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Reading groups -- homogeneous or heterogeneous?

Leveled readers #4As teachers, we know that small-group instruction can be extremely powerful. It allows us to work with just a handful of students at time, to differentiate our instruction to specific student needs, and can help students listen to and learn from one another.

An often taken-for-granted assumption is that we should group our students according to their abilities. On the surface, this makes a great deal of sense – if students are struggling with a concept, the instruction they receive should look different than that offered to students who fully grasp the concept. Proponents of ability grouping argue that this strategy helps propel student achievement by allowing instruction to be differentiated to meet students where they are in their learning. Additionally, a research review conducted by Slavin (1986) indicated that if ability-level grouping is temporary, is determined by demonstrated skills rather than perceived intelligence, and occurs for just one or two subjects during the day, it can positively link to student achievement.

What can be problematic, however, is the inertia associated with being placed into a lower-level group – once placed in a group considered “behind,” it can be challenging to get caught up, as the pace of instruction is often slower. Additionally, research by Wheelock (1992) found that the content and complexity of work being completed by the “advanced” groups differed dramatically from that of the “lower” groups, with the advanced groups reading entire books and experiencing a greater degree of choice in their learning and the lower-level groups being subjected to skill-and-drill instruction using worksheets and basal readers. Another drawback to ability-grouping is the negative impact on motivation as students internalize their placement in a certain group – regardless of how cleverly or benignly we name our groups, students are still aware of how they found themselves in a particular group and what it may signal about our expectations for their performance. Finally, when students are grouped by ability, they miss the opportunity to see the modeling done by their peers who may have a stronger grasp on a concept and the chance to share their own expertise with those peers.

While debates rage about the efficacy and potentially detrimental nature of ability grouping, it is clear that the practice is surging in popularity. A study released by the Brookings Institute in 2013 showed that while just 28% of 4th grade teachers used ability grouping in reading in 1998, 71% of 4th grade teachers did so in 2009.

Many leveled reading programs advocate for reading instruction to occur in groups determined by ability. Several of these programs emphasize that these groups ought to be dynamic and flexible, changing as students’ skills develop and grow. While on the surface, the dynamic nature of these groups sounds like an improvement over students being shoehorned into a lower group for the duration of the year, in reality, it seems unlikely that students who begin the year many reading levels behind are going to make the gains necessary to arrive in the advanced group and receive the instruction being delivered there. In other words, I question whether these groups wind up being as dynamic as we might profess them to be.

So what are the alternatives to ability grouping? Here a few ideas:

  • When it is absolutely necessary to have students at the same ability level meet together to practice a particular skill, consider having these groups meet on an ad-hoc basis, for a session or two, rather than meeting more frequently.

  • Before having students meet in mixed ability groups, consider providing a preview of the content to the students who might need an extra boost so that they can come prepared to contribute to their group.

  • Allow groups to form according to interest in reading a particular title – as discussed in a previous post, we should not underestimate the role that interest can play in spurring motivation. Having a mixed group of students working on reading the same book allows them to put their diverse skill sets together to help all members have a successful reading experience.

  • Group students together according to perceived needs in developing a particular reading skill, rather than by reading level. For example, there are certainly lower-skilled readers who struggle with making connections, just as there are higher-level readers who struggle with the same thing. Creating a lesson on making connections, using a variety of different texts, could help all of the students grow in their mastery of this skill.

  • The practice that I have found most effective in my own classroom is working with my students to self-assess their strengths and weaknesses as readers. I then offer “invitational groups” where students can self-select whether or not to attend a given session on a particular reading skill. This empowers students to take responsibility for their own learning and often yields productive heterogeneous groups that are dynamic in their composition and shows students that we can all learn from each other without being assigned to the “higher” or “lower” reading group.



Hollifield, J. (1987). “Ability grouping in elementary schools.” Eric Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

“Hot topic: Does ability grouping help or hurt? – A talk with Annie Wheelock.” Scholastic Teacher.

Loveless, T. (2013). “The resurgence of ability grouping and persistence of tracking.” Brookings.

Part of a four-part series on leveled reading.
You can find the others here.

Nicole Hewes
Nicole Hewes
Nicole Hewes is currently serving as an impact manager at a public elementary school with City Year New Hampshire. She previously taught second grade in rural Maine for two years and received an M.Ed in language and literacy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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Nicole Hewes

Greetings Tom, Thanks for responding to this post and for your interest in alternative strategies for grouping readers. I don't have any concrete tools to point you to, but the idea of having students self-assess themselves is powerful. I am sharing a link below to a Reading Skills tracker that I use to document what I see with my learners during instruction, conferences, and reading observations. It could potentially be helpful as a place to start -- the statements could easily become, "I can..." instead of being in teacher language and it provides some ideas about the types of skills that you might put as a focus for mixed reading groups. I also can recommend a few professional resources for reading strategies that I used to put together this reading tracker -- "Mosaic of Thought" by Keene & Zimmerman, "Strategies That Work" by Harvey & Goudvis, "The Reading Strategy Book" by Jennifer Serravallo, and "More Than Guided Reading" by Cathy Mere. Good Luck! Nicole

Posted : Apr 30, 2018 11:20

Tom Boekhorst

Hi Nicole, Some of your suggestions are great! I particularly like the one where you group based on reading skills rather than reading level. Do you know any good assessment tools that would help the learners assess themselves (with support) for these skills to be grouped? I would need to adapt it for New Zealand use. Keep up the good work!

Posted : Apr 29, 2018 10:46


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