5 lessons learned from recent studies


After two years of pandemic disruption to students’ reading progress, schools across the country are scrambling to find ways to help them progress faster. Teaching reading in small groups is one of the most commonly used approaches to differentiate learning, but studies suggest traditional ability-based classroom groups don’t always work and the structure of these groups can make a big difference in their effects, both on students’ reading achievement and on their sense of belonging.

Data from the most recent grade 4 reading results of the National Education Progress Assessment, conducted in 2019 just before the outbreak of the pandemic, shows that teachers who used groups of different abilities and selected groups by students more often had fewer students performing below basic reading skills.

Districts looking to use small reading groups can learn from other recent studies.

Lesson: Early clustering of abilities can widen long-term reading gaps

Study: “Ability clustering in the early years: Long-term implications for educational equity in the United States”

As part of a larger National Institute of Health study of early school achievement, Anthony Buttaro, Jr.and Sophia Catsambis from Queens College at the City University of New York used federal longitudinal data to track student progress from kindergarten through 8th grade, comparing students who were assigned to ability-based reading groups each year with those that were taught without groups or grouped together in some other way, like randomly.

They found that clustering abilities concentrated and worsened reading discrepancies over time. Students in high reading groups in the early grades had higher reading test scores than ungrouped students, while those assigned to low reading groups had lower scores. These differences increased with each year that students were grouped in reading.

Additionally, students who were assigned to low reading groups for multiple years from kindergarten to grade 3 were more likely than ungrouped students to enroll in lower-grade 8th grade English classes. . Similarly, students in reading groups high in these early years were more likely than ungrouped students to enroll in Specialized English in Grade 8.

“What we see is that there is no flexibility”, by grouping each year, Catsambis noted. “The theory behind ability grouping is that once a student reaches a certain level, even throughout the school year, they should be moved to a higher reading group,” she added. , “but it doesn’t really happen very often. You know, a teacher has so much work to do and so many students to work with, I think the class structure might not allow for that flexibility throughout the school year.

The researchers also found very little consistency in how the students were grouped. Teachers from the same grade or school can group their students randomly, by ability, or not group them at all. But schools that served higher concentrations of students of color or low-income students were more likely to use ability grouping. And in classes that used ability grouping, boys and students with behavioral problems were more likely to be placed in low-reading groups, regardless of their academic ability.

She also noted that ability-based grouping in experimental trial approaches often relies on highly controlled environments, with teachers specifically trained in grouping practices, to quickly assess students’ skill development and advance them rapidly. as they progress. “When you look at the nationally representative study that we did, we’re looking at what’s happening in nature, right? And I don’t know how many teachers would have this specific training that would allow them to implement the practice in its true form,” Catsambis said.

Lesson: Focusing on specific skills boosts group effectiveness

Study: Meta-analysis of targeted reading interventions in small groups »

University of Minnesota researchers Matthew Hall and Matthew Burns analyzed the results of 26 studies of small-group reading interventions. Although their study did not analyze skill clustering specifically, it found that small groups that targeted a specific skill to improve were on average nearly twice as effective as small groups that focused on skill areas. complete or multiple. The researchers also found that small group interventions generally had better effects in elementary school than in middle school or high school.

Lesson: Small Groups Can Improve Focus in STEM Classes

Study: “The Impacts of Capability Bundling and Project-Based Learning in STEM”

Andrea Johnson, a graduate researcher at Winona State University, tracked grades and observed students working in groups based on similar or mixed abilities in science classes. She found that all the students in the small groups improved their vocabulary, with the notable exception of the small groups made up of only low-performing students.

However, students who were grouped with those of similar ability showed more engagement with group projects or tasks. Mixed-ability groups were more likely than homogeneous groups to have one or two students carrying the bulk of the workload when a task received a group grade.

Lesson: Grouping students also affects their friendships.

Studies: “They would make you feel stupid. » Regrouping of abilities, Children’s friendships, and psychosocial well-being in Irish primary school” and “Does ability grouping affect UK primary school pupils’ enjoyment of maths and English?”

Two international studies also suggest that educators should limit labels in reading groups to ensure they do not affect students’ social development.
Deirdre McGillicuddyeducation researcher at University College Dublin, Ireland, tracked the friendships, help-seeking behavior and changing social status of just over 100 children who were placed in reading and math groups ability-based in Irish elementary schools.

“Differentiated practices, such as ability grouping, cannot be viewed as neutral, and the role they play in the social-emotional work of classroom learning is profound,” McGillicuddy said. concluded.

For example, McGillicuddy found that ability-based reading groups reinforced social hierarchies in the classroom. Students in high reading groups became less likely to sit next to, ask for help, and befriend those in low reading groups and vice versa. Additionally, McGillicuddy found that boys, ethnic minorities, and migrant children were more likely to be socially isolated if they belonged to a low-reading group.

“They call you stupid,” Gareth, a student assigned to a weak reading group, told McGillicuddy in the study, “because they say, ‘oh yeah look at you,…you don’t know read… You can’t read that’s why you’re in the lowest reading group… you’re the slowest reader.

Abbey, Gareth’s peer in a high reading group in the same district, said placing pupils in defined ability groups had sparked teasing. The “teacher shouldn’t say what group people are in,” she said in the study, “because they would make you feel stupid or something…because other people would go to you, ‘oh you’re in a lower math group or a reading group’ and they would start slagging you. »

In the second study, sociology researcher Vikki Boliver of Durham University in the UK and Queralt Capsada-Munsech, education researcher at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, used nationally representative longitudinal data to British children born in 2000 and 2002, to examine how pupils’ placement in the reading and maths groups affected their enjoyment of these lessons.
The researchers found that students who were placed in low ability groups in math and reading at age 7 were less likely to enjoy or continue to enjoy these subjects at age 11. However, once students’ gender and social class were taken into account, they found that groupings only significantly influenced students’ enjoyment of math over time.

Lesson: For students who struggle the most, groups may not be enough

Study: “Current Evidence on the Effects of Intensive Early Reading Interventions

Researchers from Vanderbilt University and the University of Texas-Austin analyzed the results of 18 studies on different aspects of intensive reading interventions, including small group size. On average, schools used clusters of three to five students each. Researchers found that, on average, individual interventions were almost twice as effective as small group instruction for students who needed intensive reading support.

However, the researchers also found that the most effective intense K-3 interventions had common aspects that contributed more to their effectiveness than group size. Among these were well-prescribed lessons to model and guide students in reading practices; content dealing with phonological awareness, phonetics, word recognition and fluency; and interventions carried out by those with ties to children, such as staff or community members.


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