Fostering Independence: The Key to Small Group Instruction

Educators know that the whole-class lesson is just one small part of instruction, and that differentiating instruction is critical; it’s how we ensure that we meet the unique academic needs of each and every child. We need to take the time to build on strengths and address vulnerabilities.

In order for all of this exciting work to happen, the first step is to have a well-managed class. We need to have systems in place at the beginning of the school year that allow students to work independently (and keep on working independently!) on something meaningful for extended periods of time. In other words, when it comes to small group instruction, you need successful systems out of your groups (quite literally) for things to work in your groups.  

As a first grade teacher, I notice the following tendencies among my students: they finish their work very quickly (sometimes too quickly!), they often need me for questions and comments, and they are working toward building stamina while working independently.  I wouldn’t exactly call these “problematic” behaviors—my students are 6 and 7 years old!  While this is expected behavior of a first grader, it can be difficult to work with a small group and expect minimal interruptions.  I offer you a simple solution: foster independence.

During small group instruction, these questions are always at the fore: 

  • How do we keep our other students engaged?
  • What is the rest of the class doing?
  • How do we ensure that our entire class is on task?

Read below to find out how I address these questions by fostering independence in my first grade classroom.  

Hand Signals

How many times have you been working with a child or a small group and another child comes over to you and asks to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water?  The next thing you know, you're having a conversation with that child about interrupting, and your small group has become distracted.  Better yet, have you ever noticed a child waving his or her hand in the air and impatiently waiting for you for the same reasons? Verbal or not, these small interruptions may lead to big problems for your guided reading group. I have therefore implemented the following lesson on the first day of school:

On the first day of school, when we begin to learn classroom routines and procedures, I always introduce and practice hand signals for water and bathroom breaks.  If kids raise their hands and ask to use the bathroom or get water, I have them “ask me again” using the correct hand signal.  If they come over to me while I'm working with a child or group, I send them right back to their seats and ask them to use their hand signals. I either respond with thumbs up (yes) or I point to my watch (wait).  These hand signals help to minimize interruptions during small group instruction (and throughout the rest of the school day!). 

Working "Long and Strong"

One thing your students may be doing during small group instruction is working independently.  From day 1, we want to encourage our students to read, write, solve math problems, etc., “long and strong” (i.e., working for long periods of time, without stopping, while staying focused on their work). Promoting perseverance beginning on the first day of school requires a lot of celebrating and positive reinforcement. One motivation tool is to set a timer every day:  if you time them reading for 10 minutes one day, aim for 11 minutes the next day. Become a cheerleader! You can also graph their results and hang it up to show how proud you are and to encourage them to do even more.  The “longer and stronger” they work independently, the more time you have for your small groups.

Give Students Individual Tools

There is a wealth of individual tools that teachers can use to help promote independence, such as individual word walls, steps to solving math word problems, writing checklists, and so forth.  Usually these tools are small and can fit into a child’s folder or desk.  

Here are some of my favorites:

Reading Mat: This is the ultimate tool for building reading stamina.  In the beginning of the school year, I give my students a folder, red paper, and green paper. I allow them to cut out any shape they want, and to glue green on the left side, and red on the right side. Then they decorate it and I laminate it.  I love to have the students make the mats themselves—they get excited and feel a sense of ownership and accomplishment.  Each day during independent reading, they pile all of their books onto the green side (green means go!).  Whenever they finish a book, they put it on the red side (red means stop!).  Once all of their books are in the red pile, guess what?  They push it back to the green pile and reread. 

Reading Response Menu: “I don’t know what to write about…” is another phrase I hear quite frequently in my 1st grade class. My students keep the attached “Reading Response Menu” in their desks and they use it almost daily during reading time.  (They also have a take-home “Reading Response Menu.”)

Talking Tools: Students outside of your small group may not always be working independently—they may be working in partnerships or on a group activity with their peers. When my first graders engage in collaborative learning, it is essential that they stay on task and that their conversations are academic-based.  If they are engaged and focused on their work, I can focus my attention on whichever group I’m working with.  I have created laminated sheets, such as this, to help support the conversations my students have with peers.  Like any classroom tool, it needs to be taught and practiced. 

"When I'm done, I can..."

How often do you hear “I’m done!” throughout the entire school day? Students work at all different paces and finish at different speeds.  We need to provide students with options: what can they do when they’re done? This may be something as simple as an “early finishers” basket with extra work, or asking your kids to read quietly on the rug.  Whatever you choose, teach it at the beginning of the school year and keep reminding your students, so that you can work in small groups with few interruptions. 

Below is a sample anchor chart to use during writing when kids say “I’m done”—I usually just point to the chart. 

Technology

I love integrating technology into all subject areas in my classroom. When students are working independently or in small groups I encourage them to work with technology. They read ebooks daily on the classroom computers, and use educational apps on iPads, Kindles, or other tablets. Most students are able to maintain focus for long periods of time when using a device. 

Bottom line: Teachers must engage in small group instruction—it’s nonnegotiable!

The rest of the class needs to be engaged in something meaningful that they can work on independently. During those precious first few weeks of school, it is essential that teachers provide students with the necessary tools to become independent thinkers. Fostering independence immediately, from day one, is the key to small group instruction. Working independently is also an important life skill that students will need to carry with them throughout their lives.