Readers can be grouped many ways during reading workshop. In fact, grouping works best when it is a dynamic and flexible process that changes as the needs of your readers change.
Grouping readers by level is easy, so it's common. It's also the result of accountability measures that push teaching related to text level growth. This homogeneous grouping certainly has strengths, but it also has limitations, so it's good to have other strategies in mind, too. What other options are there?
Group by Skill, Strategy, or Instructional Goal
Grouping by skill or strategy is an interesting task. It requires that you really know what work readers need to do. Grouping by skill or strategy is a sure-fire way to avoid "teaching the book, not the reader." Exploring or brainstorming ways to group by skill, strategy, or instructional goal would be an important meeting or study topic with colleagues.
Group by Interest or Genre
At the beginning of the year, group kids by preferred genre or interest and have them read, discuss as a group, and then turn the group work into a bigger conversation by sharing it out to the class. Inquiry is a powerful energy source for readers, and it comes from within.
Teacher-Selected Heterogeneous Groups
One of my favorite ways to group readers is in a heterogeneous way, mixing readers of all different skill sets. We read shorter texts, content-related texts, or stand-alone texts. As long as I differentiate support in reading the text, all readers can actively participate. Changing up groups helps prevent static, repetitive discussions. Kids are less likely to get "stuck" in a single role within the group. Trying out different groups helps all readers develop thinking, listening, and interpersonal skills.
Sit down. This is a big one: try letting students create groups. Have everyone list ten kids they'd like to read and discuss a book or several short texts with. Match them up like a Sudoku genius. The group can pitch books to each other, or you can handle the pitches. This is authentic, the way real book groups work. You meet with people with whom you like to talk. You agree to read the same thing. You talk about it. Together. And if we teach kids to have a book group in school, they'll know how to set one up in their personal lives.
Grouping by Potluck/ Grouping in a Random Way
I do love a good potluck! When I first started teaching, my colleagues and I placed colored tiles in a bag and had students pick from the bag to determine groupings. More simply, students could even just "count off." This is similar to forming heterogeneous groupings, but in this case the groupings would be random rather than teacher-selected. It's interesting to see what happens when any (unintentional) teacher bias is removed from grouping.
Grouping by Level Wait a minute! Isn't the whole point of this article to suggest that teachers group kids in ways other than by level? Yes, but let's also consider that there are some strengths to this format as long as it's not the only strategy we use. When students are struggling, finding a good text match is essential. When I work with same-level peers, focused work with strategy cues can really help set readers on course.
In short? Change it up! Flexible grouping that considers more than reading level will elevate your teaching. It will help students develop and refine their identities as readers, and it will increase engagement and achievement. While I do feel proud when my students "make their numbers," I am more pleased when they bump into me and tell me about what they're reading, when I see them carrying a book in the world, or when their parents email me a photo of them reading with the caption, "Guess who can't stop reading now?" That's the measure of success that matters, and that's why I mix up groups.
After all, reading isn't all about levels. It's about reading, talking, thinking, and connecting with a community.
Mary Roderique has been working with readers and writers for over 20 years as a classroom teacher, reading teacher, and literacy staff development consultant. She moved to Michigan for the desirable winter weather conditions and is currently teaching Kindergarten in the Ann Arbor Public Schools. Mary and her family also enjoy their work with service and therapy dogs and 826 Michigan.