Managing Small Groups During Distance Learning

I recently polled my Benchmark Advance Planning Organization, and Tips Facebook group to learn about the different ways teachers are running and managing small group instruction during distance learning. The tips shared can be used by any teacher teaching any subject in a distance learning setting.

Related: Small Groups With Benchmark Advance

There were many different strategies and tips shared that I will outline for you in this post, but one thing that I picked up on was actually a general feeling of guilt. So before I share the various tips, I have to give a quick pep talk!

If you are feeling guilty because you want to be able to prep better but are struggling, please know that you are not alone in this. It seems like most are spending what they feel is too much time prepping for something that still feels clunky and maybe even ineffective at times. This is HARD. And this is NOT NORMAL. I wish I had all the answers for you, but sometimes it’s okay to not have answers and to just acknowledge that everyone is on the struggle bus with you!

As I was reading through, I kept wondering if I had ANYTHING in my arsenal to help, and I remembered I do have a Small Groups Planning Template that I created on Google Docs for one of my Planning Workshops a year or so ago. For me, something that helps me plan more efficiently is having a familiar template that I can just plug information into week after week. If it helps to streamline your planning, please feel free to sign up below for a free copy.


A Google Doc you can use to plan small group lessons.

    Unsubscribe at any time.

    Small Groups in a Virtual Setting

    With the majority of teachers teaching remotely for half the school year at this point, I figured there would be some good advice out there on how to manage small group instruction during distance learning. Hopefully some of the tips shared will help you out, too!

    This advice comes from Jamie, a fifth-grade teacher. He recommends using separate, handy links for students to use to get into groups on their own.

    “If I went back to remote, I would start with a whole group mini-lesson and then send everyone into heterogeneous teams by posting direct links. Then, I would create separate guided reading group links and pull students out of their team meeting. Each kid would have three links: Whole Group, Team, Guided Reading Group. I teach 5th grade though, so they were pretty tech savvy and could handle the links. During our remote experience, I was very blessed to have a para-educator with me in the session. She primarily monitored the chat, checked in on groups I wasn’t meeting with and did tech troubleshooting. Eventually, my students all got the hang of it. The only step I wasn’t able to implement was pulling out the guided reading groups from their teams. I think it would have worked though.”

    Since Jamie is a fifth grade teacher, this idea seems like it would work well for the older kiddos. For the younger ones, I would use the same three links, but I would link them to graphics/icons instead of words. Something like this:

    Tip #2: Pull up the work yourself and have students tell YOU how to complete it.

    This tip is shared by Mindy Shana, a fourth-grade teacher who has been teaching small groups remotely all year. Instead of grouping students by reading level, Mindy groups them based on reading strategy/area of need.

    “I do 2-3 groups per day. I’ve taken a strategy approach— I use short strategy one pagers. I pull the page up on my screen and my students tell me what to do. It’s a lot easier than having them pull it up and monitor everyone’s work for a short 15 minute period (I do that whole process for whole group).”

    This approach involves pulling up the worksheet or teaching tool yourself instead of having each student open it on their devices. This way, they are all looking at your screen and telling YOU what to do during your small group lesson. This cuts back on time because you don’t have to worry about getting them the resource and then waiting for each one to open it up.

    Markers and Minions Resource to Support This

    This is also what Gayle, a second-grade teacher does, using my Close Reading Companions. Each companion page focuses on one strategy, so they are perfect to use as one-pagers! Gayle says she displays the Close Reading Companion during her Zoom meetings and her students tell her how to complete it.

    Tip #3: Organize independent small groups heterogeneously.

    I’ve actually been preaching this one for years, and it applies even when virtual! When sending kids off to work independently, of course you have the option to have them work on their own, but if you want to have them work with a group while you are with working with another group or making your rounds between breakout rooms, then it’s best to group them heterogeneously.

    This just makes sense from a logistical and organizational standpoint. If students are working by themselves, those who struggle will need support from peers if they don’t have a teacher in the breakout room with them. (Yes, some teachers have aides and paras to help, and yes, some districts require an adult in every breakout room). Grouping students by mixed abilities (and not just reading or math abilities but varying leadership abilities) will provide struggling students with a peer to lean on if they need help.

    Tip #4: Use a mix of whole group, small group, and individual conferences.

    This tip is shared by Kat Rogers, a second-grade teacher. She uses the Benchmark Advance ELA curriculum.

    “During BOY virtual, I used the Markers and Minions Spelling and Grammar pamphlet. I had two groups (high and low) for 20 min each. We used our dry-erase boards to do word work focusing on the weekly spelling pattern. Then I had the groups again for 20 min to do guided reading. At first, I would present the book and they’d read and I’d call on kids to read to me. Then I started putting the link to the Benchmark Advance book in the chat box and they’d read on their own. I’d call on them to read where they were. After reading, I’d ask the text-dependent questions and they would search for the answers. Each kid signed up for a weekly 10 minute conference time and I could individualize their needs. The students read the magazine independently and completed the M&M Close Reading Companion pages, as assigned.

    Tip #5: Prioritize by need.

    This tip is shared by Joni Stroh McQueen Martindale, a third-grade teacher.

    Since there’s not enough time to get to everything you need to cover in small groups, scale back and prioritize what you’re focusing on. Joni uses Words Their Way and gives a spelling inventory each quarter.

    “I do reading fluency and phonics with my small groups and I have 3 levels of word study groups that I work with. I prioritize fluency and comprehension and with the lowest students decoding as well. I teach 3rd and I feel like some of my students reached beginning 3rd grade academic level in November due to being out of school last Spring.”

    It’s difficult to manage small groups during distance learning, but it’s doable.

    Hopefully these 5 tips give you some ideas or help spark some new ideas for managing small groups in your virtual classroom. If you have any advice to share or questions to ask, please feel free to leave a comment on this post!


    digital word work on zoom in small groups

    Hi! I’m Toluca from Markers and Minions, where I help teachers feel more effective and confident with high-quality resources and an awesome teacher community!

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