Classroom Reading Groups: Love Them or Leave Them?

Classroom Reading Groups: Love Them or Leave Them?

Classroom reading groups, common to most elementary classrooms, can be unpleasant experiences for many students and may not be as effective as we think. What can be done?

For me, classroom reading groups were one of the most traumatic things about learning to read. (Even typing those words makes me stressed out!) I remember being in first grade when our teacher revealed the reading group hierarchy. It was made very clear that our job was to get in the highest reading group possible, and we would be assigned our first reading group level based on our current reading ability.

Even though I couldn’t read, I was surprised when I was put in the lowest reading group. I thought I was smart, and my six-year-old brain reasoned that if you’re smart you could never be in the lowest group. I was teased by my classmates, which only added to my confusion. Many kids thought that I had done something bad and was being punished.

To make matters worse, life in the lowest reading group was incredibly boring. We used texts that contained simple words, concepts, and stories. The subject matter was mind-numbing, and I felt like the teacher was treating me like a baby. (I didn’t have the words to say I felt patronized.) This whole reading group system made me far less excited to learn to read.

While my experience can’t be generalized to all students, I can safely assume that I wasn’t alone. Recent research is also showing the drawbacks of grouping by ability. An article in Education Week points to an upcoming study conducted by Marshall Jean, a research fellow at the Northwestern University Institute for Policy Research, which followed 12,000 students from kindergarten through third grade as they progressed through different reading groups and classes. Jean found that:

…having been in the highest reading group in an earlier grade tended to protect students from being put in a lower group later, even with significantly lower scores. Students in lower reading groups not only progressed more slowly academically, but while they were in lower reading groups, they were also slower to develop ‘learning behaviors,’ such as varied interests, concentration on tasks, and persistence in the face of difficulty. Those behaviors, in turn, reduced the students’ likelihood to move up to higher reading groups in later grades.

If reading groups aren’t the best way to teach reading, what should we use? Researchers are designing instruction methods that address the weaknesses inherent in reading groups. One such researcher is Carol Connor, an education professor at the University of California, Irvine, who developed the program  Assessment to Instruction, which seeks to make reading groups “more flexible and less stigmatizing.”

In Assessment to Instruction, or A2I, teachers give a diagnostic assessment to all students every eight weeks to identify strengths and weaknesses in particular reading skills in four areas of literacy: decoding, fluency, comprehension, and usage. An algorithm based on the assessment tells teachers how much individual, small-group, and independent working time each student needs, and students are grouped for instruction based on particular focus skills rather than overall reading ability.

“What we’ve discovered is that it’s fine to have a group of students of different levels, as long as they all are working on the same learning needs,” explains Connor.

What do you think about reading groups? I’d be interested to know if any of you have examples of more effective ways to use reading groups.


  • Elizabeth Ross, MA, SMARTS Media Manager