How to Make (and Re-make) Your Small Groups

Two types of small groups to use in your classroom, plus setup and maintenance tips.

By Rachel Wilser

Greetings, intrepid teachers! It’s November. There’s probably a crunch of leaves beneath, maybe a sprinkle of snow (depending on where you live), and you’re looking towards Thanksgiving break at the end of this month. This time of year, your classroom is buzzing away with activity — your routines are in place (AND working!), your students are engaged, and you’re feeling positive. Hopefully, you’re also using small groups daily. Today, I want to talk about how to create (and when to RE-create) those groups.

First, let’s talk about how to make small groups (in case you haven’t yet, or you’re looking for a new process). There are a bunch of ways you can make your small groups. Before I tell you how I made mine, I want to share something I feel strongly about: I did NOT send my students to work stations in the same group that came to my table. So what that means is that when I sat down to make groups, I’m making 2 sets of groups — travel groups, and teacher table groups.

Travel groups are the groups that students are traveling to their work stations in; it’s where the kids are sitting and working independently, whereas teacher table groups are obviously the groups in which they’re coming to my table for specific instruction. I create two sets of groups mainly to support students and eliminate distracting behaviors. By creating mixed ability travel groups, I’m eliminating having an entire group of low-achieving students who distract each other and/or can’t recall how to do the activity. There are other benefits, but that’s the driver for me.

When I’m sitting down to make groups, I already know I’m really making 2 sets. I usually like to have 4-6 groups: 4 or 5 is usually more comfortable, but if I need to do 6, I can. I’m pretty visual, so when I make my travel groups, I take a sheet of paper, and my class list side by side. I create 4 or 5 blocks on the sheet of paper, and then the first thing I do is separate out kids that I know can’t be together, generally by putting one kid into each travel group, and then I build the travel groups out from there, aiming to have a mix of ability levels in each travel group. That way, students can help each other when they’re in their work stations, and they’re not constantly coming to you.

Once you have your travel groups built out, you can create your teacher table groups. These are likely to be more tied to ability, whether it’s reading level, math scores, and so on. You’ve likely given some type of assessment to group your students by ability for small group instruction. It’s possible that your students will not 100% line up evenly by level, and that’s fine; you can group by trends as well as needs. For example, it’s MUCH easier to manage a larger group of above-grade-level students than below-level students, so if I need to have one larger group, I’ll bunch kids at the top. You can also group similar levels together for reading, so you can create a group of, for example, D/E/F readers instead of attempting to instruct all of those kids separately.

After you’ve done the work of grouping your kids, you obviously then spend time in small groups with them, teaching them the specific lessons that they need to make progress. It’s really important to make sure that you reassess your students regularly and reevaluate your groups. Obviously, everyone is assessed during data cycles — those times of year when you’re giving formal assessments to your students (likely tied to conferences or report cards). However, kids make progress outside of data cycles, too, so if you have students who look like they’re making progress, assess them! You can use running records from other sources (like Reading A-Z) and move students around as necessary. It’s possible to adjust students within groups, without having to 100% rework your groups when you move students on this informal basis.

It’s likely that by mid-November you need to at least informally reassess your students, if you haven’t made changes to your groups yet. And, if you have just one set of groups I’d really encourage to try out creating separate travel groups to notice the effect on your class overall during work stations.

Image credit: George Martell/Bayard Inc.

Rachel Wilser has spent the better part of a decade in classrooms around the country — in private, public, charter, elementary, and middle schools. Now, she chases twins and drinks coffee while planning her return to the classroom.

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