Category Archives: small group instruction

Rethinking diagnostic assessment as entry points

It being September, I had quite a few good conversations about diagnostic assessments this week.  Quite a few years ago, the practice with diagnostic assessments was to give students a task that was similar (or exact) to the summative assessment.  The reasoning behind this was that you could then demonstrate growth for each student.  You were sure that you were teaching them something.  You were able to measure academic achievement.  And while these are all good teaching practices (you want to teach them something and you want to be sure that you have) there were problems with this type of diagnostic assessment:

  • Teachers said that they already knew the kids didn`t know X because they hadn`t taught it yet. This is certainly true for some subjects such as teaching Pythagorean Theorem for the first time or the War of 1812.  Why would we really expect most of our students to already know that?
  • Students hated these assessments because they usually didn’t do well. I wouldn’t want to do something that made me feel dumb no matter how many reassuring things the teacher said.
  • Teachers didn’t really use these assessments. It told them something they already knew.  They felt they were doing a lot of marking for no increase in understanding about their students.

The purpose of diagnostic assessment is to discover the entry points for students.  We do want to know what knowledge the students are bringing to the table when we embark upon a new unit/learning cycle.  It is important to realize that all students bring some knowledge with them.  Good teachers identify this knowledge and understand how it fits into the content they are about to teach.

We were talking this week about teaching integers in grade 8.  There is no reason to expect that very many of our students already know how to multiply and divide integers.  The few that may already know this will identify themselves early on.  However, it is useful for the teacher to know what the students do remember about integers.  Therefore, the diagnostic assessment will help the teacher to identify how many students remember how to place integers on a number line, how many remember how to add and subtract integers, and most importantly for multiplication and division, how many remember how to create zero pairs (and now all you non-math people are thinking you should go back to grade 8).

Let’s suppose I was teaching grade 2 math and know that I need to teach students to add and subtract two digit numbers with and without regrouping.  Some of my students may have already been taught the formal algorithm by their parents.  Most won’t.  Giving a test on this is only going to tell me that most students can’t do it.  But, I do want to know other things:  who has one-to-one correspondence, who knows their facts, or has strategies to figure them out, to 20, which kinds of manipulatives are the students comfortable with (block ten, open number line, hundreds boards), who is able to represent numbers in tens and ones).  Once I know those things I am in a better position to move students forward.  I cannot assume that all students are bringing the same mathematical knowledge to the table, but all of them are bringing something.

Diagnostic assessment needs to be fair and get you the information you need.  Look carefully at the assessment tool you are using and make sure that it is designed so that students will be successful if they can.  For example, we were looking at a commerical reading assessment and recognized that on one question most students could probably answer it but that the terminology was not familiar.  So, we rewrote the question and changed the wording.  On another question, rewriting it with a graphic organizer would allow more students to be successful.  Diagnostic assessment is worthless if the student knew the answer but the question was unclear.  As the teacher you may then think that the student doesn`t know something that he or she really does.

So if you rethink the concept of diagnostic assessment as determining the entry points for learning, you may find it a more useful exercise.  Many times it doesn’t even need to be a formal assessment.  In writing, just ask the students to write something.  In science you could have the students do an experiment and see how they go about organizing themselves to complete it—you now have some information on their approach to the scientific method.  In math, you may simply wish to have students solve some problems on the little whiteboards and show you their answers.

The goal of diagnostic assessment is to inform your teaching.  In order to help students make connections between what they already know and what you hope to teach next, you need to know their starting points.  And you have to start at their starting points.  Once I have determined the entry points for my students in writing, that is going to determine which mini-lessons I can do as a whole group (most of my students will benefit), but more importantly, which lessons I will need to do with specific small groups of students.

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Teacher Feedback and Student Feedback

When thinking about effective feedback you want to think about two types: the feedback that you as the teacher gets which informs how you teach the next step and the feedback that the students get which helps them to move forward. The two are, of course, intertwined. There should be a balance of both types. Both are formative because they happen for learning or as learning occurs.

Feedback you get from small group instruction—while watching what students are doing, you are able to see what needs to happen next. This is far easier to do when working with a small group of kids than with the whole class. You can probe deeper to understand what a kid is thinking.

Feedback students get from small group instruction—you are giving on the spot, as they do it help to kids. It is important for learning to get the support on-the-go. For example, if I were teaching you to drive it is far better to have correction as you do it (OMG watch out for that car!), than after the fact (remember when you hit that car, well you should have…).

Feedback you get from little white boards—doing a whole group guided lesson where students practice doing something as you teach it allows you to automatically see who is getting it and who is not. You can adjust your lesson as you go or make a note of those kids you need to work with later.

Feedback students get from little white boards—it always looks easy when the teacher does it. However, if students have a chance to practice the skill while the lesson is happening, they are able to make minute corrections along the way as opposed to trying to make bigger corrections after the fact.

Feedback you get from turn and talk—when you ask kids to turn and talk you can listen in briefly or note how many kids actually do know the answer. You can also observe how engaged the students are in discussing a topic. You don’t find this out when you ask the whole class and rely on students to put up their hands.  Many kids know the answer or know part of the answer but don’t put up their hand.  Think about the kind of information you get if you do turn and talk and then put your answer on a white board to hold up.

Feedback students get from turn and talk —when students turn and talk to a partner they get feedback from a peer because either the peer agrees or disagrees with their answer. Whenever students have to talk about their thinking or adjust their thinking they are getting feedback. Did my partner understand my reasoning? Am I clear in my thinking? Can I express my thoughts? Does the opposing view make more sense?  Have I made an error in my thinking?

Feedback you get from setting goals – When we ask students to set a goal for the term, the activity, the month, or the day, we learn about their thinking with regards to the topic. If a student is able to identify appropriate goals and move towards them, you know they  understand the concept. If students are unable to identify goals or next steps they do not clearly understand what is being asked of them and you know what to do next.

Feedback students get from setting goals– When a student is able to set a goal and receive feedback on how well they are meeting that goal then the learning is meaningful and personal. It is far better to be in charge of your own learning than have goals imposed upon us. When students are unsure of which goal to choose, we can offer a menu of goals and have them pick one. As the teacher, you will have to come back to the self-reflection piece regularly. Don’t expect them to do it on their own.
Feedback you get from conferencing – When you find time to conference with students you can probe their thinking and understanding at a very individual level. Try conferencing about only one thing, or stopping the conference as soon as you discover one next step. Then both you and the student find the next step manageable. If your conferences are too long, and you end up with too many goals, both of you will become frustrated.

Feedback students get from conferencing – The student has your undivided attention and an opportunity to explain their thinking. When the student has to explain it, s/he receives automatic feedback based on your understanding. Also, it is an opportunity to learn as you are doing so that the student can apply the feedback immediately.

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Curriculum design that is messy (but research based?)

Traditionally curriculum is designed in units: persuasive writing, short stories, fractions, cell theory etc. In order to make the content easier for teachers, (and textbook writers-or perhaps it is the other way around), to organize, we chunk it into start-and-finish units of study. We teach, teach, teach and then we test the students AND THEN WE MOVE ONTO THE NEXT TOPIC. Do we give students the “percolating” time suggested by distributed learning? Do we “interleave” topics so that students have opportunities to see connections between concepts and ideas? Do we often insist that students over-practice a skill even after they know how to do it (think about math textbooks)?

What would happen if we adopted a more recursive method of curriculum design? Let’s take a year in math as an example. Many students struggle with fractions. Most students learn about fractions sometime in the spring, usually because it is placed in the latter half of the textbook. And then they don’t study fractions for an entire year. The same thing happens with long division, area and perimeter, and how to find the mean, median and mode of a data set. We teach addition separately from subtraction and multiplication separately from division. Then we are distressed that kids forget what we taught the year before. We are distressed when they don’t understand how to solve a problem. If we designed a year- long math program that touched a little bit on fractions every month, a little bit on data, a little bit on operations and so on, students would have distributed learning opportunities and by interleaving concepts, students would be able to see how mathematical concepts are inter-related.

A workshop approach to curriculum allows students to revisit topics on a regular basis. Teachers can easily employ small group instruction within a workshop environment. Mini-lessons to the whole class and small groups form the basis for direct teaching. There is more freedom for students to revisit topics of interest, or topics of confusion. In a writing workshop students can explore writing formats throughout the year based on their audience and purpose. In a reading workshop, students read a wide variety of texts and become more proficient at discussing texts critically as they have multiple opportunities to engage in authentic conversations and work about their reading. In a math workshop, students work at different problems from different strands every day, thus developing flexibility in mathematical thinking as opposed to memorization of algorithms. In an arts workshop, students have the opportunity to explore concepts and work with different mediums multiple times of the course of the year.

The spring is a great time in teaching because we begin to think about next year. We want to refine those lessons that worked well this year and toss those that didn’t. In teaching you always get a do-over. As you begin to do some preliminary thinking about next year, think about how you could design your year to be more recursive:
• How often do you come back to the big ideas?
• How can you organize content so that students have percolating time?
• How can you sequence content so that you come back to ideas multiple times?
• Which concepts in your subject are similar or go together? Can you teach them in an interleaved way? How can you help students to make those connections?

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Proactive Teaching vs Reactive Teaching

You plan the lesson. You have the ideas. You can see how it is going to go in your head. And then it doesn’t. Somehow the students don’t respond the way you have anticipated and you have to react, quickly. The more experienced you are, the easier this gets. You make small adjustments as you go along. You quick think of a better strategy. You have the kids get out their silent reading or do jumping jacks while you regroup. The reactive nature of teaching is part of the teaching profession.

However, there are some areas of our teaching practice which are sometimes reactive which could actually be proactive. You learned early in your career that you could react to students not having a pencil, needing to go to the washroom 6 times a class, or not having their homework done OR you could have proactive procedures and routines in place.

Small group instruction is another place where you can be proactive instead of reactive. Often during work time students require help, reassurance or feedback. Often a long line of students develops at the teacher’s desk. Kids are self-identifying that they need help and you, the teacher, are reacting to their plea. While those kids who ask for the help usually get it, this reactive process has several drawbacks:

– While students are in line, they are not working
– You might not get to the end of the line
– Some students who need help, do not self-identify
– The student who wants to ask if he can sharpen his pencil gets in the line when it is really long.

A better, but still reactive method for helping students and providing feedback, is to invite students who are struggling to the guided learning table. As spots become available you can add more students. In this way, you are working with more students at a time, have avoided the line-up problem and can still pay attention to the rest of the class. However….

– Some students who need help, do not self-identify
– The problems facing you at the guided learning table can be diverse
– Students who are waiting may spend most of their time watching for a spot to open up instead of continuing to work

A proactive response to providing students with help and feedback is to actively plan for your guided instruction/feedback during the work period. Based on your observations of students the previous day or a glance at their work, you have already decided that group X needs some support on concept Y and group A needs support with concept B. Once the class is settled in, you pull your groups in anticipation of their needs. Like with any method, there are problems you will face:

1. I think I will be seeing the same groups of kids all the time and not everyone. Remember that fair is not equal and some kids don’t need your help as often. Be ok with seeing your neediest students more often.

2. What about the kids I am not working with who are having a problem? Create structures in your class so kids know what to do when they are stuck. Who are the student “experts” in your class? Do they have permission to put it aside and go onto to something else? Plus, even though you are working with the small group, your sightline will be towards the class and if someone is really struggling, you could probably deal with it quickly. If you are seeing two groups, set a few minutes in between groups to check in. Don’t start your group for the first 5 minutes of work time to make sure everyone is on track. If your group is working, get up and check in with the class and then come back to the table.

3. Won’t the kids I see a lot feel centred-out? Maybe, especially in the later years. So, mix up your groups so that they are homogeneous by skill (all need to work on punctuation) but not by ability (some need help with periods; someone else is learning the semi-colon). Or, start the work period by seeing a higher level group and then call over a group you see more frequently. It won’t be as noticeable then.

4. Even though I am working with a small group, other kids interrupt me at the guided learning table. You make the rules in your class. It is ok to say that you don’t get interrupted at that table unless it is an emergency. But, make sure that all your routines and procedures for dealing with problems are taken care of.

You won’t be able to be proactive all of the time. The nature of teaching is that it is reactive. However, do think about those places in your practice where you can be proactive. A proactive plan for conferencing, providing descriptive feedback and small group instruction will enhance your ability to close achievement gaps and reach all of your students.

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Multiple Entry Points into Learning


Differentiation, multiple entry points, small group instruction, individualized instruction, IEP’d students—how do we incorporate all of this with a seemingly packed curriculum and many students to teach?  Some days, we long for the average student.  In fact, the notion of the average student would suggest that it would be ok to teach to the middle and then the students on either side would just cope.  They would be able to find something.  The problem is, they don’t.

We have a professional responsibility to teach to each student and we know that each student brings different skills to the task.  With the case of students on an IEP, we have specifically told parents that we would be teaching something other than the grade level curriculum.  While we have certain end goals in mind (for both IEP and non-IEP students), what we need to be thinking about is how we get there.  That is where the curriculum document does NOT constrain us.  We do have the professional freedom to design our classrooms and lessons so that multiple ways of attaining the end goal are possible:  we can change the pace, the quantity of work, the number of opportunities to practice, the delivery of the material and, many times, the choice of topic.

The more constrained we are in the design of our lesson/activity, the less likely we are able to meet the learning needs of all students.

  • A photocopied worksheet is very hard to differentiate—either you get it or you don’t.  If you really get it, it is too easy.  If you really don’t get it, it is too hard.  There is only one entry point for most worksheets.
  • Worksheets offer very little choice.  Worksheets that offer lots of choice might as well be blank pieces of paper and we save on the photocopying.
  • Assigning the same number of questions for all students to do is only good for some.  If the student is struggling, s/he is already discouraged.  If the student gets it, s/he is bored (and there is no research to say that over-practicing a concept makes you learn it better).
  • A workshop environment with the teaching in minilessons is engaging for students and lets students determine their own entry level.  Don’t forget, you are still the teacher, and can guide students up or down as required.
  • Inquiry learning allows students to ask the questions about which they are interested.  This provides a variety of entry points as students determine their own interests and questions.  Students of all levels are more likely to be engaged if they are interested in the topic.  Don’t forget you are still the teacher, and can veto questions or guide students in the direction that meets the curriculum expectations.
  • You can create learning situations/problems/provocations that have different levels of difficulty.  Rarely will students choose the inappropriate level.  Don’t forget, you are still the teacher, and can help guide students in their choices.
  • If most of our lessons are to the whole group, we are teaching to the middle.  Try rethinking how you deliver information so that you minimalize whole group times and increase small group time.  We say we don’t have time for small group instruction, and we don’t if we use it all on the whole group.  There are some students who need more of your time and some who need less.  Fair is not equal.
  • The more you, the teacher, is involved in setting all the work tasks, the more you are constraining the learning of your students.  The more open your tasks are, the more students will be able to enter into meaningful learning.

As you plan for term two, challenge yourself to try something new that you think might engage more students in learning.  You might feel a bit uncomfortable at first, but no one will die.  And, don’t forget, you are still the teacher and if it isn’t working you can always change your mind.

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“Kids will do well if they can”, Dr. R. Greene

I went to an interesting workshop on managing challenging behaviour and I thought I’d share some of Dr. Ross Greene’s ideas.  Not only do his ideas give one cause to think about misbehaviour, but they also help us to understand kids’ academic behaviours as well.  (If you want to learn more visit his website:

We often think that kids don’t do well at school or misbehave because they want to.  How often do we say to kids:  Are you making good choices?  I do it myself.  But, implicit in the question is the belief on my part that the student could make good choices if he or she wanted to, which, logically leads to the belief that the student has purposely made a bad choice.  In my question I am implying that the student could have equally have chosen the other path.  We also tend to say, when faced with a student who is behaving badly, that the student is acting in this way because it gets him or her something:  attention, a way out of doing work, an escape.  Again, in this assumption also lays the assumption that the student is choosing these behaviours to get the desired, albeit socially unacceptable, effect.

Greene posits a different theory:  Kids do well if they can.  After all, it is always more agreeable to do well if one can.  I can’t really think of a time when, all things being equal, I actually chose to do less than my best or to be mean or to purposely not do a good job when I could or to lose my temper just because.  There have been many times when I have, in hindsight, wished I had chosen differently.  Even if in the moment I am flooded with guilt at my choice, it is always after the fact. But, I can’t really remember ever choosing to do bad.

This puts misbehaviour in a whole new light.  It suggests, then, that really challenging students are operating from a skills deficit model.  If they had the appropriate skills, they would do well.  If we look at challenging students in this way, it may change how we deal with them.  A model of imposed consequences will not remedy deficit skills.

Let’s take this to the academic arena.  If we start with “Kids will do well if they can” then it may change how we view academic progress.  After all, if you could do the math problem, or write a really good essay or play a piece of music or organize your work, wouldn’t you?  Do you ever plan a not-so-great lesson even though you could have planned a great one?  Do you ever write poor report card comments even though you could write better ones?  Do you ever mark work incorrectly even though you could have done it correctly?  Do you ever write a letter to a parent that is disorganized and with poor spelling even though you could do it properly?  Do you ever assign work you know in advance is inappropriate for your students even though you could choose a better assignment?  Probably not.  It is always preferable to do a good job.  When we have the skills to do so, we access them and proceed.

When we are lamenting that students are not doing well, EVEN THOUGH WE HAVE TAUGHT IT, there is a tendency to think that they just don’t want to do what we have taught.  But, maybe they haven’t learned it yet, and, therefore, we need to teach some of those students again (and again and again).  Once students really understand what they need to do, they tend to do it, and feel proud of their work.

Of course, this mindset makes our jobs harder.  It’s easy to lay it all on the kid’s doorstep and impose consequences or poor marks when kids do badly.  It is much, much harder to figure out which skills are missing and work with them to teach the skills.  And the kid has a responsibility here, too.  In both behaviour and academics we need to work with students and listen to them when determining what the problem is, which skills are missing and how we are going to go about solving the problem.  The student needs to feel that he or she is understood and has a role in solving the problem. It is hard work for both us and the student. In the end, though, when we feel like we are solving a problem rather than being punished, we tend to be willing to try.  And when kids see success, within a supported environment, they begin to believe in themselves and believe that the adults in their lives really are there for them.

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Small Group Instruction as Proactive Feedback

We often think of guided reading or guided instruction as a primary technique, but really it is good for students at all grade levels.  When you plan for small group guided instruction you are being proactive in your approach.  You are using student work to guide your teaching decisions.

Small group instruction is an ideal way to provide effective feedback to students in all subjects.  As the students are working you are right there giving on- the-spot-as-they-work feedback.  Guided instruction is when students are doing their work as you observe and offer “guidance”.  They should be working on something that is slightly above what they could do independently.


  • Guided Reading:   Students are reading a text with which they may struggle to read easily on their own.  You set the purpose for reading (eg. “In the first passage you will meet the main      character.  Think about what the author says he is like”).  You then  will guide the students through the story stopping to check for comprehension as you go.  You will  have already determined where in the passage it is important that the students pick up critical information.   You will help them to see how the author helps the reader to understand so that they can one day do it on their own.
  • Guided Writing:  As students are working on their writing you are there to help with editing or word choice or text organization.  You will have thought ahead of time how to group your students around a common need (e.g. generating ideas or writing dialogue or embedding the plot in the dialogue or showing not telling).  You may start with a short mini-lesson and then help them to apply the teaching to their writing.
  • Guided Mathematics:   Within the problem solving model, you may choose to group students      so that one group works with you.   Or, during practice time, you work with students who still have yet to master the concept.  You may work with a group to redo the previous problem in a supportive environment and  so that you can better understand their thinking.
  • Guided Science/History/Geography:  often in these subjects there are some students who will require your help to access the text book.  You can use a guided lesson for this—how do they use the headings, make predictions or use new vocabulary.  Sometimes you will use guided      instruction to reteach concepts or help students make connections between ideas.
  • Guided PE:   When a small group of students continues to struggle with a particular skill, you will want to work with them in a small group to help them master it, instead of trying to help them within the larger class where they would feel self-conscious.
  • Guided Art or Music:  Small groups of students may be ready to learn particular techniques or to relearn them.  You could review with a small group the timing of a piece, how to play F sharp      or how to create effective brush strokes.

Small group instruction should be planned and purposeful.  It is a way to be proactive instead of reactive.  If you find that during work time you have a long line of students or you are constantly answering questions, then you are being reactive to the students’ issues.  If you plan to work with a group of students then you are being proactive and many of your issues and line ups will disappear.  Make sure that your students know not to interrupt you during guided instruction unless it is an emergency.  They can do that.  If you allow interruptions then your small group instruction will be disjointed and unfocussed.

Students have been working in small groups since kindergarten so don’t shy away from it in the later grades because you think the kids can’t handle it.  Always face the class and have the small group face you, away from the class.  You can always set a task for the small group and get up and deal with a class issue.  You will have fewer interruptions if you have easy-to-manage washroom routines and “experts” in the class that students can turn to for help.

You should do more small group instruction than you do large group instruction for most concepts.  In most classes your introduction should be about 7-15 minutes long.  Students should be working in groups or independently for the bulk of the class time.  You may have some time at the end to debrief.

Small group instruction is part of your regular practice when you realize that most of your day has been spent working with small groups of students, not standing in front of the class or sitting at your desk or wandering around seeing who needs help.  With small group instruction you are being proactive with your time which is precious enough.  It helps you to make every moment count.

Write it into your daybook plans.  It won’t happen if you don’t plan for it. 



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