Manageable heterogeneous reading groups

iStock_000016678101XSmallResearch has shown that homogeneous grouping can adversely affect students in lower ability groups by exposing them to less text, depriving them of good oral reading models and damaging their self-esteem. These findings led Nancy Leyse Logan, Educational Opportunity Center, Syracuse, New York; Jean Dixon Rux, teacher, Laramie Wyoming; and Edward E. Paradis, University of Wyoming, to study a successful heterogeneous grouping model.

Their subject was a fifth grade classroom in which the teacher had been heterogeneously grouping her students in reading for the past four years. Observing the way in which these groups were managed, the researchers identified several organizational techniques that seemed to contribute to her groups’ success. These included: (1) beginning the year with a teacher-chosen “all-class” book, (2) having students subsequently choose their own books, and (3) adhereing to a carefully planned, daily reading schedule.

The all-class-book

In the fall, students began by reading the same book, Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt. The teacher chose this book because it accommodated a range of reading levels and because the story line was of interest to all students. Beginning the year with a single book enabled the teacher to model for the whole class the activities and strategies that all students would later use in their groups.

She modeled mapping and prediction/comprehension exercises aimed at focusing student attention on reading comprehension. These were practiced repeatedly during the four or five weeks it took to read Tuck Everlasting. This introduction set the stage for the smooth and efficient management of the groups throughout the rest of the year.

Group books

After finishing Tuck Everlasting, the teacher began the grouping process by describing a selection of books from which students were asked to choose one they would like to read. The books, which ranged in difficulty, were about early America and were intended to tie in with the social studies curriculum.

Once the students made their choices, the teacher formed a group for each of the three most popular books. The teacher found that three groups was a manageable number for effective instruction. Students who had chosen some other book were asked to choose again from among these three. (Their original choices were still available to be read during the sustained silent reading period.)

In order to generate immediate interest in the stories, the teacher read the first two chapters of each book aloud. While she was reading to one group, students in the other groups were involved in pre-reading tasks. During the first week after groups were formed, students were given the opportunity to change groups if they found a book uninteresting or too difficult.

Following the first two chapters, students were assigned to read two or three chapters at a time (depending on the length and difficulty of the book.) Students were free to read aloud or silently either as a group or alone. Those who did not finish reading during reading time continued to read their book during sustained silent reading, or took their book home at night.

The daily reading and activity schedule had to be carefully planned so that groups would finish books at approximately the same time. To maintain this even pace, groups with shorter books were assigned more activities. Following completion of the first books, the process of previewing new books and forming new groups began again. Each student completed six books during the year.

Balance of cooperative and individual activities

Each day the teacher went over the reading schedule (which was written on the board), answering questions and clarifying activities as needed. The schedule allowed students to choose from a variety of activities intended to address different reading levels and interests. A balance of cooperative as well as individual activities was offered. Many assignments were open-ended, encouraging students to create original work.

The teacher led discussions with one or two groups each day. Time was spent talking about the story, answering questions, reviewing vocabulary and drawing connections with other material. The teacher reported that these discussions were aimed at clarifying content for less fluent readers and, at the same time, challenging the higher-ability readers.

As needed, individuals or groups of children were given mini-lessons on specific skills. The teacher kept anecdotal records of two or three children during every discussion group in order to ensure that each student was observed at least once a week. She used this as a form of evaluation from which she planned instruction and provided information to parents during conferences.

Peers seen as reliable sources of information

During their semester-long observation of this class, Logan et al. concluded that the positive attitude on the part of students toward heterogeneous groups, student choice of reading material, group cooperation and group discussion contributed to the success of reading groups.

Students reported that they were able to improve their reading by listening to good readers. They were enthusiastic about what they’d learned from each other and appreciated the choices they were allowed to make. Also, students, definitely felt that they worked harder at reading books they had chosen themselves.

For the most part, students felt that their peers were reliable and willing sources of information, even though they were aware of ability differences. Children often chose to read aloud together in order to help one another. The group format encouraged students to share information as well as their enthusiasm while the teacher-led discussion groups helped fill in any gaps in understanding and made students accountable for their reading.


“Profile of a Heterogeneous Grouping Plan for Reading,” Reading Horizons Volume 32, Number 2, 1991, pp. 85-95.

Published in ERN March/April 1992 Volume 5 Number 2

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