ERIC Identifier: ED369034
Publication Date: 1994-00-00
Author: Nelson, Carol
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.
Organizing for Effective Reading Instruction. ERIC Digest.
This digest deals with within-class reading ability grouping.
In instructional grouping for reading, the usual number of groups is three
(Davis, 1991). Advocates of this plan justify it by facts such as these, which
are supported somewhat by various studies: (1) at the Grade 1 level, the range
of achievement in a class can be expected to be two or more years; (2) at the
Grade 4 level, four years or more; (3) at the Grade 6 level, six years or more.
Grouping practices that are appropriate for one class may not meet the needs
of another class (Sanacore, 1990; Wiesendanger and Bader, 1992). Whatever the
grouping plans, it should be remembered that grouping children for reading
instruction is a means for facilitating learning--it is not an end in itself.
LIMITATIONS OF GROUPING
Grouping within a room has some
limitations. The three-group plan, or any other plan for homogeneous grouping,
may make the children and their parents conscious of differences in achievement.
This creates pressure on a child to measure up to the others in reading.
Individual differences remain within the groups, and there is some danger that
the teacher will assume that the differences have been taken care of by the mere
fact that the three reading groups are in operation. If the teacher uses the
same materials with all pupils, allowing only for a difference in the speed with
which the groups are expected to read them, the problem of individual needs
still remains unsolved. However, when teachers use different materials for the
groups, the amount of preparation of work is greatly increased. Teachers must be
willing to expend this extra energy to meet the needs of all the children in
Often teachers find themselves with one reading group, usually the lowest,
for which a group lesson is unprofitable. The group might include children who
range in ability from pre-primer to first-reader level. With a primer some
children would be at a frustration level and others would be unchallenged. Only
the children actually reading at the primer would profit. An individualized
approach would be more beneficial for these children. In a 30-minute period with
this group, the teacher could spend several minutes with each child. The others
could read ahead silently in the book appropriate for them, asking for help when
they met new words. Each child could progress at his/her own rate, and no two
would be at the same point. Four or five minutes could be used for group
discussion, motivation, words that are difficult for some children, and the
like. Whenever the range of individual abilities in a group is so wide that it
is impossible to choose a reading text that is reasonably satisfactory for the
group's members, use of individualized approach with that group should be
Much of the effectiveness of grouping
within the class will depend on the children's understanding of the purpose for
which they are assigned to the groups, and on the teacher attitudes and
expectations. Many studies have looked at teacher attitudes and methods while
teaching different groups (Harp, 1989). These studies often show that the high
groups receive the best instruction geared to critical thinking, while the lower
groups receive instruction that is less stimulating.
Some researchers have noted that many teachers give nonverbal clues to their
students that they enjoy teaching the higher groups more than the lower ones,
and that they expect less from the lower groups in the way of progress. Eder
(1983) discusses subtle signals by which children receive information about the
reading groups in their class.
Many of the undergraduates in my
classes over the past years have discussed their feelings about ability grouping
when they were in elementary school. Recently, "Rick" wrote about why he always
worked hard to remain in the middle group. He explained, "The higher group, you
see, always had so much stuff to do and I never saw those kids out at recess
because they had to stay in and finish what they had started. Now the lower
group was not the group to be in either. Even as young as first grade, I knew
what it meant to be in the lower group and how those kids were thought of as
'lower' than the rest of us. This is the problem with labeling and grouping."
"Monica" wrote, "I have nothing but bad memories about my reading groups in
elementary school. I was constantly being left behind and humiliated by my
teacher... No attempt to help me as an individual by my teacher was ever
made--and if it had, it probably wouldn't have been a pleasant one. I think that
teachers should be more patient with those students who have reading problems
and maybe offer other ways to help them than put them in the low group."
These young people were college juniors majoring in elementary education. Two
things stand out in what they have to say: (1) Their impressions have lasted
very clearly and strongly for over 10 years; and (2) If this is how young people
who eventually attended college felt, what would those who quit school or those
who did not go to college for various reasons have to tell us about their
memories of ability groups?
GROUPING FOR SPECIFIC PURPOSES
Classification of children
in groups should frequently be determined by specific purposes. For example,
groups may be organized for the express purpose of providing instruction in
developmental reading, and individual children should be regrouped as their
performance requires. In other cases, a group may be devoted to the study of
specific skills, regardless of the general proficiency of the members. Research
groups may be formed for pupils who wish to investigate a similar problem. Other
groups interested in the same theme--such as pets, airplanes, plants--may plan
presentations to the whole class. In some instances groups may be formed in
which the better readers help the slower ones.
Johnson and Johnson (1987) are well-known proponents of this last type of
grouping, called cooperative learning. These heterogeneous groups are based on
positive interdependence among the group members who help and support one
another. Their goals focus on bringing each member's learning to the maximum and
on maintaining good working relationships among members. "Nothing is more basic
than learning to use one's knowledge in cooperative interaction with others,"
the Johnsons state. And they continue: "Greater achievement is typically found
in collaborative situations where peers work together than in situations where
individuals work alone...."
Johnson and Johnson recommend assigning students of high, medium, and low
abilities in the same group. They also suggest that it is very beneficial for
those students who are not as task oriented as others to be put with their more
academically oriented peers. Teachers should allow students to choose one person
with whom they would like to work, and then carefully place these pairs with
others to maximize the heterogeneous makeup of each group.
As the group works together as a team, some of the benefits predicted for
individual members are higher critical thinking competencies, more positive
social interaction with classmates, improved collaborative competencies, an
understanding of other perspectives, and more self-esteem. The Johnsons believe
*Cooperative learning procedures may be used successfully with any type of
academic task, although they are most successful when conceptual learning is
*Whenever possible, cooperative groups should be structured so that
controversy and academic disagreements among group members are possible and are
*Students should be encouraged to keep each other on task and to discuss
assigned material in ways that ensure elaborate rehearsal and the use of higher
*Students should be encouraged to support each other's efforts to achieve.
Educators must make many choices every year about grouping arrangements. Good
teachers who provide supportive environments for their students and who are
aware of the strengths and weaknesses of grouping will make the decisions that
are right for themselves, for their classroom situation, and for their students.
Davis, Susan J. (1991). Three Reading Groups: An
American Educational Tradition. Literacy Research Report No. 8. DeKalb, IL:
Curriculum & Instruction Reading Clinic, Northern Illinois University. [ED
Eder, Donna (1983). "Ability Grouping and Students' Academic Self-Concepts: A
Case Study." Elementary School Journal, 84(2), 149-61. [EJ 290 268]
Harp, Bill (1989). "What Do We Know Now about Ability Grouping? (When the
Principal Asks)" Reading Teacher, 42(6), 430-31. [EJ 383 735]
Johnson, Roger T. and David W. Johnson (1987). "How Can We Put Cooperative
Learning into Practice?" Science Teacher, 54(6), 46-48. [EJ 358 518]
Sanacore, Joseph (1990). "Intra-Class Grouping with a Whole Language Thrust."
[ED 320 114]
Wiesendanger, Katherine D. and Lois Bader (1992). 'Cooperative Grouping in
Literacy Instruction." Reading Horizons, 32(5), 403-10. [EJ 445 692]