Grades K-2, Level G, Lexile: 520) Teacher Resources ButtonTitle for Small Group Instruction: Parrotfish

This simple nonfiction text is perfect for students who are interested in fish or ocean life or for guided reading group G.

Teacher Prompts

T- By looking at the cover of this book, what do you think it will be about? (Predicting, engagement)

T- This fish has an unusual name. It’s the same name as a type of bird that starts with P. Can you tell by looking at the word and the colors of the fish? (Inferring, vocabulary, prior knowledge)

T- Let’s look inside to learn more about the parrotfish. (Set purpose)

T- This book has text features within it that makes it easier to understand what you are reading. The first one I see is a table of contents. Turn to this page. The table of contents lists the topics that you will read about.

T- The numbers next to the topics are the pages where you will find that information.

T- Point to the word Teeth.

Parrotfish By Lola

T- On what page can you find information about teeth?

T- Let’s turn to that page 9. Look at that picture next to it on page 8!

Parrotfish by Lola

T- Let’s read that sentence together, “Parrotfish have joined teeth”.

T- What does that mean, “joined”? How do you know?”

T- By looking at the table of contents, what other information are we going to find?

T- Let’s start at the beginning and see what it says about parrotfish.


A simple dialogue such as this demonstrates creating inferences from photographs, interpreting unknown words, using text features and analyzing information visually. This conversation probably takes 10 minutes, maybe longer if the students have a lot to say. Validate their ideas, guide them to new ones, and help them discover the joy of what is in that book as well as the brilliance of their thoughts.

As you read the book together, you can refer back to these skills that you modeled for them.

Elementary School Example:

Weslandia by Paul Fleischman (Grades 1-5, Level P, Lexile: AD 820) Teacher Resources ButtonSmall group instruction: Weslandia

Weslandia is the story of Wesley, a boy who is unique from everyone else in his community. He has a mind of his own and isn’t afraid to stand up to peer pressure. Wesley teaches our students that we should be ourselves and maybe, just maybe, others will be influenced by us! This book is perfect for introducing characterization, creating inferences and finding a solution to a problem.

Teacher Prompts

T- I’m going to read the first three pages of this book called Weslandia. See if you can learn something about the main character, Wesley.

T- What’s Wesley’s problem? How do you know? Can you find text within those first few pages that validate your thought?

T- Let’s show the person next to you the evidence you found.

T- Now read the next two pages on your own and see if you can determine Wesley’s goal, or something that he wants. If you finish before the others, see if you can find evidence in the illustrations as well as the text that prove your idea of what his goal might be.

Dialogues such as these set a purpose for reading and help students model successfully, in this case, with character analysis. Students can then continue reading in groups or alone looking for actions that embody Wesley’s personality.

Middle School Example:

El Deafo by Cece Bell (Grades 5-8) Teacher Resources ButtonSmall group instruction: El Deafo Cece Bell

This is another perfect book to add to your unit on individuality. It’s also a must-have to introduce biographies and graphic novels. I love using books like this and Weslandia in the beginning of the year to encourage confidence and kindness. They can be a point of reference throughout the whole year. Because of the graphic format in this book, many students are tricked into thinking this is book candy. You can fool them! Reluctant readers will dig right into the text, while at the same time create inferences, interpret illustrations and draw conclusions.

Teacher Prompts

T- Take a minute to look inside this book, El Deafo. What do you notice?

T- This is a graphic novel. What do you think “graphic” means?

T- Because the story has so few words, much of the information comes from your interpretations from the illustrations. This is called inferring. You have to assume what is going on based on the illustrations and dialogue. There are no descriptive sentences to help you.

T- Let’s read the first two pages together.

T- Describe in your narrative voice what you think this book will be about?

T- Yes, it is about a young girl who gets sick and loses her hearing. In a graphic novel, the larger the panel, the more time goes by. Look at the panel where she is in the car. Why is this panel so large? Do you think that is real time? Why?

T- This story takes place in the 1970s. How was life different then?

T- Yes, you will notice the lack of technology in this story. Little Cece has to wear a huge hearing aid in the story which causes some of her problems. Let’s read to see how she gets through it all.

An introduction such as this can be used each time you meet, going over topics each section represents. In this example, you are modeling creating inferences from illustrations, introducing the graphic novel format and interpreting the setting. With stories such as this, with an unfamiliar time and problem, students will benefit from information presented through diverse media. Using digital texts, students can learn more about hearing aids, the 80s or bullying. We’ll get more into resources that are available through multiple modalities later on.

High School Example:

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (Grades 9-12, Level Z, Lexile: 680)Small group instruction: The Grapes of Wrath

With older students, I had better responses during small group instruction if they had an opportunity to prepare before meeting. I like to introduce a chapter or two, assign that reading, then reassemble to dissect what was read. With novels, I found that working on prior knowledge in small groups and reading digital texts or picture books closely help independent comprehension of the text. Here are some ideas of topics that might be addressed while introducing The Grapes of Wrath.

Teacher Prompts

T- This book takes place during the Great Depression. What do you think that tells you about the characters?

T- The title is really strange. What do you think The Grapes of Wrath might refer to? What is a wrath?

T- (Pass out lyrics to “Battle Hymn of Republic”) These are the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. It also mentions grapes of wrath. Let’s do some research in groups and try to find out what these lyrics mean. Let’s also look up some information about the Great Depression and see if we can find a connection.

Teachers can provide links to students, or students can use a safe search engine to locate information on their own. Working in groups will initiate discussion and predictions about the text naturally. After students provide the groups with information, they develop a relationship and an investment in the text. It is then that the first portion of the reading can be introduced. Giving an overview of the plot, introducing the characters and blending information found by the group are all good places to start.

When small groups have enriching questions that encourage various answers, prompts and discussion starters, students become more apt to share and take more risks. Validate their thoughts and ideas no matter how “unexpected” their ideas may be. This is a time for relationship building and bonding over books.

My next post will continue with the left side of the balanced literacy map and focus on whole class instruction. 


Allington, R. L., & Cunningham, P. M. (2007). Prior knowledge plays a large role in reading comprehension. Reading in a Foreign Language Journal.

Fialding, L. G., & Pearson, P. D. (1994). Synthesis of research reading comprehension: What works. Educational Leadership, 51, 62-62.

J. T. Guthrie, “Teaching for Literacy Engagement,” Journal of Literacy Research 36 (2004): 1-30.