Planning for Small Group Instruction

Planning for Small Group Instruction

What are the instances in a day where you might need to use small group instruction?

For me, there are two different key areas where I will have small group instruction.

The first is with language and small group instruction with both reading and writing groups.

The other area that is a focus in my classroom with small group instruction is guided math.

So with all of this small group learning happening what does the planning look like?

Step One: Group Your Students

Step one is planning out your groups.  There are many ways to group your student and we discussed these in a previous blog post here.

Once your students are grouped you can begin to plan lessons that meet their needs.

Step Two: Make a Plan

Choose what expectations you are covering in a week.  In a traditional classroom, you might plan a different lesson for each day.  In this you will plan a traditional lesson for the whole group and then follow up lessons will be within small group instruction.  So for the remainder of the week, you will plan a lesson for each group to be delivered to the needs of that group.

In a guided reading setting this might look like you doing some pre-teaching the week before then instructing students to provide them with additional practice of this skill.

In writing, perhaps you have a group of students that need additional reminders of how to write within a specific form or genre.  A small group opportunity to review these skills may help students to move past an area that they are stuck.

In math, you may teach the whole group a concept with modelled and shared learning and then through small groups reinforce, reteach or extend the learning for these students.

For this plan you may want to stream your lessons providing more support and reteaching for those that need it and provide extensions to those who need it too.

Step 3: Plan Independent Practice

if you are working with a small group then the rest of your students will need to be working on independent practice.  Independent practice must be easy enough for students to complete but rigorous enough that they are actually learning and practicing skills.

For language, these activities can be together as students and respond to reading and craft a draft of writing that can be assessed as independent writing.

For math, there are opportunities for students to work through a variety of expectations that also highlight different process expectations. A variety of activities can include hands-on learning, application of skills, and key knowledge and understanding practice.

Step 4: Implement

Now that you have your lessons planned.  Make a rotation for students to complete the independent practice while also providing opportunities to meet with you.

You may want to ensure that your group that needs the most support is provided with the most of your time while the group of students that do not need your help as much get less support.

Sometimes this means I meet with my ‘high’ group first and then let them go off and explore concepts.  While with my lower group I may meet with them more often or even daily throughout the week.

Step 5: Assessment

Since you planned at the beginning what expectations (or cluster of expectations) you were looking to cover with your weekly lessons you can assess students on their mastery skills on this topic.

The method of note-taking or data collection will be whatever works for you as a teacher.  Here are some of my own favourite ways to collect data.

  1. Class list – Using colour coding or a numerical code I will write the expectation or cluster of expectations at the top of the page and then as I meet with students I will make notes of what level or skill they demonstrated with me during guided reading.
  2. Tech – There are many apps that let you take notes and anecdotal notes on student performance.  Apps like markbook, or Idocieo are all great options to record assessments of your students.
  3. A class list with open boxes that allow me to write a quick note about each student and how they are doing.
  4. A group book: if you are meeting with specific student groups you can have a different notebook or page for each member of the group and simply take notes based on just the lesson and students from that group.


At the end of the day, small group instruction does involve a bit more planning and organization at the beginning of the week. However, this is generally at the beginning of the week.  This growing pain is also reduced the more you do this.  With more practice, it becomes easier.

How I Teach Writing

How I Teach Writing

I used to teach writing like everyone else.

I would

  • pick a writing form
  • break it down into steps
  • focus on the process of how to write within a form
  • repeat this for a few weeks
  • have students write within that form
  • evaluate their work to see if they could write in the form

Honestly, it worked. I was able to get my assessment data and cover my curriculum.

But…it was boring and my students were less than engaged. Especially those students that had no interest in writing in their form.

Their creativity was gone, stifled, and hidden underneath a bunch of systems and rules that had to be followed. Robot writers were being created.

However, writing is personal. For anyone who had ever written outside of the confines of school can tell you writing is a creative and personal process.

You pour yourself out onto paper and take risks to share your ideas with others.

So why then as teachers do we take this out of writing to focus on covering the various forms of writing instead of simply letting kids write and experimenting with different writing forms?

Just because it is how it has been done in the past doesn’t mean that it needs to be done like that forever.

We do it because it is easy, linear, and allows us to teach from a checklist of expectations. Its better for us as teachers, but is it better for students?

I changed how I teach writing 4 years ago.

Faced with a group of boys who refused to write for the previous year, and coming from a feeling that my writing program was hitting expectations but I was spending more time pleading with students to write anything instead of helping them to write better, I looked for an alternative.

Writing Needs To Be Student-Centred

For so long teaching writing has been focused on what the teacher wants to do and what the teacher needs students to do.

This is not student-centred.

Since writing is so personal, we need to give our students more autonomy over what they write. The more autonomy we can give the more engaged students are and the less we need to worry about managing their behaviour.

So what can we do?

Instead of focusing on specific forms of writing such as an adventure story or fable look at more general forms of writing including

  • Narrative
  • Expository
  • Persuasive
  • Descriptive.

Allow students to choose to write anything within these general forms of writing.

You can brainstorm different genres of writing the fit under each umbrella of writing forms but the flexibility to write here is important.

Junior students (grades 4-6) are just beginning to find their voice as writers. This is a time of great importance because we can shape how they feel about themselves as writers.

I am quickly approaching 40…I am not the best person to decide what a 9-11-year-old is interested in. They are fascinated with bottle flipping, spinning toys, codable robots, weird arm-swinging dance moves and video games that make absolutely no sense to me.

How could I possibly know them better than they know themselves? Do I really know what topics will excite them tomorrow?

Moreover, with our class sizes ballooning above 30 students with an increasing number of unsupported special education needs, what works and engages one student will not work for another.

So the keys to my writing program here are

  1. Allow students to choose what they write
  2. Use choice boards to help them narrow down on topics across these four general categories.
  3. Using student-teacher writing conferences with students to talk about each student’s individual next steps as a writer.
  4. Focus on developing each student’s individual voice as a writer
  5. Build writing confidence through consistent feedback cycles

Writing Needs To Focus On The Writing Process

In the Ontario Language Curriculum, there are 13 expectations that focus on the writing process, not including spelling and grammar skills.

There is only one that mentions specific writing genres. However, it is not the expectation that states these forms it is the example text that follows the expectation.

Examples are not our curriculum.

I know that many instructional coaches and leaders over the years have provided lists of all the different forms we should cover at each grade level. I would agree that these are great forms to explore cross strand through oral texts, read alouds, modelled and shared writing task by looking at the various elements,

However, they should not serve as our limitations that restrict student creativity and exploration of their skills as writers.

I would argue that these forms should be taught and encouraged but not be mandated writing forms or used to restrict students in their ability to write authentic texts.

The focus on the curriculum is much more on the process of writing and steps writers take to write.

Focusing on this major element of the curriculum will be far easier to differentiate and allow teachers to be responsive to student needs than simply commanding that all students write a fairytale.

Focus on developing skills that follow the writing process instead teach them how to write instead of what to write.

Focus on:

  1. Brainstorming and generating ideas – for students who are not used to having this type of control over their own learning this is initially very hard for them. Teach them how to dump out their ideas onto a page in no particular order.
  2. Organizing Ideas – this is a hard one for students because sometimes they just want to write down the story. However, the key to a good piece of writing is a plan. This organizational planning step is universal for every form of writing. How you plan and organize your writing will change depending on your purpose for writing. But instead of walking students down this path, and telling them what to use and how. I feel that giving them a purpose for discovering this is far more meaningful. It also helps them to apply this skill to all areas of writing. We want students to have a method and organization tool to use when writing. Allowing them to know and select the best tool from their toolbox to write more successfully is a far better skill.
  3. Drafting – Too many kids are worried about their ability to spell words correctly the first time and this fear will often prevent them from trying. The last thing I want as a teacher is for a student with great ideas and a strong voice to believe that they are not a good writer just because they can’t spell. Being a good writer and being a good speller are two different skills. The purpose of drafting is to get your ideas down on paper.
  4. Editing and Revising – This step is key to getting students to fix their spelling and grammar errors. They need to know what to look for and fix these. Combined with explicit lessons on spelling and grammar rules students will learn to be better editors themselves. Spelling and grammar are best learned in context. What better context than their own spelling and grammar errors.
  5. Finally, there is publishing. In this final stage, I believe that it is important to recognize that not every piece of writing is worthy of being published. Some are simply not worthy. Allowing students to look at their body of work and select only their best work to be published allows students to think critically about what they have learned as writers and to choose samples of this growth.

Students Need More Time For Mastery

I used to think that teaching a form of writing would take me 6 weeks.

I now realize that writing takes more time.

Students need to write every day….every day! They need to write for a significant amount of time each day too. According to the guides to effective instruction, this means that students should be writing up to 30min a day.

Teaching writing is a slow burn from the beginning of the year to the end.

I let my students make small baby steps with gradual improvement from one draft to the next. We look at where they start and then what they will do next to improve.

Slowly students will gain the confidence as writers as they believe in themselves to do more of what they are capable of.

Everyone can write and everyone has something to say. It is my job as the teacher to focus on each students strengths as a writer to help them improve areas of weakness.

Each student will be different in what they need and what they are stong with. They can learn from me, learn from peers, and learn from experience.

Validating their voice is key to engagement in writing. Students will do more of what they feel they are successful in. They will work hard to achieve their goals. Many times they just need a cheerleader in their corner cheering them on.

  1. Meet with students regularly to discuss their strengths and needs as writers. Provide timely feedback that supports and guides them towards their next steps as writers.
  2. Have high expectations and a belief that your students can do hard things and you will be there along the way but you believe deep in their soul they have the potential to be amazing writers. Some will need permission to fail (even though they won’t), others will need a push to do more, some will need a soft place to land full of encouragement, some will need failure before growth and some will need a clear target to hit. You as the teacher will determine what each student needs from you to move ahead.
  3. Focus on the process, not the product – worry less about which forms they write in and focus more on the path they take to get there. Allow students to experiment with different forms and push and guide them along the way.
  4. Expose students to different writing forms through modelled and shared reading, oral language, and media texts. Identify the features of these texts, analyze them, replicate these in shared writing activities. Remember students simply have to write in a variety of forms, but the exact forms that they should write are not prescribed in the curriculum. Stick to a wide variety of specific forms within the four categories I mentioned above. Allow students the freedom and flexibility to choose a form within these categories that best suit their style as a writer. Let them hop back and forth between forms and build on one skill over time.
  5. Use a spiralled approach to your literacy program. Revisit topics over time. Link ideas together cross strand so that students can see the connection between reading, writing, oral language and media.

So in summary…

Stop being the only one who decides what students should do during writing time. Instead, allow students to choose what they write about so that they can develop their own personal voice as a writer and embed their interests and personality into what they write.

Stop focusing on specific writing forms and start focusing more on the process of writing.

Stop expecting students to master writing skills in short windows of time. Instead, look at building small areas of skill growth over time.

Wondering where to even get started with how to plan out your language arts program that embeds students voice and choice, focuses on the process of writing and allows students to master skills through a spiralled approach? Sign up for my free training or check out the program.

Student Goal Boards

Student Goal Boards

What is a goal board?

A colourful picture of a classroom bulletin board that has student writing goals on it.  Writing goals are organized into categories that align with the writing process.  This would be used in Ignited Literacy or with Writer's Workshop.

It is a visual guide used for students that helps them keep track of what their individual goals are for a particular subject area.

On and off I have used goal board in my classroom. I first started using goal boards with Daily 5 and Cafe but quickly realized that what they presented just didn’t really fit with how I was teaching. It was like fitting a square peg into a round hole. It was good but just not right.

I have had student groups that have used it and student groups that have not.

As I move through the year with my students I realize that setting clear goals and making path to achieve these goals will be paramount to helping the achieve success.

So a goal board will be going up in my classroom very soon to help my students set and acheive goals.

Where are goal boards used?

Goal boards can be used in any subject matter but I do think that it is important to start small and stick with one subject area. This then can be moved into other curriculum areas as students are ready and get the hang of the whole process.

For my classroom I will be beginning with a goal board for writing. This is a huge focus of student voice and choice in my classroom and an area where students can begin to take on more ownership of their own learning. Together we have conferenced many times about their previous writing samples so they are familiar with where they need to go and what they need to do.

Why the goal board then?

Well the specific purpose of this is to make learning visible and to have a visible board that serves to hold students accountable and keep students organized.

If you have students that are

  • visual learners
  • struggle with organization
  • have executive functioning difficulties
  • struggle to respond to feedback to make improvements
  • want more autonomy and control over their learning

If you as a teacher want

  • your students to keep track of their own learning
  • students to be responsible for their own learning and progress
  • a simple visual way to track students (status of the class)
  • to show student voice and choice in your classroom
  • to not be the only one tracking all the data in your classroom

Yep that is exactly what I want and need. You?

What do you need to get started?

To make a goal board you need some of the following materials.

  1. bulletin board space or a tri-fold board
  2. coloured paper
  3. printer
  4. sticky notes

1st Choose your subject area.

I have picked writing as a good place to start.

Now look at different categories that students can work on within this subject area.

Math: Solving Problems, Choosing Strategies, Computational. If you follow the Ontario curriculum using the process expectations here would be great categories to follow. They could be combined and reduced to 4-5 categories as goal areas. Alternatively you could select the 4 most needed areas for students to focus on.

Science and Social Studies: Look at the overall expectations of your curriculum or the big ideas. These will be great goal areas or areas to focus on for a goal board. Alternatively you could use the categories of the achievement chart that include Knowledge and Understanding, Thinking, Communication, and Application.

Language: You can look at writing goals such breaking apart the writing process into sections and have students focus on one area specifically of the writing process. For reading you can look at areas such as fluency, decoding, and comprehension.

Use I Can Statements

For each of your goal categories, you will want to put them in student-friendly language.

Using I can statements to frame your specific goals will help to make these relevant to your students.

Think like a students and try to avoid teacher-speak. Unless you have made teachery phrases part of the language of your classroom then you should avoid putting these on the goal cards.

Track Student Progress

So you post the goal board and students look at it once and never again…

This is what I try to avoid. If I am putting it up then I want it to be used because I feel that it will be valuable.

So how do I do that?

It starts with routine. For a while now I will conference bi-weekly with students on what they are writing. Before they conference with me they fill out a feedback form. This form asks them for their goal. So in part they have been making goals all along. But this hasn’t been a focus.

With the goal board, we will physically identify which goal they are working on. We use a marker, like a sticky note, magnet, etc. that has the students name on it. This name card will go next to the goal that that student is working on. If you are lacking horizontal space this can also be done by putting an area below your goal cards for students to put their name. This will signal which of the goal areas they are focusing on instead of the individual goal card.

Ready to make your own?

Are you ready to try a goal board in your classroom?

If you would like to try the pre-made one that I have for my Ignited Literacy Language Program you can find that here

Student Writing Survey Tutorial

Student Writing Survey Tutorial

Conferencing with students in writing? Watch this student writing survey tutorial to use Google Forms to track writing progress and student goals!If you are conferencing with your students in writing then you need an easy way to track this data.  I use google forms with students to help me track their writing progress and track data.  Students use this as a framework for self-assessment of their writing and making goals to move their skills forward.

Below is a tutorial for you to see how this survey works

Ignite Student’s Passion for Writing!!

Ignite Student’s Passion for Writing!!

Encourage student writing in your class and ignite their passion for writing! Click through to learn how to create a class that loves to write.

Writing is a challenge to teach.  It is more than simply just teaching students how to write.  There is an underlying challenge that can predict a student’s success and this is often dependent on the messaging that students tell themselves about their ability to write.  A student’s attitude towards their skills as a writer are very important to ensure their success in their ability to write.  Writing was the last subject that I taught as a teacher where I felt like I was doing a great job at getting students to write.  Many times I felt that my writing program was sucking the fun out of writing and making the task feel so foreign and unrelatable to the real world of writing.  This change coincided with my also beginning this blog.  Through blogging, I felt that I reconnected to my enjoyment of writing that perhaps had been sucked out of me.  Understanding that sometimes just the act of getting your ideas out of your head and on ‘paper’ is a great feeling.  I needed a way to translate that into my own teaching.  Writing needed to be connected, the act of writing needed to be just as important as the conventions and style elements of writing.  Student engagement needed to increase and a fire and passion for writing needed to be ignited within my students.  Even with the most reluctant writers.

This need for a change also aligned with using inquiry in science and social studies.  The power of student conferences, guided instruction and increasing a student’s voice and choice in the classroom were powerful tools to get students hooked.
Encourage student writing in your class and ignite their passion for writing! Click through to learn how to create a class that loves to write.
I changed my approach to how I teach writing and now use a cyclical/spiraling method of teaching writing instruction which is tied very closely to reading instruction as well.  Allowing students the ability to choose what they want to write about, how they want to write it and when has changed by teaching of writing and completely transformed the level of engagement and excitement in writing within my classroom.  The progress I see with students in their ability to write is amazing.

However it is more than just giving them less structure and rules to follow in their writing.  This would lead to chaos and triple your work load as you had each student doing whatever they want. There are systems and guides and a great deal of structure that goes into preparing your students to write in this manner.

To get this started there are three things that I use to help me get started to establish writing in my classroom.


Student Writing Folders

Students will still need a place to put their writing.  These writing folders will help you to support students as they work through the writing process.  Within the pockets of these folders students are given anchors that will help them brainstorm ideas, plan, draft, edit and revise their work.  Each anchor can be taught separately and added to the folder in a purposeful way.

Writing Anchor Board

This is displayed on a bulletin board for your students.  This support will be a reference for students to remind them of the different writing forms they identified as being interested in as well as provide them with success criteria charts and exemplars as students write them, and any anchor charts that you create with students throughout your responsive lessons.

Story Wheels

These story wheels will help students to generate ideas.  If you have students that struggle with generating ideas for writing different types of stories then these wheels will help you to support these students.  Students will either create personal wheels or you can support them to create class wheels in small groups or as a whole group depending on need.
Want more information about how I implement my writing program in my classroom sign up now to join the waiting list for my upcoming ebook – Ignited Writing: a Differentiated Cyclical Approach to Writing. 

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No More Worksheets?

No More Worksheets?


Schools push you to go paperless, and parents want a their kids taught the way they were. Learn when to use worksheets and when not to use them here!

So what is the deal with all this hatred to the worksheet?  It was recently asked on a facebook forum if using worksheets in your classroom makes you the dreaded ‘old school teacher’.  This sparked an interesting discussion amongst the teachers in the group as to what the big deal is on worksheets.  With schools pushing a paperless classroom in favor of digital tech and parents demanding an education for their children that reflects the familiar comforts of their own schooling. Teachers are put in the middle of a murky pond wondering how much is too much when it comes to our own worksheet usage.

What is a worksheet? For me, this idea of a worksheet goes back to my life as a student.  It was the page that you completed after a lesson to prove you learned something or the questions that you answered after reading something.  If you knew how to play the game, you could skip a few steps and simply just read enough to get the answers to the worksheet and simply forget the information the minute the page was fastened into your binder or duo-tang.  This activity was low-level thinking, kill and drill type activities that allowed the teacher to get other things done while you sat in rows and worked quietly on your worksheet.  The reliance and use on worksheets increased as the technology improved from the hand written copied sheet on the ditto machine (I may have never used these as a teacher but I still remember the smell of freshly copied ditto paper) to the printed computer resource photocopied on a photocopier.  I think as teachers we have to realize that the idea of a worksheet is the symbol used today for a lazy teacher that uses a worksheet to teach a concept instead of actually teaching.  The worry is that if a teacher relies too much on these that they are not using best practices in their classroom.

I really don’t think that it is the piece of paper that is the problem but it is how that paper is used by the teacher that is the problem and as teachers, administrators, and coaches we really need to be careful about critically looking at what is on the paper to assess if what is on the page is the product of valuable learning, not used as a replacement of good teaching, and meets the needs of the students it is being used with.  All paper is not bad….but a heavy reliance on paper products where students sit quietly and work while the teacher does other things may be.  Ask yourself on a daily basis how much time do I spend spending in front of the photocopier.

I know you are probably thinking but don’t you sell worksheets online through TPT your products are full of worksheets.  This is the largest complaint and criticism that I hear from teachers, administrators, coaches and boards about using resources from TPT that they are simply the new teacher store where lazy teachers get worksheets so they don’t have to actually teach anything. Admittedly, TPT is full of worksheets but I do find that with a little bit of effort you will find more than worksheets on TPT and actually find the time-saving lessons and activities that can be done in your classroom that may include a worksheet but you are really just saving time from planning, sourcing, re-creating, and re-inventing the material that you need to teach your lessons.  Without good teaching, even the content of my lessons can be considered worksheets but with strong pedagogy and a teacher using best practices in their classroom the same piece of paper is transformed into real learning that no one should be ashamed of using.  The problem with the worksheet is when the worksheet is used to replace the teacher.

There are times to use a worksheet and there are times when you shouldn’t.  This is the list to get me to think about whether or not a worksheet is necessary. This is the list that I also use when making my products for TPT and when planning daily lessons for my classroom.

When to use worksheets

  • To help to differentiate instruction so that all students have the same page but the task is differentiated to meet the various needs in your classroom
  • To assist special education students in scaffolding their learning
  • Does the worksheet help them to create, collaborate, or show critical thinking skills
  • Is this the best way for students to show their learning
  • As a consolidation of thinking after learning
  • A place to record brainstorming, observations, analysis, evaluations, new thinking etc.
  • Helps students to create their own understanding of a new concept.  They have ownership in what they are doing
  • Students are excited and engaged in their learning.  They will remember this!

When not to use worksheets

  • The worksheet is the learning and students are regurgitating information without the need for critical thinking.
  • It consumes the majority of your time on task or learning
  • It follows the traditional pattern of “sit and listen – sit and work”
  • It replaces good teaching by removing the teacher or others from the learning allowing them to simply just turn off their brain and do it (learning should be collaborative, creative, allow for communication and critical thinking)
  • Includes rote or low-level tasks such as answering closed questions, creating lists, fill in the blank, basic recall etc.
  • Colouring
  • The worksheet is unnecessary and could be replaced with a more interactive approach to learning.
  • It could be considered busy work (word searches, color by number, cross words)
  • Students could make it themselves (many graphic organizers as worksheets are unnecessary unless at the beginning of the learning stage as students progress then need to be able to create these on their own in notebooks in more authentic ways)

At the end of the day, we all give out worksheets, even the bad kind, because there are the days that this is what we need to do.  We need to challenge ourselves to reduce the amount of worksheets we rely on and to up our game as teachers. Differentiate more, increase the complexity of the activity and critical thinking skills being used. Integrate technology, and hands-on learning opportunities more and increase student voice and choice in the classroom.  Know what best teaching practices are and try to implement them in your classroom.  Don’t look for the easy way out by simply relying on worksheets to do the work for you.  As teachers, we are professionals who should constantly be looking for ways to improve our ability to teach the students in front of us.  Use worksheets, I do and will continue to do so, I think my takeaway from this is to use it as a tool, sometimes, but certainly not all of the time.