Getting Started with Leveled Groupings

Conducting a Class with Leveled Groups

If you were concerned about content coverage when we brought up the idea of self-guided learning, you may have nightmares about the idea of leveled groupings. In  my experience, though, you don’t need to sacrifice coverage in order to allow students to work at their own levels. While it may seem paradoxical for students to work at their own pace and meet content standards, I have found that students can learn so much more effectively when work is targeted at their level, that even students moving at a relatively slow pace will cover more content than they would in a chalk-and-talk class. Of course, simply having students sit in circles is not enough, and the success of a small-group class depends on intentional groupings and best practices for facilitating group work.

Equity in Groupings

When it comes to differentiating content (as opposed to differentiating instructional or assessment methods) the conversation can easily seem very controversial.  “If the advanced students move at their own pace, won’t the other students fall even farther behind?”

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This question raises issues of equity that have been debated up to the Supreme Court in cases such as Hobson v Hansen. Bonnie Grossen makes the case that the courts have supported leveled groupings when they show demonstrable benefit for students at all levels, when the groupings are flexible, and when they target specific subjects as opposed to a students’ entire schedule. In other words, in order for grouping to be effective (and legal), students must be able to change groups as their demonstrated competency changes – after all, the goal is to provide better targeted instruction. If we really believe we are targeting student needs, we should expect that at least some of these students will advance quickly enough that they need to be moved to a more challenging group. In addition, a student’s ability in math cannot determine their grouping in English, and vice-versa.

In her article entitled “Ability Grouping is not Just Tracking Anymore,” Carol L. Tieso presents a careful examination of many types of student grouping, and emphasizes that the implementation strategy employed is the main determining factor of its effectiveness: “When ability grouping is utilized in a flexible and temporary manner, with appropriate curricular adjustment, significant achievement gains can be realized.”

Lesson Design

One way to adapt a traditional classroom for small group learning is to simply rotate from group to group – you can give the same type of lecture you would give to a full class, but targeted to a smaller group – you can differentiate by the pace of the lecture, or by giving the same lecture at different times. While you work with one group of students, the others can be completing independent activities.

If you are looking for something a bit more outside the box, Inquiry-Based Learning will make the learning process even more student-centered. This article from is an oldie-but-goodie that gives a clear and concise overview of IBL. The basic idea is that students can often figure out much of what we are accustomed to ‘teaching’ them, and when they do, they tend to be more engaged in the process. They also develop a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts.


Intentional Grouping

Whether you are using leveled grouping or mixed grouping, it is important that your grouping decisions are made with intent – decide why you are conducting a small group lesson, and ensure that your grouping decisions support that purpose. In a previous post, I discussed how to use data from an online platform, such as Khan Academy or NoRedInk, to help you in deciding how to split students into groups and what content to assign them. This system works best when teaching a progression of skills, such as math or grammar, for which different students may all be at different stages of mastery.

You can also used leveled groups to have students read materials (fiction or non-fiction) at different levels. Some tools, such as Newsela (for current events) and Books That Grow (fiction and non-fiction texts) will adjust the reading level of the same text, or you can have students select materials appropriate for their levels. In addition to giving leveled reading assignments, I use a template that includes what I want them to get out of the assignment, so that all groups can complete the same template for different texts. You can download the template I use for Short Stories here:

Group Work Story Analysis Template

Social-Emotional Considerations

One thing I realized once I began conducting these classes is that students will have a wide range of Social-Emotional readiness for this type of process. Part of the beauty of group-work, though, is that students will develop collaborative skills and come to better understand their own learning process at the same time they are learning content. When my students work in small groups, I cycle from table to table. I generally try to avoid giving them answers, but seek to scaffold their group process by asking questions.

SEL wheel
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The Higher Education Academy has produced a useful guide called “Small Group Teaching: A ToolKit for Learning” that covers the benefits of small group learning as well as implementation strategies. Though it is written for higher-ed, I have found the same principles to be effective in my 5th grade class – just keep in mind that younger students may need more time and scaffolding to work effectively in groups – once they get the hang of it, though, they should make up for lost time by learning new material much more quickly, not to mention the social-emotional benefits they will accrue by consistent and purposeful communication with their peers.

Share your stories and ask your questions

What have been your experiences with leveled-groupings? Are you thinking of trying them in your class but still have some unanswered questions? Let us know your thoughts by commenting below.


Is Student-Centered Learning Like Opening Pandora’s Box?

I recently met with a group of veteran teachers from “traditional” schools to discuss student-centered learning. Perhaps because most of the educators in my Personal Learning Network all seem to agree about the importance student-centered learning, I had expected to focus on the “how” rather than the “why.” While I feel there is a good deal of research on the science of learning to support the idea of active engagement and formative assessment, I was very interested in hearing the perspective of teachers with genuine concerns about student-centered learning.


Pandora’s Box

In the Greek myth, Pandora opens a box containing all the evils of humanity and, of course, once they are out, they cannot be put back in. When we try new things, there is always the risk that we will lose something that worked before – and that it will be hard, or impossible, to go back to the way things were. Whether we are considering revising our own practice or coaching others on trying something new, it is helpful to consider potential obstacles to a new approach. The two main objections to student agency that I’ve come across are both of the “Pandora’s Box” type, and both come down to matters of control: behavior management and content coverage.

(Un)Damming the River

The most common concern I hear from advocates of a teacher-centered model is that a dynamic lecture keeps students “focused.” If teachers move about the room, talk loudly and confidently, and show engaging images (whether they be chalkboard diagrams or SmartBoard animations), the students pay attention, and when students pay attention, they aren’t getting distracted or causing trouble. The underlying paradigm here is that student energy is like the force of a rushing river, and unless we wall up that energy and quickly plug any leaks, the dam will break and students will go wild.

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I relied on lecture as my go-to teaching strategy for many years, so I have felt, first-hand, the worry and discomfort that my lecture would run short or that a student would ask a question I couldn’t answer, causing the whole class to devolve into chaos. I was fortunate to work in schools that encouraged teachers to observe each other’s classes and lucky enough to work alongside educators who had cultivated a very different relationship with their students. Once I felt comfortable and confident enough to “open the floodgates,” I realized that my students’ energy and desire for independence wasn’t something to be walled off, but something to be harnessed.

To continue with the metaphor of a rushing river, by gradually releasing control of the class to students, I began to see my job as a builder of irrigation canals rather than dams. To do so, I had to understand student skills and interests so as to guide them in a way that would be beneficial. Rather than one wall to contain an entire class of students, the rushing river was diverted in a number of channels that helped create fertile soil in which seeds of understanding could be planted.

This is a large part of why I believe digital tools for blended learning and formative assessment are becoming essential to effective teaching – without the aid of digital tools for gathering and organizing data, one teacher simply cannot learn about her student’s strengths and needs in enough detail to support individual learning pathways.

Learning as Cultivation

Thinking about learning as a process of cultivating and guiding student engagement brings up the second most-common concern I have heard from educators who are thinking about increasing student autonomy: content coverage. It can be difficult, when you’re handed a list of “must-cover” topics, to think about stepping back and considering anything other than making sure you have lessons that target each topic in your curriculum. At the same time, though, this is the situation where it is essential that we do step back and ask the question: “Just because I’ve covered a topic, does that mean a student has understood it?”

Before we even get to the question of whether the content we are covering is authentic and relevant to the student’s future needs, we have to at least wonder if our instruction is having the desired impact. In William Damon’s article, Peer Education: The Untapped Potential he cites a variety of reasons why children can learn more effectively from their peers than from adults. These reasons are founded on research by some of the most recognized names in educational psychology, such as Lev Vygostsky and Jean Piaget. In short, when students explain things to each other, there is a smaller gap in understanding than when explained by a teacher, making knowledge acquisition easier. Students also tend to view peers as more credible than adults, and they are less defensive about ‘being wrong’ because the power differential has been removed from the interaction.

Even if you make no adjustments to the content you are covering, there is a good chance that allowing students to approach content acquisition via small group discussions or reading circles (yes, even textbooks, primary sources and scientific research can be read in circles) will increase the amount of learning for students at all levels. In next week’s entry, we’ll look at strategies that support effective groupwork, and we’ll consider the next (perhaps, controversial) step of using leveled groupings to differentiate and personalize content.

Have You Opened Pandora’s Box?

I would love to hear your story about why you love (or loathe) student-centered or teacher centered learning. Have you made the switch from one to the other? We can learn as much from our trials as we can from our successes. Please leave your stories and questions about student-centered learning in the comments section below.