How to use data to create small reading groups

As educators, we constantly hear how important data collection is but are often not given the tools for what to do with data. We need to change that!

In this post, I tackle how data can be used to design small reading groups, often referred to as guided reading, in K–2 classrooms. The steps below outline a repeatable framework that can be applied each time you collect data and regroup students according to their reading level. This process will work independent of the reading assessment you employ in your classroom.

1. Assess all students’ reading over the course of 1–5 days

Ideally, assessment occurs 3–5 times per year to provide actionable data. The rationale for testing your entire class over the course of 1–5 days is simply to ensure all data is collected within a manageable time frame. Time is a scarce resource for educators, so setting a concrete timeline helps to ensure all students’ reading is assessed.

This process will work independent of the reading assessment you employ in your classroom.

Setting aside a few days at several times during the year enables you to have up-to-date information on your students’ progress. When I taught, I tested in September, December, February, April, and June, and created what I called inquiry week mini-units. Students voted on the unit topic, and this provided new, exciting content for students to learn. The units also allowed me to pause my guided reading instruction, so I could test everyone.

2. Assess multiple reading skills to build a full reader profile for each student

The testing process will look different depending on the grade level, but your overall assessment should include a consistent set of leveled texts that all students read. Some will read one and some will read multiple, but the key is that the texts stay consistent regardless of the student.

When reading a text, assess students on the following: concepts of print (kindergarten only), accuracy, comprehension, rate, and fluency. Most assessments already contain these subtests but if they don’t, create a quick template for your class so you have data in all the categories listed here.

3. Analyze the reading data on a class, group, and individual student level

This is the most crucial step in creating your small groups because this is where data becomes action.

  • Class-wide lens: Using your class list, enter each student’s score on all subtests to view the data from a class wide lens. A simple spreadsheet is a great place to house and save your class reading data. This analysis will provide you with the large trends for your class, like what percent of the class is above, at, or below benchmark, for instance.
  • Group-wide lens: Using the above, at, and below benchmarks, create small reading groups of about six students each. (If you have a fairly large class size, you could go a bit bigger but try not to exceed eight per group). Students grouped together should be within one or two levels of each other for your groups to be most effective. As you create these small groups, make note of the most common concepts of print (for kindergarten only), accuracy, comprehension, rate, and fluency instructional needs for the group. This little move will save you big time when planning mini-instructional units for each group.
  • Individual-student lens: Once you have each student in a small group, scan the data for the instructional area that is the highest leverage for the student’s reading growth. A helpful question to ask yourself is, “What held this student back from reaching the next level?” For example, a kindergarten student whose rate held them back from reaching the next benchmark should have an individual goal of “I will read the way I talk.” Once you have a bank of goals, you can reuse them for students who demonstrate the same instructional need. Tip: Phrasing the goal in student-friendly language helps to ensure students take ownership of their goals.

4. Create mini-instructional units for each small group

Mini-instructional units will guide your small group instruction over the next assessment period. Typically, mini-instructional units cover 4–6 weeks of learning. The timeframe gives students time to learn new skills, apply them in real time with your feedback, and make solid progress.

This is where that common goal you set aside during the group-wide lens analysis is a big help! Take that goal and backward plan 4–6 weekly objectives to guide students in meeting that goal. Now that your mini-unit has an instructional focus, drop in the relevant content standards and your daily objectives.

Use this framework each time you assess your class reading growth to create focused instruction for all your students.

To be even more precise, add in weekly phonics goals for each group, sometimes referred to as word work. Word work typically happens during your balanced literacy block, when students are not in a small group with you. For example, during your small group reading time, you teach a small group while others are working on independent literacy activities. By focusing each group’s word work to meet their instructional needs, you are providing your students with more opportunities to practice at their skill level.

5. Share individual goals with students

By sharing individual learning goals with students, they begin to take ownership over their learning. You can type out student goals on small strips of paper, print them on labels to create stickers for students, or share them verbally. This process begins to shift the continuum of voice from teacher centered to learner centered, or learner manager to learner empowerer, as my colleague Erin Beard says.

Add your students’ goals to your small group conferring notes binder, and as you are conducting your small group instruction, have students state their learning goals to you before you listen to them read. Now, your time with that student is hyper-focused on their individual needs and students are continually referring to their goals as they work to meet them.

Consistency is key

Use this framework each time you assess your class reading growth to create focused instruction for all your students. It’s sure to lead to success. To learn about our reading assessment, MAP® Reading Fluency™, visit our website.


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